Egypt’s Salafis: ‘New Brothers’ walking a political minefield

(This article was first published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on its website)

One of the most intriguing turns of the post-uprising scene in Egypt has been the emergence of the Salafi movement – as a political force, as a rival to the Muslim Brotherhood, and most recently as an ally of the July 3 military regime. The Salafi Nour party’s general secretary Galal Murra appeared on television as one of the handful of pliant politicians flanking General Abdulfattah al-Sisi as he announced the removal of elected president Mohammed Morsi last year after mass protests against Brotherhood rule. Since then the party’s leadership has remained faithful to the new regime as its conflict with the Brotherhood intensified and a hysterical anti-Islamist atmosphere ensued.

Though the Salafi movement fronted by Nour has faced a delicate task in navigating such choppy waters, its leadership has risen to the challenge. It had a negligible presence on the committee writing the new constitution, technically representing the Islamist corner, and offered little resistance to rolling back the Islamist flourishes of the Brotherhood’s constitution the year before. The principles of Islamic Sharia remain the main source of legislation, as they were under Mubarak, but interpretation is left as the prerogative of the courts. Now Nour’s leaders have thrown themselves with gusto into defending the constitution and campaigning for a yes vote. Night after night figures such as Sheikh Yasser al-Borhamy, deputy head of the Daawa Salafiya (Salafi Preaching) movement that created the Nour party, as well as Nour chief Younis Makhyoun have addressed rallies around the country. Newspapers have carried stories about their speeches almost every day.

A key theme has emerged: that Nour faces opposition to its pro-constitution position from not only Brotherhood supporters, who have often crashed Nour rallies, but from leading Salafi figures too. Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini issued a fatwa from his Kafr al-Sheikh mosque in December calling on followers to boycott the referendum. Huwaini has been the most prominent Salafi preacher to go against the Nour leadership and its leading spiritual mentor Borhamy. Others have been hounded into silence. Since Morsi’s ouster and the violence that followed it, the number of those who dare to oppose the new dispensation has become less and less. Some have chosen to make Qatar, the great Brotherhood backer, a temporary home, while others have turned off their phones, changed their numbers, or even, if they led political parties, shut up shop for the time being. Breakaway movements from Nour such as the Watan or Fadila parties have essentially disappeared from the political map. Salafi preachers to rival Borhamy or Huwaini such as Sheikh Mohammed Hassan or Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Yaaqoubi have made few if any dissenting comments since the summer. Others have ended up in jail, including Mohammed Abdelmaqsoud, Dawoud Khairat and Hamed Mishaal, the spokesman of the Raya party that jailed former presidential hopeful Hazem Ismail hoped to establish.

Despite this, Nour specifically faces continued regime suspicion about its role. Many of its rank and file took part in the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins and accusations continue that Brotherhood protests today set off from Salafi-dominated mosques. “Nour says it supports the constitution and the Brotherhood says it is boycotting, but both of them will go and vote no,” says Hamdy al-Fakharani, a member of the secularist bloc in the parliament elected in 2011. Salafi leaders have engaged in strong anti-Brotherhood rhetoric in a bid to dispel the fears, leading to such ironies as Borhamy dubbing the Brotherhood a takfiri movement.

The biggest question marks about the Salafis have come from its behaviour in Morsi’s final period. The Brotherhood’s relationship with Nour leaders was always tense, divided by competition for the Islamist vote as well as a long history of difference over ideology and approach, but the Brotherhood’s parliamentary then presidential victories were a watershed moment in modern Islamist politics that even a diehard Saudi Wahhabi Salafi could not feel a twitch of emotion about. The Brotherhood knew they could bank on this and played on it, with the extraordinary Cairo conference in favour of ‘jihad’ in Syria that it organized together with leading Salafis such Sheikh Mohammed Hassan in mid-June last year, a spectacular high that may well have played a role in Sisi’s decision to effect the Brotherhood’s fall just two weeks later.

