The Salafi fundamentalists are enjoying a political spring in the messy aftermath of Egypt's revolution. The overthrown president, Hosni Mubarak, like his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, brought all the might of his intelligence and security resources to bear on keeping the estimated million Salifis out of politics.
Mubarak's fall has taken the lid off the organization's capabilities and aspirations. Today, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Egyptian sources report, they may hold the key to the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood's ascent to power.
The essence of the Salafi stream of Islam is the drive to revive the religious spirit inspiring the first three generations of the faith through the most literal interpretation of Muslim holy scriptures.
In the Sadat-Mubarak eras, the various Salafi groups focused their activities on the da’wa – i.e., the propagation of Salafi doctrine through education and other social activities. They stayed clear of politics, maintaining that this activity would pollute their efforts to build a pure Muslim society faithful to the sources of Islam.
All the same, the day after President Mubarak was ousted (Feb. 11), the Salafis suddenly dropped those arguments and rose to the occasion presented them by history. Faced with deciding between continuing their non-involvement in politics and watching the dramatic changes overtaking the country as observers, or jumping in with both feet to seize the chance of helping reshape Egyptian society and identity, they opted for the latter, thereby heralding a new age in the annals of the Egyptian Salafi movement.
Initial Salafi disapproval of the Tahrir Square protest
But first, the Salafis by and large shunned the Tahrir Square protest rallies which ousted Mubarak.
Indeed leaders of the two veteran Salafi groups – Al Jam’iya al-Shar’iya (the Sharia Association founded in Cairo in 1912) and Ansar a-Sunna al-Muhammadiya (supporters of the Sunna of Muhammad, a group founded in Cairo in 1926) – prohibited their adherents' attendance of anti-regime demonstrations.
They maintained that any movement directed against a ruler, however tyrannical, contradicted Sharia and was bound to lead to social anarchy.
Another prominent Salafi group, al-Da’wa al-Salafiya (the Salafi Call, founded in Alexandria in 1977), pronounced the revolution total chaos from its very first days, saying it was characterized by “the destruction of public and private property and acts of vandalism and theft.”
On February 1, 2011, the heads of the movement said directly, “There is a pressing need to restore the situation to what it was before and the country must not be pushed toward further chaos.”
Other independent Salafi sheikhs like Sheikh Mustafa al-Adawi, made an emotional appeal to demonstrators on Egyptian television, calling on them to give up and go home without delay.
Others, like Sheikh Osama al-Qozi, came to Tahrir Square in person and appealed to the demonstrators to disperse, but were chased away. Some Salafis, like Sheikh Mahmoud al-Masri, went so far as to ask the regime to put down the protest with massive force.
A counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood
At that stage, most Salafis stood squarely behind the Mubarak regime – not just out of sociological and ideological considerations but because it was worth their while: Mubarak's Intelligence Minister Gen. Omar Suleiman had preserved an understanding with the fundamentalists which had stood up for five years.
It gave the regime three major advantages:
1. The Salafis were the regime's counterweight to the politically activist Muslim Brotherhood which posed a threat to the ruling elite's prestige and stability;
2. Their religious tenets were powerful enough to act as an antidote for the influence of jihadist Salafi groups like al Qaeda, who were fighting to delegitimize the secular regime and replace it with a theocracy.
3. As an apolitical force with no pretensions to power, the Salafis were easy to manipulate and control.
Suleiman rewarded the Salafis for these benefits with an unusual measure of openness.
For instance, they were licensed in 2006 to operate 10 satellite broadcasting channels. This gave them access to every home in Egypt and a pervasive platform for disseminating their doctrine and deepening their influence on society.
When those stations started monopolizing audiences and Salafi preachers became pop stars, Egyptian security chiefs became alarmed and in October 2010 shut some of them down.
The Salafis are converted to politics
But it was too late. The Salafi sheikhs were now too popular to smack down.
The regime and the Salafis nonetheless kept to the path of co-existence out of mutual need.
And in December 2010, the fundamentalists performed a valuable service for Mubarak when Sheikh Mahmoud Amer Lutfi, head of the Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiya group of Damanhour, issued a fatwa permtting the regime to "spill the blood" of Mohammed el-Baradei, ex-chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a prominent opposition activist who is now running for president.
The sheikh ruled that el-Baradei was a rebel who imperiled the regime's stability by threatening civil revolution unless the constitution was reformed.
Mubarak’s ouster nine months ago opened the gates into politics to both new and established forces.
