The ideological spectrum of Egypt’s Islamist scene is most often broken down in degrees of religious conservatism and relative commitment to Islamic law. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) occupies the middle-ground, flanked on the left by the moderate Wasat Party and revolutionary-oriented Islamists including former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and his Strong Egypt Party. To the FJP’s right is the ultraconservative Salafi coalition dominated by the Nour Party, which won 28 percent of the seats in the now-dissolved People’s Assembly.

But while religious conservatism is the most obvious metric of comparison between rival Islamist parties, increasingly these parties are differentiating themselves along another ideological spectrum – that of economic philosophy. The recent establishment of a new Salafi political party, al-Sha’ab (the People’s Party), which espouses a novel blend of economic populism and religious fundamentalism, reflects increasing diversity in the economic ideologies of Islamist parties. With the establishment of the pro-labor and borderline socialist al-Sha’ab Party, the Islamist political scene appears to be polarizing into two camps: proponents of free market reforms, in line with the conditions of a proposed $4.8 billion IMF loan, and supporters of redistributive welfare measures aimed at improving conditions for workers, farmers and other disadvantaged constituencies.

The Muslim Brotherhood has always had a populist streak, but its redistributive measures have generally been limited to charitable services, falling short of the sweeping welfare reforms that the al-Sha’ab Party says are needed to alleviate structural inequalities that are hard-wired into the Egyptian economy. 

Until the establishment of the left-leaning Sha’ab Party, Salafis seemed to accept, for the most part, the FJP’s market-oriented economic vision – with the exception of brief friction over the FJP’s acceptance of the $4.8 billion IMF loan in September, which the more conservative Salafi Front rejected as “usurious,” citing Islamic laws that prohibit the payment of interest. However, the Nour Party eventually dropped its opposition to the loan in light of the severity of Egypt’s economic crisis, acknowledging that “necessities permit what is banned.” With the FJP and moderate Islamists accepting the dire necessity of an IMF loan – al-Sha’ab is positioning itself as the new champion of social justice.

Al-Sha’ab has not yet released an official platform, but party officials have sketched out vague proposals for a vast social safety net that is a striking departure from the pro-market economic policies historically associated with the Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups. While it is unclear how al-Sha’ab would pay for or implement the expansive redistributive programs it envisions without the support of an IMF loan – which the party staunchly opposes – al-Sha’ab is pushing for sweeping economic and labor reforms including the following:

  • Strengthening the agricultural sector through subsidies on pesticides and fertilizers
  • Reallocating state land to farmers
  • Guaranteeing the right to strike and form independent unions
  • Improving working conditions for women and prohibiting child labor
  • Reforming the public school system with an emphasis on Islamic education

Although the FJP adopted the rhetoric of “social justice” in the parliamentary and presidential elections, the party has come under criticism by leftists for resurrecting the neoliberal economic policies of Mubarak’s regime. Some critics have gone so far as to brand the FJP as “the new NDP,” and former socialist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi has statedthat the FJP’s economic platform is nearly identical to that of its predecessor, with the exception of new anti-corruption measures. The FJP’s economic program was influenced by a cadre of Brotherhood millionaires and moguls, including Hassan Malek, who pushed the party to adopt a pro-business program emphasizing open markets, trade, and private sector growth.

One area of convergence between the economic policies of the Brotherhood and Salafis is in their increasingly hostile approach to organized labor. In recent weeks, Brotherhood leaders have cracked down on workers’ strikes. On October 26, former FJP MP Sobhi Saleh told a crowd in Alexandria’s Ramla Square that those who participate in strikes and sit-ins are “enemies of the people.” Salafi Sheikh Ahmed Mahalawy echoed the same sentiment in a sermon for Eid al-Adha, where he urged President Morsi to stop “pampering the people” and take a stand against strikes.

The emergence of a leftist current in the Islamist political scene could influence the structure of electoral alliances in the upcoming constitutional referendum, expected by the end of the year, and the parliamentary elections that will follow. Refusing to make concessions on the status of Islamic law in the draft constitution, the Salafi coalition appears more isolated than ever before. With the Nour Party accusing the FJP of backsliding on its campaign promise to implement Islamic law and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya threatening to resort to violence to enshrine Sharia in the new constitution, the Salafis are rapidly burning bridges to potential allies among moderate Islamists, not to mention liberal and secular forces. At least 30 Salafi groups are calling for a “Million Man March for Sharia” on November 2 and the head of the Salafi Asala Party warned that anyone who approves the current draft of the constitution is “a sinner and an apostate.”

Al-Sha’ab has lofty ambitions for building a new Islamist coalition to contest the parliamentary elections, but so far, the party’s launch seems to have only deepened rifts between Salafis and moderate Islamists. Rumors that al-Sha’ab is backing vigilante groups for “the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” do not bode well for cooperation with moderate Islamists, nor do reports that party leaders are already negotiating an electoral alliance with the hardline Building and Development Party, the political wing of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, as well as the Salafi party of former presidential candidate Sheikh Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail.

While Salafis appear to be pulling further away from the FJP, it is unclear whether or not al-Sha’ab has any intention of bridging the gap between the revolutionary Islamist coalition and leftist groups, with whom the former’s pro-labor policies may resonate. Will al-Sha’ab undercut the Nour Party’s power base and open channels for cooperation between Salafis, leftists and the labor movement? Or will the splintering of the Salafi movement leave either party too isolated to compete effectively?

The surprisingly strong showing of the socialist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi earlier this year proved that the left remains a force to be reckoned with. But al-Sha’ab’s unyielding commitment to Islamic law and conservative social policies will likely alienate all but the most conservative elements of the revolutionary left. Leftist Salafis and the leftists who voted for Sabahi may agree on the right to unionize, but not much else.

Whatever the upcoming elections may bring, the Salafi movement is facing unprecedented challenges from within its own ranks, while the political space for compromise with moderate Islamists and liberals is shrinking by the day. 

Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School and former Fulbright Fellow in Oman. She can be reached at and on Twitter @MaraRevkin

Photo Credit: New York Times