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January 15, 2013
Asala Party Elections - Clara Pak.JPG

The Salafi political movement experienced massive transition in the past two weeks, enduring splits, recriminations, and leadership changes. Having long foresworn the political process, it is right and natural for growing pains to characterize their apparent embrace of democracy. Taking stock, three observations describe their current standing.

The process is transparent, but is the result foreordained?

Like many emerging political parties after the revolution, the Salafi leadership positions came through appointment or the general consensus of organizers. This process re-set itself with the recent creation of the Watan Party – as disgruntled Nour Party leadership reconstituted itself in another entity. But both the Nour Party and the Asala Party witnessed a peaceful transfer of internal power with the elections of Younes Makhyoun and Ehab Shiha respectively.

The Nour Party elections were forced upon it as their president, Emad Abdel Ghaffour defected. Asala, meanwhile, conducted theirs according to internal regulations. Created after the revolution, they set themselves a year and a half to hold new presidential elections. Attending the process, I can attest it was open, orderly, and transparent.

Makhyoun, however, was elected uncontested as other interested parties yielded to internal consensus. Shiha, who unseated founding president of Asala, Adel Afifi, received 93 percent of ballots cast. During the proceedings Asala members whispered their expectation Shiha would win, as the party desired a younger, more active leadership figure.

The main question directed to Islamist politicians is if they truly believe in democracy or simply use it as a ladder to power. Egypt’s constitution declared its governing system to be both democratic and of an undefined shura (consultation). The shura provision was added at the request of Salafis, whose ideas of democracy issue from the selection process of the early Islamic caliphs, which was consensual. If internal elections are any indication, Salafis are willing to be transparent about their leadership choices, but greatly prefer the predetermined aspects of shura.

The rhetoric is clear, but are they learning spin?

Upon his election, Makhyoun was very clear. “The Salafists have always been used as a scarecrow for Copts,” he said. “But I assure all Christians that they will live peacefully and in accordance to their own religion’s teachings.” Similarly, Yousry Hammad, the official spokesman for the Watan Party, ‘welcomed’ Copts and women as he promised to field them on their electoral lists.

The rhetoric is reassuring, but as the Shura Council debates precise laws, elaboration and attitude becomes apparent.

“Elections should only be based on qualification, not gender,” said Ahmed al-Qadri, official English language spokesman for the Watan Party. “It is wrong to demand for women a certain place on a list or an overall quota. We have no restrictions on gender; women can be on our lists if qualified.”

Meanwhile, as five women electors from the Asala Party cast their vote, Walid Nour al-Din, party secretary in Sohag, sought me out and issued a statement to Egypt’s Christians. “We say to the Copts, why do you not learn from history? If Islam did not come to Egypt you would still be slaves to Rome,” as he elaborated the relationship between the Coptic Pope Benjamin and Amr ibn al-As.

Nour al-Din’s contemporary point was clear, “Security, safety, and preservation of your churches comes through sharia.”

Neither statement contradicts Makhyoun and Hammad’s rhetoric necessarily. There are reasonable reasons to reject quotas as well as to trust sharia provisions toward non-Muslims. Yet probing beyond the headlines exposes differences of nuance, if not outright contradiction.

Opponents of Salafis do credit them for being straightforward and sincere, unlike their opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood. As they develop political skill, however, it appears Salafis also are learning the unfortunate art of spin.

The inspiration is worrisome, but does it determine?

During the Asala Party elections, Sheikh Fawzi al-Sa’id stayed in the background, as he had no vote. An elderly, kind man, he was weary from preaching the Friday sermon in his Ramsis mosque but came to support the process. Repeatedly he turned down requests for an interview or even to speak from the podium, congratulating the winner. “I have no time for politics, only for preaching,” he said.

I hung around persistently and eventually he opened up as others gathered around to listen. “I have been listening to his cassette tapes for nine years,” said Hassan Amin, the Asala assistant party secretary in Aswan. Sa’id patiently described Islam to a foreigner, but those around still hung on his words.

Then effortlessly, unprompted, and without rancor, he slid into a passionless diatribe. “When we reach the stage of our empowerment, we will collect jizia from the Copts.

“Permissible for us are the blood and spoils of those who disbelieve in God and refuse his prophet,” he said. “This is not for the people of the book, as long as they do not fight us. But inside and outside Egypt they are fighting us, taking millions from America to accumulate weapons.”

The Watan Party split from Nour because of the undue influence of the sheikhs of the Salafi Call. The Asala Party honors its sheikhs, but the party is run by politicians, and is not the political arm of any group. Sa’id, for example, is not even a member.

So when Sheikh Abdel Khaleq Mohamed states at an official party function, “Democratic work is unbelief, but as long as it leads to the victory of God’s religion it is permissible to us,” does he represent its official line? Or does party president Ehab Shiha, who clarified the misquote, adding after ‘unbelief’ the words ‘… as a doctrine’ which were clipped in the article? On the contrary, Shiha accepts the definition of democracy as ‘government by the people, of the people, and for the people’ as long as it does not transgress the laws of God.

A popular line of reasoning believes that as Islamists are given opportunity to compete in a democratic framework they will moderate their discourse and become democratic. But is Shiha’s clarification damage control for a sheikh still adjusting to democracy, or simply window dressing on traditional belief?

Either way, they are growing pains.  

Jayson Casper is a writer with Arab West Report, Christianity Today, and Lapido Media. He blogs on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging, and can be found on Twitter at @jnjcasper

Photo: Clara Pak

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