Recent measures to curtail the activities of charity associations reflect these state concerns about the Salafis. In December the names of over 1,000 associations accused of Brotherhood infiltration were leaked the press as the government began moves to freeze or control their finances. The surprise was that the list included two of the biggest and wealthiest in the country, the Gam’iyya Shareya and Ansar al-Sunna al-Mohammadiyya – both predate the Brotherhood and came to be associated with the Salafi trend in the traditional sense of favouring preaching and charity work and opposing the political ambitions and attendant organizational activities of the Brotherhood.

Salafism as a modern movement in Egypt emerged in Alexandria in the late 1970s as a response to the growth of the Brotherhood under Sadat, with its shift under Supreme Guide Omar al-Tilmisani to policies that flowered under Mubarak in the form of the extensive and successful parliamentary, syndicate and student activity that has characterized it over the past generation. As long as the Salafis refrained from organized political action of their own while denying the Brotherhood a certain amount of popular and political support, the Mubarak regime was happy to encourage them (as it was with Sufis). In consequence, Mubarak’s governments made little effort to investigate the financial flows of the Salafi clerical establishment or of these two charities, widely suspected of receiving funding from Saudi sources.

But since 2011 all that has changed. The Brotherhood’s victories alerted the state to a transnational financial network the size of which can only be guessed at (Mohammed Hassanein Heikal recently came up with a figure of $10-12 billion) and the use of charity money and organizations to support political arms like the Freedom and Justice Party. The post-Morsi government is sending a message that it is watching the Salafis too, but without being so direct as to offend them or their patrons in the Gulf since both parties are backing Sisi’s system. Saudi officials were boasting in 2011 about their efforts to boost Egyptian Salafis in an effort to hamper the progress of the Brotherhood, Riyadh’s arch enemy.

The Gam’iyya Shareya answered the allegations last week in a news conference, declaring that it receives no donations from abroad (and thus rejected King Faisal prizes) and does not allow any members to engage in political party activity, a formulation that does not cover the fact that the Daawa Salafiyya as well as the Brotherhood are in not in themselves political parties. The association’s general secretary Mohammed Ismail even hinted that the government had sought the charity’s blessing for the constitution, which could encourage hundreds of thousands of its beneficiaries to go out and vote yes. “We leave people to vote freely; as an institution we don’t push for yes or not or boycott, it’s up to each person to decide,” he said.

If Nour is to remain effective the clerics show dominate need to establish clear reasons why they are adopting policies that may appear lacking in principle and implementing state agendas, otherwise it will not be able to hold its base. The Salafi movement in Egypt was characterized from the beginning by close ties to the security apparatus and in time the army. It brandished an ideology of adherence to the ruler as long as he did not violate general ideas of an Islamic moral order. Come Jan 25, 2011 the Salafi leadership largely stood apart in line with those principles, but violated them when it came to the army’s removal of Morsi in 2012.

The Salafi leaders will also be careful about their position within the wider scheme of regional Salafi politics, particularly the central role of Saudi scholars within that. The Sisi regime, in hypernationalist mode, has made a particularly point of vilifying the Brotherhood for an internationalist approach deemed unpatriotic. At the least, however, the Brotherhood sought and claimed leadership of whatever regional or international movement they led or hoped to lead. Nour is at pains to present itself as independent, with nothing to do with the jihadist-leaning Salafis of Tunisia or Al Saud-compromised clerics of Saudi Arabia. Nour officials concede that Kuwait’s Salafi bloc, an established player in parliamentary politics, bears a respectable comparison but are at pains to point out that the leading clerical lights of the movement in Egypt are the products of an Egyptian clerical tradition.

Today Nour’s arguments are pragmatic to the point of being defeatist. It does not expect to gain 25 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary vote and does not want to since it sees itself as just one faction among many. “There should be a shared vision in which we all compromise,” one senior figure put it. As for Morsi’s presidency, “If it was Islamic rule then I don’t want it. We’re not talking about Islamic rule, we’re talking about government. We’re talking about a modern developed country – Islamic rule was not the choice.”

The party displays all the signs of being the New Brotherhood, the state’s domesticated Islamist players, a version perhaps of Morocco’s PJD. The risk with such an approach is that the leading Salafi party will end up weak and incapable of commanding much of the Islamist vote at all as the movement splinters further.

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