Egypt's Salafist al-Nour party has announced for the first time that it intends to respect Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Salafism is a radical Islamist school of thought, and Salafists tend to be substantially more fundamentalist that the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. The news is therefore somewhat surprising to those who normally see Salafists in a threatening light.
On the other hand, disparities between the positions and policies of Islamist movements are both precedented and necessary in the uncertain electoral climate of the Middle East of 2011. For its part, al-Nour has fielded women candidates and generally refrained from religious rhetoric in its campaigning, though both these steps are somewhat inconsistent with Salafist ideology.
The significance of today's announcement is that it demonstrate's al-Nour's current lack of legitimacy. Recognizing the peace treaty legitimizes al-Nour among two key constituencies.
The first is the largely secular Egyptian public. To be sure, the Egyptian public is far from pro-Israel. That being said, Egyptians have far more important things with which to concern themselves than Egypt-Israel relations. Stating that it will not overturn the peace treaty is intended to demonstrate that al-Nour will not lose focus from the bigger issues confronting Egyptians. This helps to legitimize the otherwise extreme positions of Salafism, along with other steps the party has taken.
Secondly, the announcement legitimizes al-Nour in the eyes of the international community and the United States. The regional stability that the peace treaty creates is a key interest of EU countries and the United States. The exact balance of Islamist v. Secular parties in the Egyptian parliament is a second-level concern compared with Egypt's adherence to its international commitments. Al-Nour's statement will not likely give international players much confidence given the radical positions of Salafism. There is also no guarantee that al-Nour will renege on its statement at some point in the future. However, it gives European and American policymakers leverage at home to justify engagement with post-revolutionary Egypt.
Salafist parties will be very important players in elections in post-revolutionary states. In Tunisia, these parties have already caused unrest. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood/al-Nour parliamentary coalition would have unpredictable and potentially harmful effects if incentive structures to encourage pragmatism are not erected. Today's announcement shows that al-Nour may be willing to meet secular constituencies and international parties halfway. That may not be far enough, but it's a good start. Israel's expression of willingness today to engage with Islamist groups is a smart move in this regard, and should be replicated by other states with interests in the region.