For the first time in their history, the Salafis decided to translate their social influence into political power and marched in.
On April 21, 2011, the Al-Da’wa al-Salafiya inaugurated Al-Nur (The Light), a new political party followed quickly by a flock of Salafi political entities, such as Al-Fasila ( April 2011), Al-Asala (early July 2011) and Al-Aslah (mid-September 2011).
To swell their voting ranks, Al-Da’wa ruled that Salafi party membership was a religious duty and joining a secular party absolutely verboten. Prospective voters were warned that secular parties were committed to anti-Islam policies and would abrogate the second section of the Egyptian constitution which defines Islam as the state religion and the Sharia the primary source of legislation.
The fundamentalists embrace change and join in street violence
In keeping with the popular climate, the new Salafi parties and the independent Salafi sheikhs, like Osama al-Qozi, decided to run on a platform of change. The only way to put a stop to the blurring of the true Egyptian identity is to diminish secular forces. The moment can then be seized to transform Egypt into an Islamic state.
The Salafis have also changed their ways: No longer absent from the Egyptian street, they are now at the forefront of the most unruly outbreaks of violence seen in post-revolutionary Egypt.
In early March, prominent Salafi sheikhs established the Shura Council to bring pressure on the interim government to refrain from deleting the clauses pertaining to Shari law from the reformed constitution.
A second organization called the Coalition of Islamic Forces brought the high-ranking Salafi sheikhs and parties together with fraternal Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, for the same, shared objective..
The new organizational infrastructure produced results: On July 29, 2011, after Friday prayers, tens of thousands of Salafi adherents marched on Tahrir Square shoulder to shoulder with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya. They billed the day, “The Friday for Safeguarding the Sharia" and shouted, “The people want Sharia!” and “The Koran is our constitution!”
Two months later, on Sept. 10, the Salafis surprisingly turned up in the siege laid by thousands of Egyptian fundamentalists, most of them from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, against the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Cairo. The Israeli embassy was torched and destroyed.
A marriage of convenience with the Muslim Brotherhood
A street presence gave the Salafis prominence, but they remain stumped for a clear and comprehensive political program – or even vision. This is mostly down to their lack of experience in political activism.
The aftermath of the Egyptian revolution caught them unprepared and short of the partisan mechanisms and knowhow for plunging into electioneering and selling their Islamist agenda to the voting public.
The fundamentalists appear to have found a bridge to compensate for this shortcoming: They have forged partnerships with politically savvy Islamist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Mubarak's day, the Salafis despised the Muslim Brotherhood. But now, a marriage of convenience is evolving between them – the former, in the hope of a headwind for breaking into politics; the latter, to capitalize on the Salafis' popularity.
Traditionally, the two groups are rivals, each jockeying for influence at the expense of the other. Already, a certain amount of bickering exposes the fragility of the alliance. Time will tell whether it survives up until national elections, scheduled for November unless rescheduled – and who has gained from it.
The Salafis, who are traditionally averse to violence, nonetheless were in the forefront of the attack on the Israeli embassy, a sign that the ties they are cultivating with useful partners extend beyond the Brotherhood to the more violent fundamentalist elements swarming out of control in Egypt.
Mounting Islamist militancy may force military rulers' hand
The Supreme Military Council, the transitional ruler of Egypt, is determinedly keeping its head down, wary of tackling the fundamentalists head-on for fear of a backlash and a grave hazard to political stability. They are also intent on addressing popular grievances as a top priority by presenting themselves as guardians of the values fought for by the revolution. They cannot therefore afford to suppress popular political groupings, although they have no wish to see the country fall under the sway of fundamentalist Islamist forces.
By failing to confront them, they are perceived as weak and ripe for pressure to ramp up the Islamists' demands. The bluntest challenge to the Supreme Military Council came from the new Salafi party Al-Nur party on Oct. 1 in the form of a threat “to sacrifice thousands of martyrs" if the military government remains in place.
"While the military must be credited for preserving the revolution and for this we thank them," said the Salafi statement, at the same time "we also ask them to return to their barracks" and make room for "the Muslim Sharia government and state we wish to establish."
"There is no turning back, since we have learned our lesson well," the fundamentalists said. "Allah gave us this revolution so that we may raise our voice.”
The military regime is therefore at a crossroads. It is no longer possible to ignore the mounting voices in Egypt calling for the institution of Sharia and a Muslim state in Egypt. The generals must decide whether they are for or against the Islamist tide.