Renovation not demolition
As Egypt looks ahead to elections, Austin Mackell meets a representative of one of the Islamic parties vying for control
As the dust clears on Egypt’s remarkable Spring transformation and the country looks ahead to Parliamentary and Presidential elections, the tough business of negotiations for a democratic future takes centre stage. It is still far too early to tell the outcome, but threats to a secular democratic future abound. Those concerned that the revolution will open the door to Islamists have spent a lot of time worrying about the Muslim Brotherhood and neglected a potentially far bigger threat. For all their bellicose rhetoric, it is entirely possible that the Brotherhood could become a modern political party with an Islamic identity, in the model of Turkey’s ruling AKP. Meanwhile the Salafi movement, allied with Saudi Arabia, though they have accepted the need for elections and pledged to participate in them, are openly hostile to democracy at the ideological level.
Although they are presenting themselves as friends of the revolution, the Salafi leadership in fact did what they could to try and forestall it. During the 18-day uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from office, senior Salafi leaders spoke out against the protesters, quoting a proverb stating that a thousand days of tyranny was better than a single day of anarchy. This put them at odds not just with the momentum of Egyptian society but with many of their younger adherents who were among the revolution's bravest participants. Though they have subsequently distanced themselves from this sentiment, it is clear that many Salafis consider democracy a huge threat to their dreams of an Islamic state, and may well try and work within the electoral system in order, ultimately, to undermine Egyptian democracy.
Salafi derives from Salaf, a reference to the companions of the prophet Mohammed and the two earliest generations of Muslims that followed. The basis of Salifi belief is the emulation of these figures, in deed – bushy beards and traditional clothing – and thought. Salafi dogma has roots in the early centuries of Islam, but the modern movement is usually thought to arise from the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of the Wahabi school of Islam to which al-Qaeda and the Saudi royal family subscribe. Much of the ideology, and funding, still comes from Saudi, and some, like As’ad AbuKhalil, who writes The Angry Arab blog, argue that they are being used as Saudi proxies within the country.
A subset of Salafis are Jihadi Salafis who advocate the use of violence, but the majority reject this and the Jihadi branch is thought to be particularly weak inside Egypt. Generally, Salafism is a diffuse and amorphous set of teachings, a theological methodology rather than an organised movement. The most notable Egyptian exception to this rule is the Alexandria-based “Scientific School”, which has tens of thousands of active members and a clear hierarchy.
At the top of this hierarchy is a council of three sheiks and beneath them are three lesser councils, each composed of a further three sheiks. Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat is a sheik from this secondary tier, and the group’s official spokesperson. Dealing with the press has been an issue of new importance to the Salafis since the opening of a democratic space in Egypt, and at a recent conference in Alexandria the school had even conducted role-playing exercises in which one sheik would pretend to be a member of the press interviewing another. Since then they have decided to present only one point of contact – Al-Shahat – to avoid contradictory statements being issued.
Al-Shahat, who I met at a translator’s office in Alexandria, has been interviewed in recent months by foreign papers including the Guardian and the Financial Times, and seems to have very much mastered the art of answering questions without answering them. This makes the direct answers he does choose to give all the more demonstrative of just how big the differences are between their thinking and that of their most revolutionary compatriots.
He begins with a clear statement that, while the liberal conception is that a person should be free so long as they don't harm others, Salafis believe that freedom should be limited by God's law. While they accept the democratic mechanism as a “tool” for governance, they reject it as a philosophical basis. This position, he argues, is justified by the second article of the Egyptian constitution, which was retained in the recent constitutional amendments, which states that the basis of the country’s legal system is Sharia. Al-Shahat extrapolates from this that therefore any law passed in Egypt must conform to Sharia. Democracy, he explains, is only acceptable to Salafis as a method for deciding between “variations” in interpretations of Islamic law.
Currently two Salafi political parties are emerging, one of which, Al-Noor (The Light), is closely associated with the Scientific Salafis. As long as the constitution commits the country to Sharia, Al-Shahat says, they are prepared to participate in democracy, but should this article be removed (as many on the secular left would prefer) then Salafis would withdraw from political life and concentrate on proselytising through Friday sermons, seminars, websites and their television channels, much as they had done under Mubarak.
During our discussion Al-Shahat suggested that Osama bin Laden's positive attributes (resisting Russian and American occupation forces) outweighed his negative ones (the killing of civilians in America, who are not involved in waging war against the occupation) and argued that if women could be convinced of the importance of “their role” in the home, in particular the raising of children, and to leave the workforce, then the problem of unemployment would be alleviated.
The two greatest threats he sees facing Egypt are that the “liberal minority”, whose ideology is not “rooted” in Egyptian society, might try and force their beliefs on the majority, and that “imperialistic” outside powers might “manipulate” the Coptic-Christian minority to create strife. Given these concerns, he says, it is important for these groups to be shown that they are “well hosted” by a system based on Islamic law.
He sketches out the framework of tolerance of the irreligious by saying that an Islamic state would only intervene when private choices became social phenomena, and were occurring in public. Using the example of alcohol, he says that people drinking in their homes would not be prosecuted, but that public dens of vice would be banned, and said that such a position was comparable to Western laws against public drunkenness.
Regarding the Christian population, he pointed to centuries of peaceful coexistence under Muslim rule. When pushed on the issue of alleged Salafi involvement in clashes between Christians and Muslims that have erupted since the revolution, however, his main point seems to be that the Copts started it.
Chief among the questions he chose to duck were those relating to the Salafis' role in the revolution. He said that before the revolution, when they like the Brotherhood, had been subject to surveillance and arbitrary arrest, they had worked to delegitimise Mubarak. He emphasised the involvement of younger Salafis as individuals. This was confirmed to me on a previous trip to Alexandria by an activist from the Revolutionary Socialist Party, who told me how it had been her (an unveiled atheist) and other leftists, fighting side by side with Salafis, that had stormed the Alexandria offices of the dreaded Secret Security Intelligence Services.
Al-Shahat avoids admitting that this was against the instructions of senior leaders, preferring to say that some leaders were “reluctant”, but that agreement was reached before Mubarak's resignation. When asked about the “thousand days of tyranny” comment, he replied only that they now prefer to say Egypt is a house that needs “renovation”, not “demolition”.
Given all this it is easy to see why many Egyptians consider the Salafis a counter-revolutionary force, and accuse them of working with Saudi Arabia to sabotage the revolutionary momentum and/or establish a hyper-conservative state. However much they may want this, however, it is hard to see how it would occur without a long-term trend towards their views within Egyptian society.
A more likely, but still worrying, scenario would be Salafi parties joining a coalition government, the core of which would be the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Salafi parties on the ultra-religious flank. From here they might play a role like that of Avigdor Lieberman's far right Yisrael Beiteinu party in the Likud-led coalition that governs Israel. Depending on a yet-to-be-finalised electoral law, this could give them the ability to withdraw support and bring down the government, and thus significant leverage.
When one considers the organisational head-start that these Islamic networks have on the secular opposition, which is largely a result of the fact that no government, however oppressive, would have the gall to attempt to close the mosques, this scenario seems very plausible.
This depends on the ability of the Salafis to overcome their internal differences, and their differences with the Brotherhood (which has its own internal struggles), and on the rate at which other parties organise. More than anything, though, it depends on the still unknown will of the Egyptian people and their vision for Egypt. Many will hope that to answer this question they do not look to the distant past, or an imagined golden age of Islam, but rather to an imagined future in which Egyptian creativity and diversity are allowed to flourish.