Egypt’s Salafis: Inheriting the Brotherhood and Courting the Regime
Published Thursday, January 23, 2014
In the midst of its scramble to inherit the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Nour Party of Egypt is dithering between the challenges of maintaining its ideological consistency and expanding its role. The Nour Party has to safeguard its call for the bottom-up “Salafization” of society against the backdrop of the current regime’s anti-Islamist attitudes and counter-tensions from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Cairo – The Salafi Nour Party, the political arm of the Salafi Call (Daawa) movement, has played an important role in the post-Mohamed Mursi transitional phase. The party’s attitudes have propelled it into the spotlight, but sparked many questions about the future of Nour. The party finds itself unable to stretch further into the current vacuum, a result of the fierce showdown between the current regime and the mother of all Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Nour will find very difficult to replace.
There are also questions regarding how committed Nour will remain to its ideology and the extent of the concessions it is willing to offer. Yet more questions surround the margin of freedom under the new regime, the form the relationship with secular and liberal parties will take, and how much the popular base is willing to adhere to the leadership’s decisions.
Recall that most Islamist groups have decided to boycott the current regime as well as the Salafi Call and Nour, with the exception of the Reform and Renaissance Party, which does not represent a sizeable political force.
Alexandria’s Salafis and the Brotherhood’s Successors
After Egypt’s new constitution was approved, a pressing question remains: To what extent will the Salafi Call be able to inherit the status of the Muslim Brotherhood?
All indications suggest Nour’s replacing the Brotherhood, at least superficially, and becoming the leading Islamist faction, yet without truly attaining its previous standing. Indeed, the nature of the current phase and the nature of the Salafi Call movement itself would preclude this. The fact that so-called political Islam suffered a severe setback nearly a year ago, specifically when the Constitutional Declaration was issued in November 2012, led to a huge hemorrhaging of popular support for Islamist groups in general.
As a result, broad segments of the public developed different attitudes toward Islamists, some becoming fierce critics of such movements. This would make it an easy task to attack the Salafi Call, whether by the regime or other factions, especially since the Salafis are now the only Islamists involved in the political process.
Another issue is the absence of experience among Salafi leaders, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood. Thanks to this experience, the Brotherhood was able to endure and survive without unraveling. This is something that the Salafi Call has not experienced in its short history, beginning in the late 1970s. Furthermore, also unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no ironclad organization within the Salafi movement that would enable it to emulate the Brotherhood’s experience.
In addition to this, the secular forces are hostile to Nour Party. For instance, in a video leaked from the Coptic Evangelical Council in July 2013, Helmi al-Nemnem, a secular writer, said, “It is time for the so-called political Islam movement to leave the game. This is the right moment, because Nour Party is even more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Another anti-Salafi attitude was seen at the end of the first day of the referendum, when attacks were made against Nour and the Salafi Call on the back of meager Salafi turnout for the vote. This prompted the party on the following day to stage a number of marches nationwide to refute this claim and make a strong show of support.
Among the biggest challenges facing the Salafi Call and Nour Party is the war waged by the Muslim Brotherhood against them, by means of other pro-Brotherhood Salafi factions, fragmenting the Salafi popular base.
Ideological Consistency and the Limits of Concessions
The Salafis have always prided themselves on being dedicated to their own literature, and their image has always been of one who does not compromise on their ideological and religious beliefs. But since the January 25 Revolution, the Salafi Call began backtracking from what it upheld as “red lines” for the past few decades, beginning with its rejection of democracy and parliaments in principle, and not ending with women’s involvement in politics. Gradually, the Salafi Call adopted reinterpretations of certain Islamic concepts that it once attacked, and agreed to take part in parliamentary elections while using slogans that were hitherto alien to its discourse, such as “patriotism” and “the homeland is above the faction.”
Now, the Salafis are deeply involved in political, partisan, and public work. This has been reflected in their behavior in the dispute with the Brotherhood, beginning with the rapprochement with the anti-Mursi National Salvation Front following the referendum on the 2012 constitution. For instance, the Salafi Call and Nour did not do more than issue a few statements denouncing major incidents like the dispersal of the sit-in outside the Republican Guard headquarters and the protests in Rabia al-Adawiya and al-Nahda, without pulling out of the road map process.
This attitude showed the Salafis as pragmatists who were keen on being present on the political scene, while the leaders of the Salafi Call claimed that they had no other option because the “nation is in danger” and because “the biggest mistake was committed by the Brotherhood.” However, others have viewed the Salafis’ actions as “opportunistic.”
Individuals close to Nour believe that its attitudes reflect its maturity but stress that the party remains committed to its ideology, though reality requires it to act in a manner that preserves the Islamic identity and Sharia, as they claim. But the fact that this claim is often repeated whenever Nour makes a compromise or develops a religious justification for a new attitude that is inconsistent with its previous principles, reveals how much the Salafis have become entangled in the political game, to the point that they have been compelled to do business with the secular forces to ensure their political survival.
