August 17th, 2011
09:41 AM ET

Salafists defend right to be part of new Egypt democracy

From Lauren Bohn in Cairo, for CNN

EDITOR'S NOTE: Lauren Bohn is a multimedia journalist and Fulbright Scholar in Egypt. 

Mohammed Shoukrey didn’t always like leaving the doors open at Aziz Ballah, a Salafi educational and medical center in Cairo. To avoid “all the eyes,” the soft-spoken 33-year-old and general secretary of education for the center would sometimes park his car several blocks from the large building and walk to work.

“Before January, Mubarak’s guards were everywhere, students would have to sign attendance books, sheikhs would come to deliver lectures and then be arrested immediately after,” explains Shoukrey. “But now, we’re free. New Egypt has been good to us, but there are still some wrinkles.”

That might be an understatement. The emergence of Salafi groups has quickly become one of the most contentious (and to western observers worrying) aspects of Egypt’s revolution. They are accused of stoking sectarian strife against Egypt’s Christian minority and of plotting to undermine the country’s fledgling democracy. Their opponents fear they will hijack the revolution and will implement strict Islamic law through the ballot box.

The “S” word has become something of a catch-all term for any Muslim with a long beard, but Salafism is not a singular ideology or movement with one leader. Often identified in the West with terrorism, it’s more a label for a way of thinking guided by a strict interpretation of religious texts. Theirs is a conservative interpretation of Islam at odds with the young, secular protestors who first took to the streets demanding freedom and democracy.

The Salafi groups in Egypt are now clearly a force to be reckoned with. On a searingly hot day last month, they came on buses from all over Egypt to Tahrir Square – the cradle of the revolution. They chanted “Islamic, Islamic, we don’t want secular.” And soon they overwhelmed the sit-in by secularists and youth groups that had started three weeks earlier.

It was meant to be the “Friday of Unity” when political forces came together to put renewed pressure on Egypt’s Military Council. But the secular parties pulled out, claiming the Islamists’ had hijacked the day.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest of Islamist groups, distanced itself from the more “radical” elements so as not to alienate secularists. Essam al-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, criticized slogans used by some Islamists as provocative.

But a young Salafi, Mohammed Yehia, in Tahrir Square that day said: “We need to remind some seculars we’re here.” As he handed out juice-boxes to the protestors, the 24 year old added:“We’re not trying to offend, we’re just showing a strong part of Egypt they might not like, but can’t deny.”

Secularists  were shocked. In the following days, Twitter charted a trail of confusion, criticism, and reflection among Egypt’s Twitterati – mostly secular activists – people credited with starting the uprising against President Mubarak but now searching for a coherent identity in a chaotic political environment.

“Who are these people? They’re hijacking the revolution,” said Egyptian sociologist and long-time human-rights activist Saad Eddine Ibrahim.

Just who they are is – at best – a work in progress.Under Mubarak, many Islamists were arrested and tortured. Islamist groups went underground and fractured, competing with one another to be the most authentic and authoritative group.

Now they are establishing political parties, some seeking alliances with the more politically savvy and mainstream Muslim Brotherhood. Some – but not all – strive to show that Islam and democracy are compatible.

Mohammed Tolba, a charismatic and witty 34 year old, created a group called Salafayo Costa, a spin on the name of the international-coffee chain, to debunk stereotypes of Salafists through media campaigns and appearances on popular talk shows. He fashions himself as the much-needed bridge between a growing chasm that’s emerged not only between secularists and Salafis, but among Salafis themselves.

“We’re starting a revolution within the Salafi movement,” he said, encouraging Salafis to think independently and “stop following the Sheikhs (religious leaders) blindly.” Tolba’s approach has not gone down well with some sheikhs, especially after he criticized the Islamist demonstration in Tahrir for being too aggressive. At all hours of the day, he’s taking calls from political groups and leaders, both Islamist and secular, as they try to leverage his unifying and empowering message.

