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?

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Will the Egyptian revolution lead to more fundamentalism?

MANSOURA, Egypt—The lease on the gleaming new headquarters of the Nour Party in Mansoura, a large city in the fertile Nile delta 90 miles north of Cairo, was signed just last week, and chairs still in their plastic factory wrapping are stacked against the lime green walls. Seated in the conference room, Sherif Taha Hassan, the spokesman for the local branch of this ultraconservative Islamist party, is beaming as we discuss its chances for success in Egypt's first parliamentary election since the revolution, tentatively scheduled for the fall.

"There is a large Salafi base in Egyptian society. Once people figure out the goals of the party and its [Islamic] reference, they will come to join," Hassan says, grinning.

Before this spring's Egyptian revolution, Salafis—adherents to a fundamentalist approach to Islam influenced by Saudi Arabia—eschewed politics. They declared democracy to be un-Islamic and instead said Muslims had a duty to follow a nation's leaders, even if they were dictatorial. In return for staying out of politics, their sheiks—religious leaders—were given broad influence in Egypt's religious discourse. Now the ultraconservatives are among the many disparate groups fighting for a piece of the political pie. The handful of religiousparties like Nour aren't just relying on their popularity in the mosques and on the TV airwaves; they have also begun vigorous campaigning in urban centers and in the countryside.

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Today, Nour is printing shiny blue fliers, hand-painting placards, organizing community outreach meetings, and setting up volunteer medical teams to go into villages to treat the impoverished, as well as offering reduced-price prescription drugs bearing the party's logo at participating pharmacies, subsidized by Nour. The first Salafis in Egypt officially to register as a political party, Nour has already set up offices in 15 of the country's 27 governorates, more than can be said for most of the fledgling liberal parties, who remain worried about organizing effective nationwide campaigns before the vote.

Hassan, on the other hand, appears unconcerned about his ability to attract voters in a limited time. The rotund, bearded man in a shiny gray suit has been working nonstop since June, when Nour began collecting the 5,000 signatures needed to form a party. "When people were signing, they were even donating their own money," he boasts.

Salafism is not a singular ideology with one leader; instead, it is a broad conservative movement that includes some extreme views. Salafis aspire to emulate the ways of the Prophet Muhammad's seventh-century companions, known as the saluf. In Egypt, most Salafi schools of thought are influential in particular geographic areas—Nour in Alexandria, Al-Fadila (Virtue) in Cairo, for example—and the possibility of alliances of different sheiks across the country bringing supporters to each other's campaigns may help all the Salafis at the ballot box.

The Salafis trying to form political parties have thus far stayed mostly neutral when it comes to controversial issues, but individual Salafi sheiks have made harsh statements to the Egyptian media denouncing the possibility of a Christian president and the right of women to assume positions of power. In southern Egypt, the appointment of a Christian governor in Qena sparked days of violent protests that shut down train lines and terrorized the local Christian minority. Several Christians were injured, and one man's ear was cut off in an attempt to impose "Islamic punishment"—showing that some Salafi sects can become a dangerous force to be reckoned with.

Whatever their numbers, the presence of vocal fundamentalist parties in the next parliament, which will be tasked with selecting the 100-member council that will be drafting Egypt's new constitution, may well affect policy discussions in this already conservative country. "The Salafis could drag the parliamentary debate further to the right by setting the standard for 'Islamic authenticity,' saying that they represent the true voice of Islam," says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

"Once the discussion turns to religion and the [religious] text, it's a discussion that the Salafis are well-positioned to win. So that's the danger—that even though Salafis don't represent many Egyptians, they have a disproportionate effect because of their ability to frame the contours of the debate," Hamid added. Their influence is especially likely to be felt on issues such as women's rights and laws governing the sale and consumption of alcohol. "People are going to be afraid of being called bad Muslims."

In his rheumatology clinic in the coastal city of Alexandria, the Nour Party's educational coordinator, Yousry Hammad, is trying to explain the difference between the group's adherence to fundamentalist interpretations of religious text and the policies it would implement. While Hammad fits the stereotype of an ultraconservative, with his long beard and a solemn manner, he has brought Tarek Shaalan, a clean-shaven, English-speaking party member, along to our interview. The interview quickly becomes a vague dance in which the two men struggle to apply what was once a discourse purely concerned with religious matters to everyday politics.

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