MANSOURA, Egypt — It's the morning of the third and final round of Egypt's parliamentary elections and Ammar Fayed, an activist for the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, is nervous as hell.
The 28-year-old marketing manager, who sits on the executive board of the youth branch of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in the governorate of Dakahlia, sports a tiny FJP pin on the lapel of his gray blazer and a thumb stained blue from voting. He explains the situation: Thirty-six seats are up for grabs in this province in the fertile Nile Delta. The conservative region is in the Brotherhood's heartland -- it should have been a cakewalk.
There's just one problem, Fayed admits: "We made a fundamental miscalculation."
The Brotherhood has found itself outflanked on the right by the Salafi al-Nour Party, which has challenged the movement's religious credentials and gained a surprising degree of traction in the process. The Salafis appear poised to claim between 25 and 30 percent of the vote, though the Brotherhood could still win an outright majority and will certainly become the largest party in the new parliament.
Who could have predicted that the Salafis -- adherents to a fundamentalist version of Islam that until Egypt's revolution eschewed politics as un-Islamic -- would morph into an electoral powerhouse? Even the Brotherhood, whose vote-counting abilities would impress the likes of Karl Rove, never saw it coming, and the Salafis' success threatens to upend the movement's carefully laid plans for dominating Egypt's post-revolutionary political scene.
After decades of trying to convince Egypt's liberals, leftists, and other activists of their seriousness in solving the country's titanic economic problems, the Brothers suddenly find themselves forced to talk about how and when they will implement Islamic law. Not only do their efforts to bolster the movement's religious credentials promise to cause tensions with the other parliamentary blocs, but conflicts with the al-Nour Party will also provide useful fodder for Egypt's calculating military rulers, who could exploit the rivalry to keep themselves in power and above scrutiny.
The Brotherhood can't afford to ignore the Salafis' rise. Nour is "directly attacking our core," Fayed complains, "saying the Brotherhood is a party like any other, that it is playing politics instead of being a guardian of Islam."
The two Islamist factions are already trading barbs over the most divisive issue: legislating Islamic law. To get the Salafis' perspective, I met Ibrahim AbdulRahman, the bushy-bearded Nour spokesman in Dakahlia governorate. He names the place: an upscale coffee shop in the center of the city of Mansoura.
It was a difficult interview: The Salafis don't seem particularly keen on explaining themselves to foreign reporters. AbdulRahman slumped in his chair and spent most of his time averting any attempt at a genuine conversation, at first denying Nour was a religious party and feigning confusion as to why Christians weren't running on its ticket, despite public statements by its leaders that their party would never support a Christian president.
After about 20 minutes of useless chatter, AbdulRahman finally stuck the knife into his competitors. "I would say that Salafis and the Nour Party are more aware of the religious sciences and know religion more than the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
The parties' disagreement over how quickly to implement sharia law, AbdulRahman explained, is at the center of their conflict. "For the Nour Party, one of the primary major goals is to implement sharia at the nearest possible opportunity," he said.