Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘More alternatives’

Personal loyalties rather than ideological differences are behind the mushrooming of Salafist-oriented parties, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Ahram Weekly

When leading Salafi figure Hazem Salah Abu Ismail was asked on Monday in a TV appearance why he had opted to team up with the newly founded Watan Party rather than strike an alliance with the Nour, the largest Salafist party and the one from which the Watan had splintered, he replied that it was because “the gap between us and the Nour is huge.” Asked to elaborate he said “our approach and stand on many political issues are in total contrast to that of the Nour”.

The seemingly unstoppable increase in Salafist-oriented parties is inspired more by political differences and personal loyalties than religious or ideological motives.

While up to 15 groups currently identify themselves as Salafist parties only half this number are politically active. The latest on the block is the Watan, headed by Emad Abdel-Ghafour and several other high profile defectors from the Nour.

Though Abdel-Ghafour has refused to state the reasons behind his leaving the Nour Party, sources attribute it to personal differences between him and other leading figures, including Yasser Burhami and Ashraf Thabet. Abdel-Ghafour, they say, was keen to separate the religious from the political by reducing the role played by Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya (Salafist Calling) in running party affairs whereas Burhami and others were in favour of keeping the status quo.

The list of Salafist-oriented parties now includes Al-Binaa wal-Tanmiya (the political wing of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (the Islamic group); the Fadila, Nour and Asala parties, Al-Umma Al-Masriya Party (under construction and headed by Abu Ismail), Shaab (the political wing of Al-Gabha Al-Salafiya) and Islah, Nahda and Al-Tawhid Al-Arab parties.

A quick review of the party platforms of four of these shows few if any ideological differences. But while there seems to be agreement on the general concepts of Sharia implementation minor differences do exist in the details of how to achieve these. Some adopt a pragmatic approach to politics, some are confrontational. Yet others are rigid about their core principles.

One common denominator is the role of religion in promoting social, political and economic life, upholding Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation and Islam as the official religion of the state. There is, however, no mention of the state being theocratic.

In the Nour Party platform the state is neither secular nor theocratic but a “modern centrist state” that upholds the principle of co-existence among all citizens. The Nour views the constitutional text about Islamic Sharia as the ultimate reference for the Egyptian political system.

The Asala sees the state’s most crucial role as honouring citizens’ rights and freedoms within the framework of Islamic Sharia. Social justice occupies centre stage for the Fadila, which stresses a wider distribution of national wealth. The party platform places special emphasis on the role of the state in enabling all citizens to secure “an honourable life” regardless of their religion, gender or origin.

While most platforms are not void of rhetoric — at times they resemble a religious sermon — the assertion that democracy and freedom come only within the framework of Islamic law is the predominant line.

The essence of the dilemma now facing Islamists — and particularly Salafis — was perhaps best caught by Nageh Ibrahim, a leading member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, in his writing about the conflicting relationship between the religious and the political and how the political is gaining an upper hand. Ibrahim pointed out that the Islamist project is based on three pillars, the religious, the political and the social, while today’s Islamist parties are overemphasising the role of politics to the exclusion of the rest.

“The Islamist current,” says Ibrahim, “only cares about partisan politics and while the struggle has pitted Islamists against liberals, there will come a day when the struggle will be inter-Islamist.”

In an indirect criticism of the Salafist movement Ibrahim said that those engaged in religious teaching and Islamic call risk undermining the purity of their message by mixing politics with religion. “Some moved from the mosque to politics without any political socialisation which could make them separate the sacred from the temporal”.

While Islamists in general, and Salafis in particular, are viewed by their opponents as the least democratic political actors, some recent developments have questioned the assumption. The Asala held elections last week to select a party chief and Ehab Sheeha replaced the party’s founding father Adel Abdel-Maksoud. The Nour is also expected to conduct elections on Wednesday to select a new head. By electing their leadership Salafist parties are providing a lesson in practical democracy, said Sheeha.

A number of Salafi figures have expressed concern over the fragmentation of the Salafist rank and file, even seeking a fatwa from Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, the head of the Al-Hayaa Al-Shareaiya lel-Hokouk wal-Islah (the legal body for rights and reform) on whether or not the multiplicity of Salafist parties was a cause for division and schism among Islamists. Other Salafist figures insist it is a healthy sign that so many parties embrace Salafist doctrine, an expression of the social capital the Salafist movement enjoys in Egypt. Mustafa Khalifa, deputy head of the Nour, argues the assumption that the existence of so many Salafist parties will undermine the Salafis popularity in the forthcoming parliamentary elections is misplaced: rather, he says, it increases their chances of winning more seats because “there will be more alternatives from across the Islamist spectrum for voters to choose from.”

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