Egypt's Veiled Islamic Rivalry

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The Obama administration is insisting that the assault on the US Embassy in Egypt, and the subsequent riots and attacks elsewhere in the Middle East, were "absolutely" about an obscure film, The Innocence of Muslims, that to date has only appeared in highly abridged form. Meanwhile, critics of the administration are blaming this week's violence on a policy of appeasement. The truth is, a better guide to the causes of the recent assault on the US Embassy can be found in the public spat between a Salafist preacher and Egyptian movie star, Ilham Shahin.

Shahin, a famous Egyptian actress who was staunchly supportive of former President Hosni Mubarak during last year's revolution that eventually toppled him, was recently accused by a Salafist preacher of "adultery" over some romantic scenes she'd been in. The attack on the Egyptian film star raised fears about the clout of radical Islamic forces in post-Mubarak Egypt. Where was Egypt's newly elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammad Morsi, in this important debate? To the ire of the Salafists, Morsi asked his spokesman to call the actress and express his full support.

This episode highlighted the rivalry that exists between Morsi and, more broadly, the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and the Salafists on the other. What we witnessed last week with the siege of the US Embassy in Cairo, with all its violence and demagogy, was an expression of this simmering rivalry. In other words, despite the appearance of a showdown between Islamic societies and the West, it was rather a classic manifestation of local inter-Arab power politics.

There's a perception in Egypt, one that extends beyond the Salafists to secular nationalist and left-liberal circles, that Morsi has a de facto agreement with Washington. Former editor of al-Dustour Ibrahim Issa summed up this view last week. The unwritten agreement, Issa wrote, involves a commitment on the part of Morsi to maintain relations with Israel and safeguard its security, including keeping Hamas on a leash and under Egypt's umbrella. It also involves containing the Salafists and protecting the Copts.

Put differently, Morsi risks being regarded as the Muslim Brotherhood version of Mubarak. This makes him a vulnerable target for Salafist populism. As several analysts have pointed out, it was Morsi's Salafist opponents who had called for moving on the US Embassy well before news of the video had even surfaced.

These groups saw an opening to embarrass the Egyptian president by outbidding him on Muslim causes, thereby presenting him with a choice of either standing up for the prophet of Islam, or for his relations with the US, and thus appear as another American quisling like Mubarak.

That this indeed was the underlying dynamic was evident in the back and forth between Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood politicians. For instance, Jamal Saber, campaign manager for Salafist politician and one-time presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, chided the Brotherhood for wishing to deal with the matter "only on a political basis." Stated differently, Saber was contending that the Brotherhood was prioritizing politics-i.e., diplomatic ties with the US-over the honor of the prophet.

In contrast to what Saber described as Morsi's accommodation, Mamdouh Ismail, vice president of the Salafist al-Asala party, claimed that "the Salafist call was the strongest Islamic entity defending the prophet." Another official in the Salafist al-Nour party noted that he offered the Brotherhood's leadership an opportunity to participate in the rally, but they never responded. The Salafists were attacking Morsi's Islamic credentials.

The response of officials from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party was essentially to charge that the protests were aimed at "embroiling" the government-read: the Brotherhood-in a diplomatic crisis with the US. This retort and Morsi's delayed, or initial lack of, response to the assault on the embassy suggest that the Egyptian president may have tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, he could not simply cede the platform of Islamic pride to the Salafists. On the other hand, he cannot have them sabotage his relationship with the US.

Indeed, there are other landmines that the Salafists planted for Morsi in the lead-up to the attack on the embassy. As the Algerian daily al-Jaza'ir News put it in a sharp news analysis piece, the scene at the US Embassy was merely one "battleground between the Salafists and the Muslim Brothers." Since Morsi has assumed office, the two sides have clashed on a host of issues ranging from the position on Islamic law to standing by the actress Ilham Shahin.

However, as al-Jaza'ir News noted, "The most important arena of conflict is the military operations conducted by the Egyptian Army in order to purge the Sinai of Islamist extremists." This was in reference to the operation that Morsi conducted in the wake of an attack in Sinai last month that killed 16 Egyptian border guards.

Egyptian policy in the Sinai is a highly sensitive issue since it is seen as perhaps the defining marker of the difference between the new government and the Mubarak regime. Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafist figure, contended that Morsi's maneuver in Sinai, dubbed Operation Eagle, was illegal. Perhaps even more significantly, none other than Ayman al-Zawahiri also attacked Morsi for the Sinai campaign. Zawahiri's criticism preceded the assault on the US Embassy during the Cairo demonstrations, where his brother Mohammad was notably present.

Zawahiri lashed out at Morsi in a statement timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, charging that his government was "guarding Israel's borders." He then called on the "honorable, free officers in the Egyptian Army, and they are many, not to be guards for Israel's borders, or defend its borders, and not to partake in the siege of our people in Gaza."

Zawahiri's language unmistakably hearkens back to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's tirade against Mubarak during the Gaza war of 2008-09. Nasrallah similarly appealed to the officers of the Egyptian armed forces not to "guard the borders of Israel" and to open the Rafah crossing.

The Salafists, therefore, have systematically sought to paint Morsi as the reincarnation of Mubarak. Their move was calculated to show him as someone lacking Islamic credentials, an American lackey, and an upholder of the previous regime's relationship with Israel. What's more, it followed a well-established tradition in Arab politics. Throughout the twentieth century, Arab states and political actors have framed their various civil wars and struggles for power as a fight against external enemies, be they Britain, Israel or the US.

Attacking the US Embassy was a perfect way to embroil Morsi-the equivalent of a bank shot in a game of pool. The anti-Islam video was just an instrument that served these local dynamics. The new Egyptian political class was simply conducting politics as usual. If the US is going to navigate the terrain of post-Arab Spring politics, it needs to recognize these dynamics of inter-Islamist and inter-Arab competition for power and prestige.

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