The pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a group calling itself "Ansar al-Jihad in Sinai" poses a challenge to parties that won the Egyptian elections, particularly the Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood's disapproval of al-Qaeda's methods is not new. What's new, however, is that the two trends in Islamist ideology will confront each other for the first time since the Arab spring led to changes that enabled Islamists to reach power in more than one Arab country, such as Tunisia and Morocco, with Islamists in Egypt apparently following in their footsteps.
The elections, which began late last year and are still ongoing, allowed the Freedom and Justice party to obtain a clear majority in parliament. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, represented by al-Nour party, also had a strong showing and came in second place.
However, as Muslim Brotherhood Islamists advance towards holding the reins of power, Islamists of a different brand have emerged and seem determined to use violence to achieve their objectives. This is in contrast to the route taken by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and even jihadist groups such as the Islamic Group.
To date, Islamist groups that rely on violence seem to be confined to the Sinai Peninsula, where several attacks were carried out last year targeting mostly pipelines that supply natural gas to Israel and Jordan. They remained shrouded in mystery until late last year when they announced their existence under the name of "Ansar al-Jihad in Sinai."
The group's founding statement conveyed a number of positions, some of which relate to local issues and some clearly indicate that Ansar al-Jihad follows al-Qaeda's approach.
The statement condemned the actions of the deposed regime and proceeded to attack the new regime that succeeded it, saying that after the "lions of Sinai" blew up the gas pipeline, "the corrupt regime rushed to appease the Jews and the crusaders by killing the masked martyr Salim Mohammed Juma." Juma was killed in a raid carried out by military and police forces to arrest members of an armed cell, including five jihadi leaders in al-Dheisheh district of El-Arish in August.
On January 23rd, the group issued a second statement in which it officially declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the statement, the group put its members at his disposal as "your soldiers", and vowed to "never quit or surrender until the last drop of our blood is spilled in the cause of Allah and until Islam rules by the help of God the Almighty."
An oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda by an active organisation in Egypt constitutes a clear challenge to any government in that country. Such a local group could resort to attacks against Westerners (a favourite target of al-Qaeda), inflicting serious damage to the tourism sector on which the Egyptian economy is based, including the economy of Sinai, where the most prominent Egyptian coastal tourist resorts are located.
The threat posed by Ansar al-Jihad's position on internal Egyptian matters is as serious as its outward link to al-Qaeda, if not more, because it compromises the national fabric of Egypt, and specifically the relationship between Muslims and Copts.
The group posted clearly stated positions on its website on the relationship of Muslims with the Copts and the form of the Egyptian state that differ greatly from the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even the Salafist's stated positions.
In a statement, Ansar al-Jihad said the Copts have to pay taxes to their Muslims rulers under an Islamic state in Egypt. It also criticised unnamed groups that do not espouse a "religious state" in Egypt, in a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly said it wants a civil, not a religious state.
Ansar al-Jihad added that those who say "we do not want a religious state [...] do not understand that by saying such they are recognizing it as a secular state, in other words an infidel state that is outside the laws of God."
Even though the Muslim Brotherhood was victorious in the elections, it is yet to take the reins of power in Egypt. In any case, completion of the transition process entails that the victorious party lead the new government, or at least be the primary force in a coalition government, as was the case with the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco.
This would mean that the Muslim Brotherhood will for the first time come into direct confrontation with a group that sees itself as a jihadi movement, in this case one that advocates the use of violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly be in a position of strength since it clearly won popular support through the ballot box in free elections. Even so, dealing with this issue will likely not be easy, and neither will many of the economic, political and social challenges facing any Egyptian government.