“I fear Salafis will hit the wall and be back to stage one if we don’t do a better job at dialogue within the movement and outside,” he said while gearing up for yet another media appearance with popular Egyptian journalist Hafez al Mirazi. “The most important thing right now is talking to each other.”

His liberal side-kick and brother, Ezzat, chimes in. “As a liberal I can admit, we talk to ourselves too much,” he says, referring to Twitter as “a giant Liberal party.”

“But it’s like we all lived on separate islands before the revolution. Now we’re finally together and getting to know each other.”

Mohammed Tolba’s quick-witted wife, Doaa Yehia, 26, says she never identified with being a Salafi before the revolution. “It’s like the media created this label for us to easily box us in. So we’re the new target group that everyone is trying to figure out. But we’re just Muslims.”

The approval of constitutional amendments in a referendum in March provided an early example of Islamists’ political muscle. Islamist groups lobbied for a “yes vote” as a religious duty, in an effort to expedite parliamentary elections that would benefit them at the polls. 77 percent of voters approved the holding of legislative elections before a new constitution.

It’s yet to be seen whether the confusing network of Salafi and other Islamic groups can coalesce and translate their support into electoral and political power.

They agree on protecting and strengthening the second amendment of Egypt’s current constitution, which preservesShariah, Islamic law, as the main source of Egyptian law. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, many Salafis argue, that they endorse punishments such as flogging or the cutting of hands for acts of theft.

Scholar and Sheikh Hassan Abu Alashbal and others view the revolution as part of “Allah’s plan,” saying there’s no doubt the caliphate, referring to the first system of government in Islam that politically unified the Muslim community, will be re-established. Like many Islamists, Alashbal spent time in jail under Mubarak for – as he describes it – “telling the truth.”

When asked what will happen if secularists prove more politically successful than Salafis, Alashbal stares blankly. “Who are these liberals, these secularists you’re talking about? Egypt will always be an Islamic state.”

Indeed, an April 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Egyptians believe “laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran.” And there is an unshakable confidence among leading Salafists that Islamists will dominate this fall’s parliamentary elections.

“If liberalism is applied we can convince people of a lot of things…it will cause household disintegration and societal blasphemy will take place,” explains Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, a prominent Salafi scholar and the spokesperson for the Salafi movement in the port city of Alexandria.

“And society will never vote for them again.”

Islamist Groups in the Political Arena

Lacking a clear organizational structure, different Salafi schools and other Islamist groups hold sway in different areas of the country. The possibility of alliances among different sheikhs across Egypt remains a challenge, but is key for Islamists’ success at the ballot box. Still, they have yet to formulate a cohesive political outlook capable of convincing the rest of society that they subscribe to democracy.

And that will be difficult, says Richard Gauvain, a scholar of Cairo’s Islamist and Salafi organizations. He argues the power structures of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements are severely weakened by internal feuding. What’s more, many high-profile Salafi sheikhs at first voiced opposition to the Arab uprisings on grounds they were not modeled on the behavior of the prophet. This has caused deep divisions in the movement, mostly along generational lines.

But despite their divisions, analysts say Salafis cannot be overlooked. As the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted a more pragmatic political platform, it’s lost some religious purists to the Salafi movement.

“The Brotherhood is torn,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “They want to have it both ways and align themselves with liberals and other Islamists. It’s either pragmaticism or incoherence.” In Egypt’s new electoral system, he explains, Islamists will have to be strategic and form coalitions in districts, so as not to cancel each other’s votes.

“Sooner or later the Brotherhood, as well as every group, will have to be more clear about who exactly their alliances are,” Hamid says. “And that won’t necessarily be easy.”

A couple of months ago, the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, joined a coalition with Al-Wafd, one of Egypt’s oldest liberal parties. But last week Al-Wafd suggested it may end that alliance amid differences over the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution. The Brotherhood has said it wants a constitution that respects both Muslims and non-Muslims but has failed in articulating exactly how this would be reflected in a new constitution.

