A Comparative Look at the Islamists of the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 42

Tunisians in Arab Spring

The October 23 elections in Tunisia and the November 28 elections in Egypt are perhaps the first indicators of the health of politics and society after the Arab revolutions that exploded in early 2011.

The elections were expected to be the beginning of a victory for Arab democracies, democracies that includes prominent Islamist forces.  This was clear in Tunisia, where the Islamist al-Nahda and allied parties claimed more than 40 percent of parliamentary seats, which was more than expected.  In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is also expected to get more than 40 percent of the vote; however, there are clear differences between the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia, including their respective intellectual and political tendencies.

The Salafi organization and presence in the Egyptian political landscape came as a surprise compared with the post-revolution presence of their Tunisian counterparts.  The Egyptian Salafist bloc has succeeded in forming a clear and strong coalition cutting across all Egyptian constituencies.  They are competing for all seats, culminating in a presidential candidacy. In this sense they have become strong rivals to Islamist moderates such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has pledged not to run a presidential candidate.

The Salafist bloc includes five parties: Hizb al-Nour (Light Party), Hizb al-Asala {Fundamentals Party), Hizb al-Fadila (Virtue Party), Hizb al-Islah (Reform Party) and Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party), the latter forming the political wing of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (Ahram Online, June 20; al-Masry al-Youm, September 20). Competing with the Salafist trend is a range of Islamist ideology represented in the fifteen parties belonging to a coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hizb al-Hurriya wa’l-Adala (HHA – Freedom and Justice Party) (al-Hayat, October 25).   The HHA, along with the Islamic Labor Party, appeared as part of the list of the largely Islamist Democratic Alliance.  Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party), a moderate Islamist group that split from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1996, did not join the coalition, choosing instead to run its own list of candidates.  They succeeded in participating in all electoral regions with the cooperation of dissidents from the Muslim Brotherhood known collectively as al-Tayyar al-Masry (Egyptian Wave) (al-Shorfa [Cairo], July 25; Bikya Masr [Cairo], July 13). 

There are as well many parties with Salafist and jihadi tendencies who have joined forces in a Salafist coalition; however, as of yet, these groups have not succeeded in obtaining official licenses. The Salafist surprise was not limited to their organization and their resounding political rally in post-revolution Egypt, but was also manifested in its insistence that the Islamic Alliance [i.e. the Salafists] is more popular than the Muslim Brotherhood among the Egyptian people.

Between Al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, is the oldest and most organized Islamist force in both Egypt and the larger Islamic world.  However, the Brotherhood and Tunisia’s al-Nadha (Renaissance) movement felt the impact of their respective national revolutions in very different ways.  The Tunisian movement has not experienced the same degree of internal dissent as the Egyptian Brotherhood, which has witnessed major defections since the Egyptian Revolution, most importantly  among it’s youth and elder factions. The elder faction is represented by the Nahda (Renaissance) Party (not to be confused with Tunisia’s al-Nahda), led by Dr. Muhammad Habib.  The youth faction is represented by the al-Tayyar al-Masry, founded by young former Brotherhood members.  These youth activists participated in the January 25 Revolution against the movement’s advice and are still an active part of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.  They have continued to participate in the sit-ins following the tragic events of November 19th, when the army attempted to remove families of the victims of the Revolution by force, culminating in clashes that left several dozen dead and hundreds injured.

Both Egypt’s Brotherhood and Tunisia’s al-Nahda have found it necessary to enter into alliances. The Brotherhood entered the mainly Islamist “Democratic Alliance for Egypt”, which began with 48 parties and ended with 11 parties following a trend of Islamic nationalism. [1] The alliance does not include the Salafist parties, which have their own “Islamic Alliance.”

Tunisia’s al-Nahda also entered into a coalition with the liberal Congress for the Republic Party, led by Moncef Marzouki, and the leftist Party of Popular Unity, led by Ahmad bin Saleh (al-Jazeera, November 22).  Al-Nahda was subsequently accused of being too pragmatic, in that they were seen to have valued elections over their principles.  Their principal accusers were Islamist groups independent of al-Nahda.  After the electoral victory of al-Nahda and its allies, the government was divided between al-Nahda and the other parties, with al-Nahda taking the Prime Minister’s post, Moncef Marzouki becoming head of state, and Mustapha bin Ja’afar (leader of the social democratic Ettakatol – Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés) taking the post of President of the Constituent Assembly (al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], November 24 – 30).

While the Brotherhood maintains a largely balanced and non-confrontational relationship with the army, it seems that the movement’s dissidents are more inclined to renew the intellectual rigor that once characterized the group. They are, as well, more revolutionary regarding their relationship with the army, and closer to the civil groups and the youth revolution. This alliance with civil and revolutionary groups has strengthened their legitimacy, most significantly after the March 19 referendum.

On the other hand, the Nahda movement of Tunisia did not witness the same internal and structural divisions, and were perhaps more pronounced in their criticism of the military and interim government. They were also more open to reform and compromise than the Muslim Brotherhood, as seen in their acceptance of the Tunisian Republican Covenant. Included in this covenant are the basic principles of the expected Tunisian Constitution as well as an acceptance of the Electoral Act, which provides for equal representation for men and women. 

There were also clear differences between the Brotherhood and al-Nahda regarding the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Egypt and Tunisia last September. In particular, the Brotherhood rejected Erdogan’s statement of his faith in secularism in constructing national states.  The Brotherhood issued a statement rejecting both Erdogan and secularism, but Tunisia’s al-Nahda accepted his statement, and even confirmed their acceptance of it after the October 23 elections. This difference can be explained by the greater challenge posed by the Salafis to the Brotherhood than the one posed by the Tunisian Salafis to al-Nahda.

Neo-Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia

The post-revolutionary cleavages in the Brotherhood, including the Wasat party split, are more dynamic and organized than those observed in the pre-revolutionary Nahda in Tunisia. In contrast, Tunisia’s neo-Islamists, who broke away from al-Nahda in the 1980s and 1990s, have proved to be much weaker, although they remain moderate and civil.  These groups include the Movement of Progressive Muslims, as well as a group headed by Abd al-Fattah Mourou, previously the second-in-command of al-Nahda.  Together, these two groups fielded their own candidate lists, independent of al-Nahda, under the name of the Safe Way Coalition, but met with little success in the October polls. In Egypt, however, the Salafists and other Islamist groups less moderate than the Brotherhood are expected to gain many seats and to reap a large number of electoral benefits in the post-revolution elections. 

Hani Nasira is an Egyptian writer who specializes in ideological movements. He is the author of several books, including Al-Qaeda and Jihadi Salafism: Intellectual Streams and Limits of Verification (2008); Religious Converts: A study of the phenomenon of conversion (2009); The Crisis of the Arab Renaissance and the War of Ideas (2009); and New Liberalism in the Arab World (2007).


1. Interview with Essam al-Erian, Cairo, November 28, 2011.