Egyptian elections: Could the ultraconservative Salafis be the biggest beneficiary of the February revolution?

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 14 2011 11:30 AM

Egypt's Fundamentalist Summer

Could an ultraconservative religious ideology be the biggest beneficiary of the Egyptian revolution?

(Continued from Page 1)

The two men insist that if Nour comes to power, no one will be legally obliged to obey its interpretation of religious laws, but the party will introduce Egypt to the correct understanding of Islam—something they say has been ignored by decades of secular dictators. For example, they say they will not force anyone to wear the niqab or even the veil; instead they will merely promote the "traditional costume of Egypt."

At this point, Shaalan interjected to educate me on his country's history: "Did you know that before 1919 everyone in Egypt was veiled—Christians, Jews, and Muslims?" The veil, Shaalansays, actually promotes women's rights, because beautiful women get better treatment. By putting on the hijab and loose-fitting clothes, a woman is saving her beauty for her husband and sending a message of self-respect. "She doesn't have to look revealing or—I'm sorry to use the word—sexy for people to respect or treat her specially," Shaalan explains to me and the young, unveiled Egyptian female translator I'm working with.

"Do you think the same thing applies to men?" I ask.

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Shaalan stutters his reply. "You won't treat men differently, you know. She won't treat men differently because some man looks beautiful, but for men it happens," Shaalan says, and then he giggles nervously. We all shift uncomfortably as the two men try to resolve religious principles with the realities of everyday life.

Hammad, Shaalan, and I moved to the topic of Islamic jurisprudence. Eventually, Hammad concedes, the Nour Party will attempt to apply the whole of its fundamentalist understanding of Islam, which includes archaic punishments, like stoning adulterers and cutting off thieves' hands. "But this is according to steps. This is not in one morning, that if I am the president of Egypt, I will come and cut off your hand," Hammad tells me. First, the Nour Party plans to fix the problems of economic disparity in the country, to reduce the factors behind such crimes, then, yes, it will move on to punishment.

And although the party members' answers might sound farfetched, the majority of Egyptians appear to agree. Most women in the country are already veiled. An April 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Egyptians believe "laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran." That is the Nour Party's platform in a nutshell. It remains to be seen whether Egyptians who agree with strict religiosity in principle will elect parties whose main platform involves legislating those attitudes.

Before Egyptians took to the streets to topple former President Hosni Mubarak, the only option for a religious vote were candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood, who ran as independents in Egypt's parliamentary elections. Despite the regime's attempts to restrict its participation in the political system by banning parties organized along religious lines, it was the best-organized Islamist movement in the country. These days, the Brotherhood has moved to the center and shows signs of fracturing, with members branching off to start their own political parties. The emergence of Salafi parties has broken the Brotherhood's monopoly on the religious vote and created an opening for more fundamentalist views.

Though involvement in politics may temper extremism, it could also drive the Salafis to express more radical views. "The more Islamist parties you have, the more they have to compete with each other, and then they're going to want to outflank each other and outbid each other on who is most Islamist. That's what happens in these types of situations," says Brookings' Hamid.

The Salafis could well follow the path of the Brotherhood, which modified its once-strict religious principles to reflect the complexity of daily life and issued concrete programs such as economic and agricultural platforms rather than relying on religious principles. In the meantime, though, it seems that a popular uprising started in large part by young, liberal, Facebook-savvy activists has brought new opportunities for Egypt's ultraconservatives.

Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.

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