The Limits of the Permissible Role
So far, the authorities have not shown any intention to crackdown on Nour, but at the same time, the Egyptian regime has not exactly welcomed a strong role for the Salafi party in the future. Indeed, the clause banning the creation of religious parties in the new constitution will be the regime’s ever-brandished sword against Nour.
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Stéphane Lacroix, expert on Salafi movements, said, “The Salafis are still wagering on the idea of bottom-up rather than top-down ‘Salafization.’ All they want is to preserve their call. They use political arms to this end, and exercising power has no importance for the time being for them.”
Lacroix continued, “The Salafis have not changed much in their perception of the function of politics; it is still a way to defend the interests of the call.”
“If we consider things from this perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood was a competitor, but the military is not a rival when it comes to religious call, so there is no problem with them,” he added.
Lacroix noted that there are two camps in the government, one that accepts Nour’s role even after the referendum, as one of the elements that will influence the shape of the regime, while the other believes that Nour’s role has ended and must therefore be excluded. Lacroix said it was likely that the Salafis would play a role similar to that of the Brotherhood under deposed President Hosni Mubarak to legitimize the regime.
The Endurance of the Salafi Call
The leaders of Nour stress that they and the Salafi Call will stand their ground in the face of all campaigns against them, despite the setback to their image among religious youths and Islamist activists, some of whom have decided to distance themselves or even stand against the Salafi Call, which they accuse of putting politics ahead of their religious duty. The period that followed the dismantlement of the pro-Mursi protest camps and the participation of Nour in the referendum on the constitution has brought serious challenges to the Salafi party’s cohesion, for the second time in recent memory.
The previous crisis took place when a considerable number of the party’s cadres and leaders defected after the founding of the Watan Party nearly a year ago, on the back of the infamous spat between previous chairperson of the party Emad Abdel Ghafour and Vice President of the Salafi Call Yasser al-Burhami. The current crisis is considered the worst in the history of the party, with many of the founders of the Salafi Call absent from the scene.
For instance, Sheikh Mohammed Ismail, a major Salafi symbol, has refrained from giving public sermons or speeches since June 30. People close to him have even quoted him as saying that he was going into seclusion to avoid sedition. Similarly, Ahmed Hatibah continues to boycott politics, Sheikh Said Abdul-Azim has all but defected from the board of directors since the first crisis, while Sheikh Ahmed Farid has made no appearances except to support the constitution.
Mokhtar Awad, research associate with the Center for American Progress and expert on Islamist movements, told Al-Akhbar, “The Salafi Call has not truly been tested since the parliamentary elections in 2011.” Awad reckoned that the next elections would reveal the size of the Salafis’ representation, and said, “Nour and the Call are more organized than the liberal forces, even if they suffered some setbacks in the past period.”
Will the Salafis Follow in Brotherhood’s Footsteps?
Many of the Salafis’ positions indicate attitude shifts on certain political issues, beginning almost one year ago, giving the impression that the Salafi Call was following in the footsteps of the Muslim Brotherhood. Prior to the revolution, the Salafis had a stricter approach to interpreting scriptures, while the Brotherhood’s approach was to adopt a certain political position and then find religious justification for it.
Nour’s newfound attitude was clear in its rapprochement with secular parties, which the Salafi party had attacked and shunned up until the previous parliamentary and presidential elections.
This is in addition to how its political decisions came to be justified with slogans like preserving the Call society and the Islamist movement, accepting the outcome of the ballot boxes, not standing against the authorities and contenting itself with verbal statements, and not criticizing the head of the regime, Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
The Party’s Official View
The official view of the party was expressed by Sheikh Mahmoud Abdel-Hamid, senior figure in both the Call and Nour, in a conversation with Al-Akhbar. Abdel-Hamid said that the party would contest the next general election for all seats, and said he hopes the party will win the same number of seats as in the previous parliament. He added, “There will not be an alliance with the secular forces, but we can coordinate with them to push for national unity.”
Abdel-Hamid reckoned that the absence of a constitution would have prolonged the current stage of unrest, and could have led to an economic collapse and even civil war, indicating that the result of the referendum weakened the Brotherhood’s negotiating position.
He then refused to admit that the party’s marches were in response to accusations of weak turnout, and said they were meant to show that “we were honest about what we had promised the ‘agencies,’” but did not clarify what those agencies were. He then added in a jocular tone, “This is a message to the parties that, beware, we are coming in the next elections.”
Regarding the position on Sisi’s candidacy for the office of president, he said that so far, “we have no candidate.” This is while Yasser al-Burhami stressed he “appreciated” Sisi greatly, but said that he preferred to see parliamentary elections held before the presidential elections.
Burhami is considered the key figure in the Salafi Call movement. He is known for his fondness for organizational work, and had participated in founding an institute to train preachers in Alexandria in the 1980s, before it was closed down in 1994.
He tried to create a hierarchical organization for the Call, but security pressures and inexperience thwarted this bid. He is also known for his disputes with the Muslim Brotherhood, and is considered a counterweight for figures like Khairat al-Shater and Mahmoud Ezzat in the Brotherhood.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.