Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Salafist Spring

The rise of jihadist Salafism amid the Arab Spring is perhaps its most dangerous aspect, threatening the ideals that drove the popular uprisings themselves, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

A year ago, the hopes and principles of the Arab Spring were still common "currency". Even the Muslim Brotherhood began to speak of the civil state as political forces set their sights on democracy and a new constitution that would put an end to despotism. Everyone was rolling up their sleeves, readying themselves for a period of construction and development. The country would rise again, and on totally new foundations. No longer would the country be under the thumb of the "generals" and dominated by the marriage between power and money. Vibrant and dynamic democratic forces would prevail, as epitomised by those young men and women who roamed the terrains of the Internet, Facebook, and other such manifestations of the culture of advanced technology and globalisation.

But today, before the second anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, which marked the beginning of the Arab Spring, the situation has changed entirely. Even that debate that raged between the Muslim Brothers and liberals in newspaper columns and on television screens has receded in the face of the relentless advance of the Salafist armies. Their troops are readily identifiable. Their uniform consists of a large purplish mark on the forehead, a galabiya (traditional dress) that extends to just above the ankle, and a long untrimmed beard that is sported both as a sign of consummate piety and, more importantly, as a political statement. As this declaration became bolder and more explicit, one could not help but pick up on a certain degree of hypocrisy. The Salafist advance has benefited from all the advantages democracy has to offer, such as the right to free expression, fair elections, and popularly elected representative assemblies, but to the Salafis democracy, its principles and its proponents have no place in their future vision. The attitude was most blatantly expressed by the group surrounding former presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail that branded liberals and leftists as heretics, and held that the lines confrontation of confrontation against them should be drawn not in the electoral arena but on the battlefield.

As the "revolutionary youth" and their spring gradually faded, even their remnants, such as the Ultras and the Ahlawis, started to resemble fascist youth societies bent on forcing their views on society, regardless of the law. Still, these are but a sideshow compared to the Salafis. One would never have imagined, even in one's wildest nightmares, that the despotism of Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali would be replaced by the tyranny of bands of religious fanatics who storm wedding ceremonies and public establishments to "rectify" the behaviour of celebrators and clientele. Who would ever have imagined that the fragrances of the "jasmine" and "lotus" revolutions that had prevailed in the capitals of the Arab Spring would be dispelled by the creeping shadow of black worn by burka-wearing women and by the gloom of the glowering faces of angry men possessed with a mission to control the world?

So far, these Salafis seem to have an element of grace. They have divided their mission into two phases. In phase one, they will accept competition by other groups. Then, after the sweeping victory they expect to win, there will be no further competition, because there will be no rival groups since the people will have had their say. I say "so far" because some Salafis want to shorten the process. Hazem Abu Ismail said that he wanted to see the election of a Constituent Assembly that would be overwhelmingly dominated by members of his group and likeminded ones. Then all questions of the nature of the state and government would be resolved from the outset.

If this is disturbing, there is also the question of the connection of Salafis to arms and violence. The Salafis have come a long way from their creed of obedience to the ruling authority. Many Salafist groups have now come to believe that it is their right and duty to take up arms not just against the ruling authority but against the Muslim societies in which they live until these societies are made to march on that narrow path decreed by Salafist pundits whose mental horizons froze at some primitive vision of society that does not acknowledge diversity and has no tolerance of the other, and who refuse to recognise that the world has changed and no longer sanctions marriages with nine-year-old girls because the responsibilities of raising a family in the context of today's productive and social relations are too great for nine-year-old girls to bear.

Over recent months, there has been a marked and dangerous rise in armed Salafist groups in Arab societies. True, such groups existed before the advent of the Arab Spring. There was the Somali Al-Shabab, who were not fond of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Mogadishu as represented by the Islamic Courts Union movement, and the names of jihadist Salafist groups would crop up in Iraq, Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. But by and large these were held in check by political power balances that favoured the ruling regimes. Today, the situation is totally different. The Arab Spring, with its "peaceful" revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and its violent revolutions in Yemen, Libya and Syria, has proved a boon for the Salafist movement. Suddenly, Salafis were stirred awake after their long slumber in Sharia law associations and Partisans of the Mohamedan Sunna societies that confined themselves to some philanthropic activities and that shielded members from the temptations and uncertainties of the world. Now they became vociferous participants in demonstrations and strikes. Then there began to emerge a Salafism of a different brand. This one was of a jihadist stripe and it grew from a trickle to a stream in tandem with the influx of arms from the arsenals in Libya, the leftovers of the civil war in Sudan, and the surplus in all imaginable types of weaponry from Somalia, Yemen and Iraq.

The proliferation of guns, artillery, mortars and missiles helped forge the Tawareq group in northern Mali, bolstered "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb", and even fed the Boko Haram organisation in Nigeria. But Libya turned out to be a Salafist paradise. Libya offered that magic mixture of abundant arms, total anarchy and men fresh from Guantanamo to volunteer as leaders of the Ansar Al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) groups, one of which was responsible for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stephens, two US intelligence officials and two marines. There are connections between the Ansar Al-Sharia in Benghazi and their counterparts in Derna, in Tunisia, and in the rest of the "Islamic Maghreb", and together they form a widespread network whose members take it upon themselves to attack and destroy Sufi shrines, to summarily execute security officials from previous regimes without trial, and to terrorise people into conforming with their definition of moral behaviour.

Egypt has not been immune to this phenomenon. In Suez, a self-defined moral squad murdered a young man because he was unable to prove that the woman he was walking with was his fiancé. However, the connection between Salafist groups and violence reached its peak in Sinai where such groups as Jihad wal-Tawhid and Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis decided to carry out their own war against Israel. When these groups found that Egyptian security forces and the army were getting in their way, they bombed the North Sinai governorate security headquarters and attacked positions of the Egyptian army. Simultaneously, they launched attacks against Israel in the hope of precipitating a war against the Egyptian revolution, which still nurtures hopes for reconstruction, development and prosperity for the millions of people it represented.

The transformation was essential and occurred extremely smoothly. When the state was strong, the Salafis created their bases under a cloak of piety and religious observance. As the authority of the state weakened due to the winds of the Arab Spring, they formed political parties that sought to seize control through democratic means to be discarded once they were in power. Where the authority of state was totally absent, they would turn to armed violence against the state and society. The situation is bleak, but it will become grimmer yet unless people open their eyes to the danger and do something about it.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1117 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | Focus | International | Opinion | Press review | Readers' corner | Culture | Features | Special | Heritage | Sports | People | Cartoons | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map