Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Unpacking Egypt’s Salafis

Despite the giant leaps that Egypt’s Salafis have made in terms of their participation in politics, there are major challenges in store. Omayma Abdel-Latif explores the internal and external difficulties and interviews a leading Salafi figure on the issue

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Following the power struggles that hit the Salafist-oriented Nour Party and threatened to split it into two factions, observers predicted that the Salafis’ moment in politics was about to come to an end. Some, such as Saudi writer Jamal Khashoukji, foresaw divisions within the Salafist current, leading it to split into three factions, but other analysts have argued that Khashoukji’s conclusions are premature and that the Salafis’ short experience in politics makes it difficult to reach a verdict.
“One group will merge with the Muslim Brotherhood as the ruling party of the day, a second group will shun politics altogether, while a third will continue to believe in the necessity of being part of the political process and will continue thanks to the funding coming from their brethren in the Gulf states who cannot accept any failure of the Salafis in politics,” Khashoukji wrote in a recent article in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.

WHO ARE THE SALAFIS? Salafism, according to the deputy head of the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya, a Salafist organisation, Yasser Burhami, is “pure Islam” as practised by the Prophet. Such a definition reflects how the Salafis, or a section of them, perceive themselves to be the true guardians of the faith, and, some argue, it excludes a range of political Islam forces that might once have embraced Salafist doctrines, but that have since distanced themselves from them as a result of the Salafist record in politics.
Salafist movements say that their ultimate mission is to emulate the al-salaf al-salih, what they consider to be the authentic habits of Islam, but this should not suggest that they are living in a frozen moment in the history of Islam. Instead, the Salafist movements are the products of modern times: they are modern movements that interpret the Quran and select whatever they need from the lives of the Prophet and his Companions to suit their message of today.  
It is inaccurate to speak of a monolithic body of Salafis operating under a central command. “There is no one single or united Salafist movement,” explained Mohamed Soffar, a professor of political theory at Cairo University. “Instead, there are networks, schools and trends of Salafism. The common denominator among them is the way in which they identify themselves.”
A number of incidents have indicated that the Salafis’ performance and attitudes in politics have defied some long-held assumptions about the Salafist movements, with many traditionally seeing them as rigid, dogmatic and literalist, to name a few of the descriptions used. Following the 25 January Revolution, the Salafist groups, like other political and social groups benefiting from the political and social opening Egypt witnessed, were able to transform their social and religious capital into political capital in a short period of time and make unprecedented electoral gains.
At the same time, however, opponents argue that the Salafist-oriented political parties failed to concern themselves with society’s real ills, instead being preoccupied with fighting what prominent writer Fahmy Howeidy has described as “the wrong battles”. Revisiting the debate on the Salafis and politics hence became inevitable. While the Nour Party appears to have overcome the threat of factionalism so far, the challenges facing the party are far from over, making its experience a revealing one in a number of ways.
“The Salafis of the Nour Party have proved to be the most pragmatic of all politicians on the scene today,” Soffar told Al-Ahram Weekly. “They have been able to make compromises and negotiate at the highest levels, just like the Christian Democrat parties” in Europe, he added.
Soffar and other observers say that while invoking religion and religious symbols have been at the heart of the rhetoric of the Salafist-oriented parties, this has been largely a means of mobilising their popular base. In the corridors of power, there has been a different story. “Behind closed doors, and when they sit with their counterparts, politics has been about compromises and deals rather than ideals,” said Soffar.
Principles aside, one example reveals that the Salafis in politics, like all politicians, have been opportunists. Having no experience of establishing political parties, when the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya (the Alexandria-based “Salafist Calling” group) joined the political process, it decided to make use of expertise gained by elite members of the former Mubarak regime. Experts from the former ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) infamous Policies Committee, the body which Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, had established as a kind of shadow government, were called upon for advice.
During the recent crisis that hit the Nour Party, the party’s leaders resorted to the same experts to help them resolve the crisis. The party’s organisation and budget were outlined by the same former NDP experts and academics.
Members of the Salafist-oriented parties have also exhibited a willingness to learn more about the craft of politics. When the Faculty of Economics and Political Science in Cairo organised courses on political awareness after the revolution, Salafis represented the majority of the attendees. “They were very proactive students, and they had many questions about how to recruit members and about different political theories,” explained one of the lecturers on the courses.
Unlike the other Islamists, the Nour Party entered the political fray under different social and political circumstances from those that the other Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, operated within. While the Brotherhood had had to work under the heavy hand of the former Mubarak regime, the Salafis had not, posing questions on the extent to which a freer and less-oppressive political context could now impact the Salafis’ discourse and attitudes in politics.
The Salafis have never claimed to have articulated a political vision of their own. Indeed, their experience in politics, short as it has been, reveals their comparative poverty in thinking about issues such as the state and public policy. “They lack a vision of education policy or health policy. All they want to do is to Islamise the state,” said one observer.
According to Heba Raouf, a professor of politics at Cairo University, the centrality of the myth of the Islamic state in the political imagination of the Islamists in general, and of the Salafis in particular, could be one of the obstacles in the way of their developing a genuinely Islamist political theory. However, Soffar begs to differ: the political experience of the Nour Party suggests, he says, that the Salafis are operating in a context wider than immediate Salafist circles, and words like ummah, Caliphate and Islamic state are disappearing from their discourse.