Mohammed Nour, a media executive and a member of the main Salafi party, Al Nour, or light in Arabic, likens the Brotherhood’s political maneuvering to the schoolyard temperament of a “young boy trying to be the most popular student.”

“They wanted to work with us for the big march in Tahrir,” he explains. “But we didn’t get the invite to their fancy public dinner last week. Why? I guess they thought we’d embarrass them,” he laughed clicking on his iPad, on which he says he’s building an “app” for the party. “But aren’t I fashionable enough?”

Entering politics

Al-Nour’s first floor office in an upscale suburb of Cairo sits near the corniche along the Nile and smells of fresh paint. Big meeting rooms still have chairs wrapped in plastic covers and one room is equipped with new computers where they’ll produce a party newspaper.

The first Salafist group in Egypt to register as a political party, the Alexandria-based Nour party has set up three offices in Cairo and in most of the governorates.

“The only place we have trouble mobilizing completely is Cairo,” says spokesmen Mohammed Yousry. “But thankfully, Cairo isn’t Egypt.”

“When was the last time the activists left a TV studio to talk to people in their country?” says a spunky Ahmed Abdelrahman, 30, while surveying rundown streets near the iconic pyramids where the party has offered discounted services and Ramadan care packages to the poor. “Tahrir is over. We’re ready for the next stage of the revolution. The others are not.”

Revolutionaries behind July’s month-long sit-in at Tahrir Square have faced growing criticism for their lack of mobilization beyond of the square. Fledgling political groups are struggling to establish distinctive programs, let alone to mobilize and campaign.

But Al-Nour is also a work in progress. It has yet to set out a cohesive program, and has instead too often articulated what it won’t do – such as mandate strict Islamic dress and cut off hands – instead of what it will do.

“This is new territory for us, we’re figuring it out,” Yousry cedes. But he predicts Salafist parties will run a united candidate list and platform. The party, aiming to compete for all the new parliamentary seats, says they will also coordinate with the Muslim Brotherhood and even the liberal Wafd Party, so that none of the parties nominate candidates in the same districts.

Yousrey sprinkles his conversation with frequent laughs but when pressed on what makes Salafis unlike the liberals the group’s trying to put at ease, Yousry is quick to draw a distinction. “We are a group with a firm Islamic mission. We will all come together when it matters, to protect Egypt’s Islamic identity,” he said. “We’re not opposed to reaching out to old ‘scary’ groups like Gama’a Islamiya.”

Gama’a Islamiya, the Islamic Group, was once associated with some of the most audacious terrorist attacks in Egypt, including the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat. Their presence was vocal in the Islamist demonstration, calling for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the Blind Sheikh, who is currently serving a life sentence in the United States for conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Today, the Gamaa distances itself from its violent past.

“We acknowledge our past mistakes,” said member Mohammed Mour in the Upper Egyptian city of Assuit, a historic Gamaa stronghold. Formerly stifled, the Gamaa has held weekly lectures there and throughout Upper Egypt since the revolution. Hundreds gathered on a recent Wednesday night to discuss the importance of implementing Sharia. “But now we’re forging ahead and will join with other Islamist groups.”

Just last month, the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and Gamaa members reportedly gathered in Assuit and planned to mobilize Upper Egypt under a loose coalition called the “Coalition of Islamic Powers.”

“At the end of the day, inshallah, all Islamists – Salafis, Brotherhood, Jihadis, will work together,” says scholar Alashbal of a network spider webbed across the country. “After all, we all have one goal - a united Islamic state.”

Back at Aziz Ballah, Shoukrey arranges a growing list of A-list scholars who plan to speak at the center. One sprightly young man hovers at the entrance of the office, asking if he needs to sign a guest-book.

Shoukrey shakes his head. “Those days are over.”

Filed under: Arab Spring • Egypt
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