One of the more fascinating aspects of the new Egyptian politics is the rise of the ultraconservative salafists, who want to restore Islam to the purity they believe existed in the first three generations of Islam.
To Egyptians’ great surprise, the Salafist Nour party won 25 per cent of the seats in parliamentary elections. Previously opposed to taking part in elections, the salafists figured out that in the new Egypt, the ballot was the way to power, and plunged right in. Their vote tallies benefited from a large social network linked to salafi preachers and mosques, and also from voter perceptions that salafists would be more honest than the normal corrupt pols because they were pious.
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party won 46 per cent of the vote, the salafists are very open, easy to access, and eager to meet liberals and moderates, and Westerners, too, perhaps in hope of converting them to the right path. For now, at least, they seem ready to form alliances in parliament, where they have behaved quite pragmatically so far (a far cry from the fire-breathing rhetoric spewed by radical salafi preachers on satellite TV channels funded by Qataris and Saudis, or the violent salafis who convulsed Egypt in the 1990s).
I visited one Nour party member, Ashraf Sabet, now the deputy speaker of parliament, who discussed everything from why salafis think any interest on a loan above 1 per cent is usury, to when and how young girls should be circumcised. He seemed convinced that this odious but widespread practice was a health issue, not a longstanding cultural practice banned by law. He was constantly looking at his I-pad, and was leaving soon for the Arab Emirates in an attempt to persuade some big investors not to pull their money out of Egypt.
How this large parliamentary bloc will behave once it becomes clear that its puritanical religious precepts are not accepted by most Egyptians remains to be seen.