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.

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.

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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