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What are the ingredients and background of the Salafi movement in Egypt?

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Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran

In the previous article, I covered the first segment of the Islamist movements in Egypt, which was the political Islamist parties, and it centred on the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, I will go into detail regarding the second segment, the religion-based Islamist parties.

The religion-based Islamist parties are what we call Salafis. We call them the religious group because they are not really concerned with politics as much as they are concerned with religion. Salafis, at least most of them, often announce that they do not seek power, and have no wish to work in politics. Indeed, they did not have anything to do with politics before the revolution except sparingly when it came to obeying authorities. This explains their positive relationship with the authorities and the security apparatus. This relationship was not built, as some may believe, on the Salafis’ being agents of the regime, but on a solid religious base. Salafis believe that disobeying a Muslim ruler is strife, which they consider worse than murder. According to them, the Muslim ruler is the one who heads religious rites, and that he is still a Muslim even when he sins, because sinner does not equal infidel.

Therefore, for religious followers, Salafis were a safer option than the Muslim Brotherhood; that is why many of them followed the Salafis since they were not persecuted by the ruling authority. In addition, Salafi sheikhs did not push their followers to participate in secret organisations. They also did not push them into battles against the authorities to achieve political gains. Until the 25 January revolution, they sufficed with appearing in the political scene as the movement which held on to the rules of religion without wishing for any earthly gains. This seemed like an attractive format for the conservative, religious types, who want to gain the afterlife. They would instead live a peaceful and content life under the notion of being pleased with what God gave them.

It can be said that Salafis competed with the Muslim Brotherhood in the same social class over the urbanites from rural background. However, the Salafis gained the more conservative sectors of these social classes, and their influence spread deeper in rural areas. Therefore, the Salafis were the more conservative option that was more committed to the rituals of religion. This led, to the surprise of many, to Salafis gaining a lot of ground in Sufi circles since it was the stronger religious movement in rural Egypt. One does realise that there is great difference between the tolerance of Sufis and the fanaticism of Salafis. Yet what unites them is that type of religiosity which leans towards rituality. In addition, the characteristic of tolerance for which the Sufis are famous is one of a past time, with fanaticism being the current trend of our time. Beyond that, the core is the same: rituals, practices and scenes that capture the poor peasants’ hearts, which closes the distance between them and the afterlife as much as it distances them from their miserable reality. It also distances them from an unjust ruler, whom they avoid by giving him a sense of holiness.

As I was told by an Islamist 20 years ago, a Salafi can become a jihadist. The difference between them, however, is that a Salafi chooses to will evil to change, while the other decides to take action to change it. For Salafis, evil is wide enough to include any man who shaves off his beard, or any woman that does not wear the niqab. Even though the lengthy niqab might mean her tripping while walking, it is better for her to ensure her spot in heaven, as one Salafi sheikh explained. The same sheikh criticised women whose niqab has a slit or a chiffon panel to allow her to see, as this could allow a scrutinising onlooker to see her eye colour or lashes!

As the Salafis’ influence grew, the Salafi movement became one of the strongest religious movements, and so this pushed Salafis into the political scene. This was despite it lacking organisation, since most Salafis consider those who are politicised as sell-outs. However, the movement was successful in creating historical leadership that allowed a limited number of Salafi sheikhs to gain people’s respect and appreciation. These sheikhs control tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of followers. Therefore the agreement of these sheikhs on anything in particular, and prompting their followers to act, would mean great influence. At the same time, they know that if they demanded something unrealistic of their followers, they would lose much of their support, especially considering that those followers were raised on obedience not on fighting. Therefore, Salafi sheikhs usually limit their demands to achievable things, following the saying: “If you want to be obeyed, ask for what is possible”. In the end, they are bound by Salafi thought, which is a tight frame of reference that dictates absolute obedience without much effort.

Why then did the Salafis enter elections and the political game? As mentioned before, their wide base tempted them, but the future might reveal that some security apparatus pushed them into it to crowd the Muslim Brotherhood. Another possibility is that the Brotherhood pushed Salafis into it to achieve some successes at battles that they tend to avoid or in which they do not like to be directly involved. Finally, some Salafis might have entered the elections to apply God’s law. If you discuss this with one of them, you will find that they speak of absolute conviction, but that they lack a clear vision to what God’s law means. This showed during the Salafis’ dealings in the parliament.

In addition to Al-Nour party, which is the political arm of the Salafist Call, there are Al-Fadila, Al-Asala and Al-Watan parties. Remarkably, most Salafis have not joined any of these parties, but instead opt to follow Salafi sheikhs. In addition, Salafis appear to lean more heavily towards sectarianism than the Muslim Brotherhood. However, their unwillingness to be organised and their animosity towards Shi’as pushed them to be a movement instead of a sect, which makes them much weaker than the Muslim Brotherhood even though they might be greater in number.

About the author

Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party


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