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Egypt’s Salafis: Enter the Dragon

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By Rania Al Malky

CAIRO: A motley crew of Egypt’s Salafis, Brotherhood members and liberals gathered Friday in what some described as the largest Tahrir Square protest since an 18-day uprising ousted the previous regime in February.

The contrived ideological clash that drove tens of thousands of Salafis — ultra-conservative Muslims who, from my limited experience, are not the most conducive to engaging in dialogue — began weeks ago when liberal forces preempted a confrontation with Islamists over the “constitution first” controversy and calls to postpone elections.

In a much-delayed, yet powerful response whose repercussions will be revealed in the days to come, the Islamist currents worked diligently to mobilize both their members and sympathizers nationwide to confront what one of their rallying leaflets described as the “democtatorship” — an unholy marriage of dictatorship of the “minority” and democracy.

They rejected proposals by liberals who had lost the “constitution first” battle only to replace it with even more controversial demands of drawing up a list of supra-constitutional binding principles that will inform the new constitution to be drafted following the November legislative elections.

Such calls, they believe — ironically as do many other liberals who are concerned with safeguarding the legitimacy of the political and legal process of writing the new constitution — were another attempt to violate the legitimate choice of the majority as revealed by the results of the March referendum on constitutional amendments.

The question of who has the right to impose and approve these binding principles led to another can of worms related to the political role of the ruling army council in safeguarding both these supra-constitutional principles and the rather vague notion of the “civilian nature” of the state. The fact that some so-called liberals are advocating a Turkish model for the army’s role in Egypt’s future democracy is beyond any logic. In fact some of those very same liberal currents even went as far are expressing an openness to the idea that the army’s budget can continue to be shielded from public scrutiny as long as the army protects the people from the “Islamist threat”, a blatant redux of the ousted regime’s self-serving rhetoric used for decades to consolidate its stranglehold on power.

These “liberals” were addressing the same army which last week incited people against protesters in what led to a bloody attack on a peaceful march in Abbasiya; the same army council which, without one shred of evidence, accused the youth movement that triggered the Egyptian uprising of implementing a foreign agenda and accepting foreign money as if it is a crime.

How it can make any sense to voluntarily want to hand over such broad powers to the antithesis of a civil state — a military-led state — which has driven Egypt to the ground throughout the past 60 years is beyond reason. Isn’t a truly democratic civil state the best guarantee for the continuation of a civil state where peaceful rotation of power is achieved through elections and the rule of law?

The show of force this Friday was a direct result of these accumulations. The general reaction to the mass rally of the Salafis is Tahrir Square (even though this was supposed to be the “Friday of Unity” meant to overlook differences and focus on the revolutionary demands that have yet to be achieved) has proven that Egypt’s political players are inherently afraid of the outcome of a democratic process. Whether it’s liberal parties, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) or the socialist-leaning groups, Friday’s unexpected muscle-flexing has disturbed pre-conceived perceptions of the balance of power on the Egyptian street and will likely lead political actors to shift to Plan B.

As expected, the FJP stands to make major gains from this massive turn-out. On the one hand, it show will its detractors how moderate the FJP is compared to the Salafis, hence encouraging more alliances, while at the same time emphasizing that the Salafis are potential partners if liberal forces continue to spurn them. On the down side, the FJP’s association with the Salafis can potentially discredit the Islamist party before electoral blocks that are yet undecided on which way to vote.

In many ways Friday was reminiscent of the results of the referendum where over 77 percent including the Islamist currents tacitly backed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, voted yes, drowning out the 23 percent “others”.

But does that mean that the legislative elections are already a lost cause? No.
There is no doubt that Islamists will make significant gains, whether through the FJP or the Salafi El-Noor Party, and so the focus of political parties now should be on making strategic coalitions that will ensure that the next parliament will be as representative as possible.

True that chants like “the people want to implement sharia” and “Islamiya” voiced by some Salafi groups in Tahrir today have violated the unifying message agreed on by the main political groups over the past few days, but this should not be taken as an indication of what will happen at the polls. Coalitions are not dinner dates and elections are not protests.

Whether or not we like what some Salafis think and say, how they look or how they dress, we must accept their existence as a potent political force that must not be driven underground. We have experienced firsthand the radicalizing effect of such political exclusion and must learn from our mistakes.

In this new phase of Egypt’s transition to democracy it’s the SCAF that is holding the winning hand as it watches the “little people” bicker among themselves, waiting for its Superman moment to save the day, naturally at their own terms and especially as both the Brotherhood and the Salafis have pledged allegiance to them.

Let’s not allow this to happen.

 

Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.

 

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