Anatomy of Egypt's Salafi Surge
As newcomers to the formal political arena, Egyptian Salafi parties are the dark horse of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Although the success of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party –one of Egypt’s oldest and most organized political forces – was widely anticipated, few predicted that the lesser known Islamist coalition led by the hardline Salafi Nour Party would win an estimated 20 percent of the People’s Assembly seats in the first round of voting on November 28-29. Since the emergence of Salafism in the 1920s, this ultra-conservative Islamist movement has sought to bring Egyptian society into compliance with the values and practices endorsed by the Prophet Mohamed, but Salafis have always pursued this mission outside of the formal political arena – until now. Election results demonstrate that the Salafi movement has successfully converted its latent grassroots power base into a formidable campaign apparatus and political machine.
The pre-revolutionary roots of the Salafis’ successful political debut can be traced to the movement’s expansion under the former regime. Hosni Mubarak’s government tolerated and directly benefited from the spread of Salafi influence through mosques and charitable organizations because the movements leaders preached a doctrine of unconditional acquiescence to political leaders, no matter how authoritarian. For this reason, Salafi scholars initially denounced anti-government protests at the start of the January uprising. But with the removal of Mubarak’s regime and the rapid proliferation of new political parties, the movement recognized electoral politics as a powerful new mechanism for promoting the Islamization of Egyptian society.
The Egyptian Salafi movement has expanded significantly since the petro-boom of 1973-74, as conservative religious establishments sought to leverage rising oil revenues into patronage of Saudi-inspired Salafis in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Since then, Salafis have come to control as many as 4,000 Egyptian mosques, by some estimates, and the movement claims over three million followers. The Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh recently estimated that Salafis outnumber Muslim Brotherhood members by a ratio of 20 to 1. For the first time, Salafi followers have the opportunity to express their loyalty at the ballot box, and candidates from the Nour Party other Salafi groups are reaping the benefits. As the most colorful wildcard in a lively spectrum of post-revolutionary political forces, the Nour Party is injecting both uncertainty and anxiety into debates over the future of Egyptian society and the structure of its political system.
Islamists and liberals alike are coming to terms with the fact that Salafis will be a force to reckon with in the next parliament. As political greenhorns, Salafis will enter the People’s Assembly without any track record as policy-makers, so it’s hard to predict how they will perform and what positions they may take. But some of the recent public statements by Nour party leaders – suggesting bans on alcohol and beach tourism and rejecting democracy as a heretical form of governance – are raising concerns in Egypt and internationally.
It is clear that Salafi candidates are promoting policies that don’t resonate with mainstream Egyptian society, yet an impressive 2.4 million Egyptians voted for the Nour Party in the first round. The unexpected electoral victory of Salafi candidates can be largely attributed to two post-revolutionary trends: (1) deteriorating economic conditions and (2) an influx of funding from conservative religious foundations in the Gulf States.
- Poverty fuels religious conservatism: For the 40 percent of Egyptians who are living below the poverty line, the Salafi movement’s emphasis on social justice and equality represents a compelling alternative to the morally bankrupt crony capitalism of the Mubarak years. Karim Helal, a board member of one of Egypt’s most prominent investment firms, attributed the Salafis’ electoral victory to rising religious conservatism fueled by economic grievances: “Given the increased injustices, poverty, very poor state of education coupled with the rise of extremist ideas over the past couple of decades under the previous regime, this outcome was expected, and [Islamists] played it very well,” Helal said. Voters are already familiar with the Salafis’ vast social welfare network – registered Salafi NGOs like Gamey'ah Shar'iah and Ansar al-Sunna have been distributing free food and medicine -- and they believe that Salafi parliamentarians would be similarly attentive to their needs. After decades of authoritarianism that exacerbated economic inequality and concentrated the rewards of private sector-driven growth in the hands of a corrupt and politically connected business class, Egyptians are losing faith in secular state institutions that have failed to alleviate poverty and unemployment. Frustrated with an unjust and criminally tainted economic order, poor and disenchanted voters are looking for relief in the Salafi campaign promises of justice and purity.
- The role of Gulf funding: The Salafis have proven themselves to be skilful political organizers – in some cases driving voters directly to their polling stations and enlisting children to disseminate their campaign propaganda – but their success cannot be solely attributed to dedicated volunteering and voter outreach. A steady stream of funding, much of it originating in the Gulf States, gave Salafi candidates a significant financial edge over their rivals. In November, an Egyptian government report found that one of Egypt’s leading Salafi association, Ansar al-Sunnah al-Mohammadiya, received almost $50 million this year from religious foundations in Qatar and Kuwait. Naguib Sawiris, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, has accused Salafis of receiving Saudi funding for their campaigns.
The links between the Saudi and Egyptian Salafi establishments are spiritual as well as material. During a recent visit to Egypt, the Saudi Salafi cleric Adnan Alkhtiry gave a sermon urging voters to back Islamist candidates and described the election as “a great opportunity for the people of Egypt to establish an Islamic state.” “Do not emerge from the election empty-handed and leave it to those who don’t live the religious life,” Alkhtiry advised voters. It’s clear that Egypt’s Salafis will continue to benefit from the financial and ideological backing of their Gulf counterparts, and leaders of the Nour Party have indicated that they expect these funding streams to continue long after elections. “When we rule, we’ll bring in a lot of money,” said Shaaban Darwish, a member of the Nour Party’s supreme committee. This steady flow of cash will have significant implications for the feasibility of the Salafis political agenda in the next parliament and beyond.
Photo Credit: Associated Press