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For many religious puritans politics is profane, but for others it can be a blessing. Over the past three years the ultraconservative Salafis, a Sunni Islamist group that adopts a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings, have become a major winner as a result of the “Arab Spring.” However, since the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Salafism has been struggling to maintain its image as a sacred ideology.
Salafism’s upsurge in Egypt and throughout the Middle East after the uprisings ranks as one of the key moments in political Islam over the past century. This is not only because it ended the hegemony of veteran Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other former radical and violent Islamists, such as al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya and the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), but also because it revealed the changes taking place within the discourse and ideology of Salafi movements and groups. Salafis had shunned politics for decades, as they believe that involvement in the political sphere is religiously prohibited. However, they quickly became important players in post-Mubarak Egypt, with many of their leaders immersed in everyday politics. They thus shifted their discourse and activities from the sacred, or religion, to the profane, or politics.
Since the massive public protests that led to the July 3 military ouster of Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, Salafis seem to be hanging between religion and politics. As a result, they are becoming divided and fragmented. While some could not resist the lure of politics, such as the Nour Party, which is generally considered the second largest Islamist force in Egypt after the Brotherhood, others have abandoned politics and are focusing on religious preaching, or da‘wa.
The violent dispersal of the Brotherhood’s sit-ins in August had a major impact on Salafi calculations and political behavior. On the one hand, some Salafi groups and parties have sided with the Brotherhood, such as al-Watan Party, al-Asala Party, al-Fadila Party, and the Salafi Front. These parties have become a key component of what is dubbed the National Coalition for Supporting Legitimacy (NCSL), which formed in June before Morsi was ousted. The NCSL plays a significant role in organizing and leading protests that oppose Morsi’s removal, and its leaders are involved in the negotiations with the state and international mediators such as the EU, which are trying to end the current impasse.
On the other hand, other Salafi groups and networks, such as the Hazemoon movement, which was very active under Morsi, and the Coalition of Supporting New Muslims (CSNM), have been restructured or have disappeared. The detention of Sheikh Hazim Salah Abu Ismail, the iconic Salafi figure at the head of Hazemoon and former presidential candidate, encouraged many of his followers, who are mainly university graduates and high school students, to join a new group called Ahrar, which is a combination of Salafi elements and young activists who dispute the coup. Other veteran Salafi associations such as al-Gam‘iyya al-Shar‘iyya and Ansar al-Sunna are struggling to maintain their religious and social activities and to avoid state repression.
Moreover, the military-backed government’s attempts to control the religious sphere have hampered Salafi sheikhs and imams from disseminating their ideology. The closure of several Salafi-oriented television channels has left many Salafi leaders marginalized and voiceless. The government has also taken charge of thousands of mosques that previously supplied Salafis with a fertile ground for mobilization and the recruitment of new members.
The Nour Party appears to be the only Salafi party that is still enjoying the political game. Over the past three years, Nour leaders have shown a significant degree of political savvy and have been increasingly willing to bargain and compromise with the state. As such, the Nour Party is the only Islamist force that supports the current regime. The historical feud and political conflict between the Brotherhood and the Nour Party have shaped the latter’s calculations. Moreover, the Nour Party and its patron, al-Daw‘a al-Salafiyya, viewed the downfall of the Brotherhood as a golden opportunity to advance their political ambitions. They thus backed military intervention against Morsi, accepted the military-imposed roadmap, and participated in the constituent assembly that is now amending the Egyptian constitution.
Nevertheless, pragmatism and flexibility have limits, particularly within ideological movements. Nour is striving to secure its political gains and maintain its credibility. The party is facing harsh criticism from its Islamist counterparts for its support of the military, and its own grassroots members are angry about their leaders’ behavior and political maneuverings. They believe that political opportunism will cost the party support and discredit its image. And with the current atmosphere in Egypt hostile to Islamists, the Nour Party has become more vulnerable. Indeed, it is likely that the new constitution will ban religious parties, including the Nour Party, which would be a major blow to the party and its leaders.
Salafism is struggling to avoid the political fate of the Brotherhood. The mounting anti-Islamism sentiment among Egyptians, coupled with the heavy governmental crackdown against Islamists, has urged Salafi sheikhs and leaders to rethink political participation. For many of them, politics is no longer a blessing but a curse.
Image courtesy of Magharebia.