HISTORY OF THE SALAFIS AND POLITICS: In the past, the Salafist movements maintained a suspicious and hostile approach towards institutional politics. However, the rise of Islamist forces, which have made electoral breakthroughs across many parts of the Arab world during the past two decades, as well as the wave of popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring, have led to debates among the Salafist rank and file regarding their place in the new political order.
Politics and political activism are no longer considered taboo. In order to understand the paradigm shift that the Salafist movements have undergone, from shunning politics to embracing it, it is useful to refer to an article of 20 March 2007 posted on the sawt al-salaf website, in which Yasser Burhami, deputy head of the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya takes issue with the whole notion of political participation.
For a long time, Burhami and other Salafist leaders dismissed any involvement in the mainstream political game. The reason, he suggested, was that being part of the political game means compromising ideals and principles, arguing that “the experiences of the Islamist movements in politics has not been encouraging at all, as we have seen how they have given up their Islamic ideals and identity for a position here or an opportunity there.”
“Islamists,” Burhami continued, “cannot be allowed to participate in elections and use the tools of democracy since this means making compromises at the expense of their Islamic values.”
One of the key dividing lines between the traditional Salafis and the activist Salafist groups has been to do with their respective stances on political participation. Until after the revolution, the Salafis were far from united about where to place politics and political action on their list of priorities. Two points of view prevailed, with one view being to condemn any act of political participation to the point of imposing a ban on Salafi followers doing so.
Political participation for Islamists, many Salafis have argued, comes at a heavy price. One of the founding fathers of the Salafist movement, Sheikh Nassereddin Al-Albani, was of the view that politics should be shunned altogether. This position reflects the traditional Salafist view that the real solution to the problems of the ummah, or religious community, involves focussing on two main principles — filtering religion from bidaah (innovations) and educating Muslims about the faith.
Traditional Salafis criticise Islamists who seek change either through embracing political action or resorting to violence. For them, both methods lead nowhere because problems can only be resolved by correcting appreciation of the faith. However, Abdel-Aziz Kamel, editor of Al-Bayan (a Salafist magazine published in London), believes that from a Salafist perspective political activism means “changing the status quo in favour of Islam” and considers “resistance to occupation” as the highest degree of political activism.
Political activism, Kamel argues, should not be confined to the ballot box alone. One of the weaknesses of the Salafist movement, he has written, is that history and intellectual movements have been central to its discourse and vision, leaving no space for political activism.
A second approach to politics has been taken by a second group of Salafis. In his 1985 book Muslims and Political Action, Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Khalek argued that politics was at the heart of religion and political activities covered more than just governance. He defended “the democratic system” and urged political followers to “invest in it” because the alternative was “a tyrannical system”. He held that “the system which allows Muslims to form political parties should be supported,” and he supported participation in parliamentary democracy because this could help to guarantee that legislation would not be passed that was contradictory to Islamic law.
On 22 March 2011, the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya in Alexandria issued a statement declaring that it had decided to “participate positively in the political process”, something that was viewed as an unprecedented development in the history of Egypt’s Salafist movements. Burhami answered questions about this radical change in position by saying that “the main reason was the availability of a large degree of freedom that protects the movement from having to make concessions. There is now no fraud in the elections, and every person is free to offer what he wishes. Under the former regime, the price to pay was too high and the outcome was known in advance.”
Another reason for now engaging in politics was the need to “direct the Egyptian people in a manner that conforms to its Islamic point of reference”, he said.
Unlike other Islamist activists, the Salafis do not possess a specific vision of politics of their own. They have failed to articulate a political platform or project, and their opponents charge that they are preoccupied with what is halal (permitted) and what is haram (forbidden) in Islam and are not qualified to be part of the mainstream political process. However, one factor cited as shaping Salafist evolution and discourse has been the Salafis’ desire to defend what they see as Islamic identity from attacks on the political, social and religious levels. Their fierce battle to change Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that the Sharia is “a main source of legislation”, to “the main source” of legislation has triggered fears among their liberal and secular antagonists, who have accused them of seeking to impose their brand of Islam on Egyptian society.
Ashraf Al-Sharif, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, also refers to another battle over religious institutions, particularly Al-Azhar, which has raised questions about the Salafis’ attempts to impose their hegemony over the institutions of religious knowledge. Such attempts could put them on a collision course with other Islamist forces in society, particularly within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.

