The Salafist Shadow

Secular Egyptians are beginning to fear the spread of militant Islam.

Muslim woman whose veil is decorated with the Egyptian flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim woman whose veil is decorated with the Egyptian flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When a revolution erupted in Egypt last winter, Christians and Muslims joined together to demand the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, they sought to minimize the differences between the two religions by chanting that Egyptians were of “one hand.” Priests and imams held hands as they paraded around the square on the shoulders of protesters. On Fridays, the Muslim day of rest, Christians made space for them to pray in the crowded roundabout. The Muslims returned the favor by giving Christians enough room to pray on Sundays.
“I had never felt my Egyptian heritage as much,” exclaimed 24-year-old Christian Ilias Gorgias in Tahrir Square during the revolution.
Today the bonds forged between Muslims and Christians during the overthrow of Mubarak have disintegrated, replaced by mutual enmity and deep suspicion. On October 9, some 25 people were killed as Christians marched on the headquarters of state television to protest restrictions placed on the building of a church in southern Egypt. Christian Copts, who comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million population, claim that laws on obtaining building permits for churches are overly restrictive. Reports say that the October 9 deaths occurred when soldiers fired on the protest march and that several protesters were killed when they were run over by army vehicles.
Like many in Egypt, the Copts have lamented the collapse of the security services in the wake of the revolution. Security forces have disappeared from the streets, fearing a vengeful population. In their place, Islamist groups have taken over security responsibilities, patrolling neighborhoods and meting out justice. Though Copts have borne the brunt of the strict moral codes they enforce, others are just as fearful of the Islamist revival spreading through Egypt. Throughout the country, people who once discounted fears of an Islamist takeover are reconsidering their views, fearful that religious groups will strip them of the secular freedoms the Mubarak regime protected.
One place where secular Egyptians are beginning to be wary of Islamists is Mersa Matruh, a Mediterranean resort and seaport, 222 kilometers east of the Libyan border. Favored by tourists for its pristine beaches and tranquil environs, Cairenes flock here in the summer to get away from the turmoil and congestion of the capital, some 500 kilometers to the southeast.
Mersa Matruh residents were just as eager to embrace the January revolution that toppled Mubarak as Egyptians elsewhere.
But now they are reconsidering their support. Islamists, long suppressed by Mubarak, are attempting to implement their social agenda with their newfound strength.
Citizens of the resort city are worried that strict Islamic codes – such as banning alcohol and prohibiting interaction between men and women – will drive away tourists and damage the economy.
Khaled Najm sells perfume in a little stand not far from the beach. In the summer months he does good business peddling his wares to tourists. “I am a good Muslim,” the 24-year-old says, stressing that he fasted during the holy month of Ramadan. “But I don’t think religion and politics should mix.
“The Islamists want to tell us what to do about everything. And that is not right.”
Najm and his friends on the beach explain that alcohol venders have been threatened lately by local extremists and women clad in loose clothing have been warned to dress more modestly.
“The Islamists have gained a lot of power since the revolution,” explains a local journalist who now lives in the capital. “The pressure exerted on them by the Mubarak regime has dissipated and they want to taste the fruits of victory. That means they want to start telling people how to act.”
This scares local politicians. “If the Islamists are successful in their program, the economy here will suffer. No one will want to come here anymore on vacation,” laments a member of the municipal council.
While the media has largely focused on the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that mixes modern politics with traditional Islamic values, the Islamists in Mersa Matruh are mainly Salafists. These Muslims preach a return to the ideals that prevailed during the first three centuries of Islam and largely reject the influences of modernity, going so far as to try to emulate the dress of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. They wear white robes that reach just beyond their ankles and their unkempt beards resemble those of Hasidic Jews.
Outside a Mersa Matruh mosque frequented by Salafists, a man crouched on the steps gazes pensively at a white leaflet. Ahmad – he refused to provide a non-Muslim with his full name or age – was exhausted from the sweltering heat. “We want Egypt to be an Islamic state now,” he says, pausing to press his index and middle fingers against his perspiring forehead. “The former regime sold the country to the foreigners. And all we want is for the Muslims here to be more Muslim.”
As the sun inches out of the sky and into the water, a young man smiles at his female companion on one of the city’s golden beaches. She giggles approvingly as he takes her hand. Najm, the perfume salesman, motions to his foreign guest to observe their ritual. “There is nothing wrong with the young enjoying their time here. I just don’t want a day to come when they can’t walk on the beach enjoying themselves.”
Some Egyptians are alarmed by the Salafists’ declarations. “They want to chase away all foreigners and make everyone sit at home and read the Koran,” complains a street vendor in the largely Christian quarter of Sidi Gabr in Cairo. But others argue that the Salafists are trying to find a balance between what their sheikhs preach and what society will tolerate.
“The street activists do not represent the leadership,” explains a political science professor at the American University of Cairo.
“The sheikhs are much more savvy and know that if they want an inch they can’t demand a mile. This will just turn people against them.”
It is not only average citizens who are wary of the Salafists. Other more moderate Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, fear the more conservative Muslims will undermine their standing in society. The Muslim Brotherhood was long persecuted under Mubarak. When foreigners questioned why he refused to reform Egypt’s authoritarian government, he explained that it was a bulwark against a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of society.
He justified the strong-arm tactics of the security services as necessary to stem the growth of the Brotherhood. Their leaders were arrested and their headquarters frequently suffered power outages even as lights in other buildings on the street beamed. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is enjoying an upsurge not experienced since president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Muslim extremists. The Brotherhood is heralded as the champion of the downtrodden and its headquarters are buzzing with visitors and well-wishers.
Outside the Brotherhood offices, a heavyset, balding 32-year-old man welcomes a foreigner and is eager to explain to him what the Brotherhood has planned once it enters government. But when questioned about the activities of the Salafists, his ebullient demeanor quickly sours. “They are giving us a bad name,” he gripes. “We did not suffer 30 years of persecution and prison so that these guys can blacken us. We want to show people Islam can be good and help others. They want to show them the intolerant side.”
Salafists take their name from the first three generations of Muslims who followed Muhammad. Their creed originated in the late 19th century in reaction to Western ideas that slowly spread in Islamic lands. Salafists argued that to combat the encroaching Western values, Muslims should return to their 7th-century roots.
Salafists have long preached a puritan strand of Islam that is intolerant of others. They reject the merits of other Islamic movements, such as mysticism and Shia, viewing many of their customs as heretical deviations. Salafists have long been patronized by the rulers of Saudi Arabia whose Wahabbism shares much with their creed. In recent decades, Salafists have spread throughout the Muslim world and are now found even in European Arab communities. Some Salafists have gone well beyond preaching Islamic values. The leaders of the Al-Qaeda terror group adhere to its ideals.
Egyptian Salafists have traditionally been split between those who focus on reforming society and those who want to overthrow the government. Today, almost all of them agree on the need to enter politics and take an increasingly strident line. Many of their political leaders were implicated in Sadat’s assassination and the bombing campaigns that targeted tourists during the 1990s.
“Many Egyptians don’t really understand all the nuances between these groups,” explains a journalist who follows the Islamist movements. “The former regime conditioned us to fear the Islamists, a large amorphous group. And now the Brothers are being lumped in with the Salafists who are attempting to impose their own agenda.”