'Salafists make Muslim Brotherhood look moderate'

Analysis: Puritanical group surprises fellow Islamists with strong support.

Abo El-Maty, Salafi Al-Nour_311 (photo credit: Reuters/Amr Dalsh)
Abo El-Maty, Salafi Al-Nour_311
(photo credit: Reuters/Amr Dalsh)
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.
Estimates 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.
RELATED:Muslim Brotherhood says it leads Egypt's vote count Petrol bombs thrown in Cairo's Tahrir Square Analysis: Egypt's Brotherhood feels time has come
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.
The 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 Mubarak.
“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 Sawiris.
“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.
“There 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 learning.
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 orthodox Islam.
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.
“The Salafists 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 districts.”
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 president.
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,” Trager noted.
“They have popular support – there’s no question about it,” he said. “No question.”
Click for special JPost coverageClick for special JPost coverage