PROBLEMS IN THE NOUR PARTY: Burhami’s view about the heavy price of political activism for Salafis lay at the heart of the recent power struggles within the Nour Party. One analyst has suggested that the current impasse has to do with the fact that the Salafis have begun to realise that politics and political participation are about manoeuvring, compromises and deals.
The Nour Party, Al-Sharif said, was “embracing the politics of compromise, and it is doing this at a fast pace, perhaps faster than the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya (its religious and social incubator) can digest or condone from a religious point of view.” What has been most revealing about the recent crisis, he said, was how getting into the political game for the Salafis had meant widening the gap between the political and the religious, or between those who want to give authority to the religious over the political. This would mean giving the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya its own say in party affairs, as opposed to those who want to claim the party’s independence from its religious point of reference.
Such arguments do not explain why a Salafi leader considered to be “a hawk” by the Salafis’ own standards and a staunch proponent of a bigger role for the religious at the expense of the political, in other words someone like Burhami, would sacrifice principles on the altar of politics by meeting former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik in a bid to secure guarantees that if the latter were to be elected president he would allow the Salafis to continue to act freely. The incident, first denied by Burhami and then acknowledged, was an indicator of the extent to which the Salafis can be pragmatic when it comes to protecting their own interests.
The relationship between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood is also a complicated one. While some observers view it as a “fraternity”, others say that it is more like a relationship of competition. In the past, the relationship was marked by intellectual conflicts over approaches to politics, but a change of course took place following the last parliamentary elections in November 2011. Now the relationship between the two groups is marked by a conflict over mobilisation, networks and resources.
“For the Salafis, the relationship is about what political interest they could gain out of it,” Soffar told the Weekly. The Salafis’ decision to endorse Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh as their presidential candidate against Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, although the latter is closer to the Salafis in terms of his conservative outlook, was a clear indication of Salafist fears of the hegemony of the Brothers over the state.

THE ROAD AHEAD: In a short span, Egypt’s Salafis have made giant leaps from underground activity to being the second-largest political grouping in the country with 25 per cent of the seats in the dissolved parliament. They are, however, facing serious challenges, the most important of which may come from within the Salafist rank and file itself.
One such challenge is about the political identity of the Salafist-oriented parties. Experience has shown that these are not a genuine opposition movement, since they are partners in power with the Brotherhood, and they have not kept up with the revolutionary stream and have not expressed its aspirations and demands. On the contrary, some analysts have pointed to the Salafis’ failure to become part of the mainstream, rather turning into a polarising force.
According to Khalil Al-Anani, a professor at Durham University in the UK and an expert on political Islam, a number of challenges face “the continuation of the Islamist project”. He points out that the recent power struggle in the Nour Party revealed much of the emptiness of the Salafist rhetoric about purity and religious commitment. “What will remain from the whole discourse is the issue of implementing Sharia, but even this issue will be dropped under the pressure from society itself overtime. It will be something from the past,” he wrote.
Another key challenge is how to answer pending questions regarding the Salafis’ stand on democracy as a mode of governance. Observers of political Islam refer to the growing fears and concerns over the Salafist discourse on key issues in the democratic transformation process. “There is a fear that they play the democratic game, while they do not necessarily believe in it and address the issue of democracy according to the wrong assumptions,” Al-Anani has written. One example he cites is whether democracy is a transitional or a final order. “Another wrong assumption is to reduce the whole notion of democracy to just elections, and that democracy does not just mean the rule of the majority as much as it also means guaranteeing individual rights and minority [political] rights,” he commented.
Despite the sometimes rather grim picture, some observers think that one positive outcome of Salafist involvement in politics will be that they will be forced to communicate with wider segments of society and work in the open, leading to the possible de-radicalisation of the movement.

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