One of the biggest surprises in Egypt’s parliamentary ballot is expected to come
from Salafists – members of a fundamentalist, puritanical stream of Islamism
that makes the Muslim Brotherhood look moderate by comparison.
vary, but some Egypt watchers expect Salafist groups to take as much as a
quarter of the vote, challenging the eight-decade- old Brotherhood’s domination
of the country’s Islamist constituency.
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Salafists are distinguished by
their insistence that politics be guided strictly by Islamic law. Al-Nour
(“Light”) – Egypt’s leading Salafist party, founded in January of this year – advocates a legal system based
solely on Shari’a, as well as Islamic principles of money transaction that
prohibit taking interest. It also espouses rigid social codes: Its leaders have
pushed for a complete separation of the sexes in public and condemned music of
any form as contrary to Islam.
“This won’t be a great result; there’s
just no way to get around that,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-American
analyst and a fellow at the Century Foundation.
“This is a huge Islamist
presence, and could skew the dynamics of parliament depending on what the
Brotherhood wants to do,” he said by phone from the Egyptian capital.
heavy turnout for Islamist parties left many observers wondering what had
happened to the young, comparatively liberal protesters who filled Cairo’s
Tahrir Square in an 18-day popular protest that toppled longtime president Hosni
“A lot of liberal forces are taken aback,” Hanna said, adding
that liberals were all the more disappointed that the first round of voting
included Cairo Governorate, where the vast majority of potential non-Islamist
votes are concentrated.
“Cairo is a place where liberals wanted to do
very well, and they’ve done okay, but they’re not going to outperform what they
did here unless something strange happens,” he said.
The liberal camp is
led by the Egyptian Bloc, a leftist-liberal alliance including the Free
Egyptians Party, a heavily Christian party headed by telecom tycoon Naguib
“Something quite important, if only symbolically, will be the
competition between the Egyptian Bloc and Salafists to see which will be the
second largest group in parliament,” Hanna said. “It would be a tough blow for
the Bloc to be third with the Salafists second.”
Hanna noted that in
Egypt – a largely poor, deeply conservative society of 82 million people – the
young protesters at Tahrir made up only a small minority.
“Tahrir was a
minority, not a majority, movement. That’s not surprising – revolutionary
movements are often led by minorities,” he said.
The Islamists’ high
turnout has left many members of another Egyptian minority, the Copts, feeling
their worst fears about an Islamist takeover have been realized.
are plenty of Copts who are concerned,” Hanna said. “There’s a heavy burden on
the Brotherhood to prove they are, in fact, what they claim to be when they talk
to the West: Moderate Islamists who believe in democracy and pluralism. We’ll
see very quickly if that’s true.”
Salafism is a revivalist movement
(“salaf” is Arabic for “predecessor” or “forefather”) with origins in the
mid-19th century. Many of its foremost proponents – selfstyled Islamic reformers
like Muhammad Abduh and Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani – studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar
University, the Sunni Islamic world’s most prestigious center of
Seeking to match the political and economic advances that
followed Europe’s Enlightenment, they called for a return to the original
Islamic way of life led by the first three generations of Muslims after the
death of the Prophet Muhammad.
Salafism was the bedrock that gave rise to
the Muslim Brotherhood, though many of today’s Salafists condemn the Brothers
for indulging in religious “innovations” – such as participation in secular
government and recruiting some Christians – that they view as contrary to
The Salafist school ultimately spawned the strict Wahhabi
philosophy dominant in Saudi Arabia and Saudi-funded religious institutions
worldwide. It was also one of the ideological forebears of militant jihadi
groups like al- Qaida.
From Israel’s perspective, policy-makers will need
to determine which they consider the greater threat: a large Muslim Brotherhood
bloc reflexively hostile to Israel but still tending toward self-interested
pragmatism, or a smaller Salafist camp that has consistently said it seeks to
overturn Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state.
really came out of nowhere,” Eric Trager, an Egypt analyst at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, said from Cairo. “They may end up getting as
much as 25 percent of the vote, even beating the Brotherhood in certain
Parliamentary elections, however, are only one element in
determining the leadership of post-Mubarak Egypt. Another key vote will come
this summer, when Egyptians take to the ballots to elect a new
Amr Moussa – a demagogic populist who was once Mubarak’s
foreign minister and later headed the Arab League – has led presidential polls
for months, but Trager said the strong Islamist turnout threw presidential
predictions into question.
“If that’s what we’re looking at – 40%
Brotherhood and 25% Salafists – and you’re talking about a presidential ballot
with maybe 10 major candidates and dozens of minor candidates, it’s not too hard
for all the Salafists to band together and vote for one guy, who would then be
the winner,” he said.
“Support for Salafists is much deeper than anyone
realized, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the Brotherhood was scrambling
through the last month because it was suddenly concerned about the Salafists,”
“They have popular support – there’s no question about it,”
he said. “No question.”