One of the most unsettling developments of Egypt’s Arab Spring has been the surge of activity by ultraconservative Salafist Muslims, who used to denounce conventional politics.
Salafism is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that aims to emulate the faith as it was practiced during the Prophet Muhammad's time. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long tried to engage in politics, when it was not being repressed by past Egyptian governments, the Salafis concentrated on preaching and social work. Some veered into violence.
But today – in the midst of Egypt’s open political season – Salafis have formed two political parties, and a Salafi, Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, is running for president.
Salafis are a wild card in the elections, with some predicting they could win ten per cent of the votes. They don’t speak with one voice: Some preach hatred of Christians on well-funded satellite channels, some have attacked Christians and burned churches, while others denounce such actions. Although they deny it, Salafi groups are rumored to receive substantial funds from Saudi Arabia.
There is no question these fundamentalists want to push for an Islamic state and to change Egypt’s conservative but tolerant culture: Abu Ismail says if he were president all women would have to veil. Recently, at a Salafi rally in Alexandria, a statue of Zeus surrounded by mermaids was covered up because it was considered indecent.
Yet some Salafis insist they are misunderstood. I interviewed Mohammed Nour, the spokesman for the Nour (light) Party, who runs a multi-media production company that makes films and apps for I-phones. He wore a suit with a striped shirt, and his office sported orange couches with chrome armrests, and a office secretary with in a headscarf and long skirt but face uncovered. “The image in the media of salafis with long robes is not necessarily true,” he told me in an obvious charm offensive.
But when I asked why Salafis were entering politics, he responded, “We’re always going to believe the Islamic way of life is better than democracy. But all Egyptians believe change can happen through these elections, so we should all present ourselves.”
So it is an open question whether - as some Egyptians hope - Salafis will be tamed by participation in poltics, or whether they see democracy as a means towards an undemocratic end.
Salafi parties and groups originally allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, but – resentful of the Brotherhood’s superior organization – they later formed their own alliance of fundamentalist candidates. One big question in the upcoming elections is whether they will emerge from the election with a key bloc of seats that, if joined with the Brotherhood, would give Islamists a majority in parliament. That would give them latitude to press the more cautious Brotherhood to adopt more hardline views.