Egypt’s Salafi Challenge

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

“We want democracy, but one constrained by God’s laws. Ruling without God’s laws is infidelity,” Yasser Burhami, the second leading figure in the Salafi Call Society (SCS) and its most charismatic leader, recently said. The unexpected rise of the Salafis in Egypt’s parliamentary election has fueled concern that the most populous Sunni Arab country could be on its way to becoming a fundamentalist theocracy akin to Shia Iran.

Known for its social ultra-conservatism, literal and strict interpretation of Islam, and potential exclusion of the ideological and religious “other,” the Salafi “Coalition for Egypt,” otherwise known as the Islamic Coalition, won a total of 34 seats in the parliament elected to draft Egypt’s new constitution. This is in addition to the 78 seats won by the Democratic Coalition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Of the 168 contested seats, Islamists have secured 112 or 66.6%. Although it is still early to determine the final outcome, which will be determined on January 11, the coming rounds are unlikely to veer from the early voting patterns. Governorates considered to be traditional strongholds of Islamists will be voting in the second round (like al-Sharqiya and Suez) and in the third round (like Matruh and Qalyubiyah).

Before the November elections, many people doubted that the decentralized, leaderless, politically inexperienced, and socially controversial Salafi groups could garner strong support in the elections. But they enter the elections with several parties, the most organized and politically savvy of them being al-Nour (The Light), which has formed a coalition with al-Asala (Originality) Party and the Islamic Group’s Construction and Development Party.

Al-Nour is one of two Egyptian Salafi groups that were organized and centralized decades ago, the other being the relatively apolitical Ansar al-Sunnah (Supporters of the Sunnah). The roots of the organization go back to 1977, when the Muslim Brothers dominated the Islamic Group at Alexandria University. In reaction, students with Salafi convictions, mainly studying in the faculty of medicine, formed the “Salafi School,” arguing against the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and domination of Islamist activism.

By mid-1985, the Salafi School was calling itself the “Salafi Call Society.” It had its own educational institution, the al-Furqan Institute, a magazine entitled Sawt al-Da‘wa (the Voice of the Call), and a complex social-services network. The Zakat Committee (Islamic tithe) was in charge of funding and administering orphanages, support of widows, relief work, and free health clinics and other community facilities.

To manage its operations in Alexandria and elsewhere, the SCS leadership established an executive committee, a governorates committee, a youth committee, a social committee, and a general assembly. All of this was accomplished under the hazardous conditions of Mubarak’s rule, which banned the movement’s leaders from leaving Alexandria without travel permits from the State Security Investigations Service. The regime regularly closed their institute, banned their publications, and arrested their leaders.

This oppression perhaps explains the SCS leadership’s initial reaction to last January’s revolution. “They would have bombed us from the air if they saw our beards in Tahrir!” said one of the SCS leaders. Indeed, the SCS leadership did not officially back the revolution until the final days before Mubarak’s fall, although their mid-ranks and grassroots activists did join the protests. This includes Emad Abdel Ghafour, the head of al-Nour Party. 

What clearly distinguishes the SCS and its political arm, al-Nour, from other Salafis is their long organizational and administrative experience and their charismatic leaders. Muhammad Nour, the spokesperson of al-Nour in Cairo, tells me about an additional factor to explain the party’s rise: “The liberal media is focused on us. They did our media campaigning for free,” he smiles. “When they try their best to smear us, and then people see what we do on the ground, the people understand that there is something wrong with the media…not with us.”

Today, of course, the big fear—not only in the West, but also in other parts of the Arab world—is that the Muslim Brotherhood (the big winners in the elections) and the Salafis will join forces after the voting is finally completed in January. But this is unlikely. As Nabil Na‘im, a co-founder of al-Jihad Organization and a leading figure in the transition towards non-violent activism, put it to me recently, “What coalition? I just mediated a ceasefire in Fayyoum between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.”

In fact, the composition of the government is likely to be shaped more by ongoing grassroots mobilization and ideological rifts among the Islamist parties, the actions—and inaction—of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the behavior of the liberal parties.

Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood seems determined, above all, to limit the military’s role in shaping the constitution. It also wants to empower the parliament and monitor the security services more effectively. The Salafis, on the other hand, are focused on pushing a socially conservative agenda to satisfy their electoral base.

If the SCAF continues tacitly to support one side, as it has been doing, it will likely fuel greater Islamist-secular polarization, rather than deepening the rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis; the prospect of an FJP-Nour coalition would then grow.

It will be critical for liberals to work on limiting polarization by focusing on trust-building measures with the Muslim Brothers, rather than solely depending on the SCAF to empower them. One young revolutionary put it eloquently: “Most activists are happy to fight the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in electoral and street politics if they infringe on citizenship rights. But this is our fight, not the army’s.”