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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  67. whatever

    The Salafists should all be exterminated. Vermin from the middle ages or worse.

    August 21, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    • shakeel

      and you say we a an ideology of mayhem, death, oppression and so on...
      Reading your comments i can see only the contrary

      August 23, 2011 at 2:22 am | Reply
  68. Dawud

    secular government/democracy = corruption. bring back the shariah.

    August 21, 2011 at 3:20 am | Reply
    • USA is the best

      oh good another taliban member who wants to destroy the idea peaceful democracy and replace it with middle aged barbaric way of life good idea or wait i shouldnt say this because ill be stoned to death

      August 23, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
    • Dearypie

      That's all I need as a Muslim woman, to have my rights be dictated by MEN (since in Sharia Law a woman can not EVER attain the right to be a Judge or ruler) , who believe my place is better served providing them with sons. NO THANK YOU!!! You want to see how religion mixed with government looks like take a good hard look at IRAN or SAUDI ARABIA. Want a more productive and equatable way of government where religion and government are separate look at Turkey as an example.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:16 am | Reply
      • Dhiiyantt

        The question is what the atudttie of the United States should be to all of this. Unfortunately, it seems like President Obama has decided that the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization he can't wait to do business with. His theory appears to be that since he adores Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey he's sure to love the Brothers in Egypt. After all, Nick Kristof and his fellow travelers at the New York Times have already assured the President that the Muslim Brotherhood is really pretty liberal.It seems to me that the United States should be getting ready to cut off all aid to Egypt. It's pretty clear that Egypt is well on the way to turning into a Sunni version of Iran without the energy resources. What will that look like? In a word, Somalia. Sometimes you can tell alot about an institution, organization or entity by reading its credo. Here are the credos of four different institutions; which one does Barack Obama think needs to be appeased?A) I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen. b) Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. c) We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed d) Allah is our goal, the Prophet is our leader, the Quran is our constitution, the Jihad is our way, and our Death for Allah is our most exalted wish.

        May 21, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  69. jjb

    There is one incredibly important aspect of Salafi belief systems that you have conveniently not put into your document. Either this is you intentionally ignoring it, or this is just a mistake. I hope it is a latter.

    Salafis are, and have always been anti-jihad and anti-violence. Hamas persecutes Salafis in Gaza by blaming them for rocket attacks on Israel when in reality most Salafis under their jurisdiction are ex-Hamas who decided to join a more peaceful path.

    Yes, Salafis are extremely religious and conservative. Yes, they support putting a theocratic government in place. However, they do not support terrorism or what most muslims call jihad. You may be right in stating that the West affiliates the term "Salafi" with terrorism, but that doesn't make it the truth.

    August 19, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • Gail Duituturaga

      So you say that salafis don't believe in terror. But it is terror when you are stoned to death because someone gossips about you. Or if you have your hand cut off. Any one who uses the word 'blasphemy' like Al-Shahat used is spooky. And when emphasis is put upon 'We must talk with each other' I bet women are not included. Women were most important in ancient Egypt. Women were goddesses. Now they are incubators. Read 'Princess and Sultana's Circle' That is what will become of Egyptian women. Bad to worse. What is the old saying. If God is really pissed off at you he will give you what you ask for. Egypt will get what it asks for and it is not freedom.

      August 20, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • Morous

      So starting false rumors about Coptic Christians just to attack them, kidnap young girls and force them into Islam and burn down their churches must not be your definition of violence right?

      August 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
      • jjb

        Islam has more factions than wines have flavors. To make things even more annoyingly confusing oftentimes one faction will blame another for its own actions. I am not trying to be a white knight. I think Sharia is disgusting. My major point has been that salafis don't strap bombs onto their chests and go blow up hotels. The majority of the West, and even some Muslims consider the term salafi and wahhabi to be synonymous with each other when they are not.

        August 22, 2011 at 4:05 am |
      • jjb

        It's too bad I can't edit my previous post. I just did a bit of reading and it appears what I view as Salafi is something that has divided and become another animal since the '90s. They used to be apolitical, however it seems that many groups which still affiliate themselves with the term Salafi are more than willing to blow up a hotel. To make things worse they apparently did a wonderful job of demonizing previously apolitical Salafis as being heretics and tools of oil companies in Saudi Arabia.

        It was nice hoping there was some bastion of common sense among them.

        August 22, 2011 at 4:14 am |
  70. Elwood Cid

    Every Muslim Majority Country Is A Failed State

    August 19, 2011 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • mary

      Just what IRAN (NOT most of its people) want to see....Religon should not dominate a society as that does not represent ALL THE PEOPLE, and even if it did, it doesnt represent the different voices of all of the people within that religion. Maggie is saying that even Islamization cannt prevent wrong doing, yet some profess "it is the only way". People can be respectful and kind to each other despite what they believe, but in Islam as in some other beliefs they believe that they are the chosen. If you believe in God, doesnt it make sense that God loves all of his creations equally? Yet you will cry descrimination when a Muslim isnt allowed to live amongst others, but some types of Islamists and others descriminate against other faiths and beliefs and persecute them in their countries. I hope that the secular people will show that living under an Islamust state will only breed more hatred. America and Europe are multi dominational, and get along fine, practicing their own faiths in their churches and homes and lifestyles, including Muslim. But if someone wants to leave Islam, it should be their right of choice to do it, it doesnt make them a bad person, and to persecute them makes the one punishing them a bad person. God gave each of us a mind to use it at our own free will. Our mistakes and decisions and beliefs should not be forced upon us. Religion shouldnt run a country if it is to be democratically FAIR to each individual.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • Dearypie

      I suppose Turkey escaped your notice as it is a Muslim majority country that is doing quite well.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:19 am | Reply
  71. maggiemay

    Egypt will never have democracy because of its dominant religion. This religion does not recognize individual autonomy – only male privilege with female and child submission to support a male-dominated society. Why cannot men curb or restrain their sexual interaction with women and children? I cannot fathom why some men are so adverse to recognizing their own social responsibility. My 16-year-old daughter, who is an Egyptian citizen, was sitting in her father's car outside his shop in New Maadi when a man came into her view and proceeded to put his hand into his pants and massage his penis. This is child abuse. I will not allow my daughter to go back there, even to visit her extended family, because her Egyptian father is useless to prevent his daughter's abuse at the hands of his countrymen. Shame on Muslim men!

    August 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Reply
    • shakeel

      what does this have to do with islam?

      August 19, 2011 at 6:34 am | Reply
      • Egyptian

        Islam is not a religion; it is a degraded political system under the cover of a religion to serve Mohammed. Mohammed received 20% of all the raids include the women, broke all the rules of Islam and allah allowed it for him only.

        August 20, 2011 at 1:06 am |
      • whatever

        Agreed, islam is an ideology of mayhem, death, oppression and depravation. Should be banned.

        August 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
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