Egypt’s Salafi Islamists are a parting gift from the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime. He had bred Salafis as a counterweight to the more politically minded Muslim Brotherhood, but also as a means of fostering better relations with Saudi Arabia. Little wonder, then, that in the initial days of the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak the Salafi leaders followed the quintessential Saudi Wahhabi line that popular protests were “un-Islamic” and helped spread fitnah or dissension.
As secular and liberal Arab activists overthrew the regime, Salafi leaders such as Mohamed Hassan recalculated. Almost overnight, what was un-Islamic suddenly became fully Islamic. The fitnah of political protest became wajib, or a religious obligation to participate in politics to enforce Salafis’ understanding of shariah.
It was the legalization of Salafi satellite TV channels, mosques, bookshops, and study gatherings, the influence of university student societies and literalist clerics, that helped the Salafi Hizb al-Nour party secure almost 30 percent of the popular vote for the lower house of the Egyptian parliament.
That same energy was dedicated to presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, whose candidacy is being debated in the courts, and recently by the more radical al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya for Safwat Hegazy, whose prospects were raised as a candidate. Whatever the ills of Abu Ismail and Hegazy—and there are many—they, by default, helped to mobilize their many followers to rally around democratic politics. With both men no longer in the race, what now happens to their political base?
Without doubt, some will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat al-Shater. Well aware of this fact, Shater has made noises about “Islamic references” for his “revival project” and has overtly suggested sharia as source for legislation. In reality, I suspect we would see Shater in power more keen to appease the markets than the mosques of Salafis. But Salafis who support Shater are not the problem.
There is a genuine risk that many youthful Salafis in mosques and on university campuses in Alexandria and elsewhere will feel genuinely cut off from the presidential race and therefore the central bloodstream of Egyptian politics in coming years. There has already been much talk about a conspiracy to stop Salafis, leading to the disclosure of Abu Ismail’s mother’s American links. The strength of conspiracy theories is that they do not require substantiation—if Salafis believe that there was a conspiracy from Tel Aviv, Washington, DC, and Cairo to keep them out of power, then the idea has the ability to generate grievances.
Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leaders who had abandoned violence had repeatedly said that the new freedoms of Egypt would allow them to enter the political mainstream, making political violence redundant. Now, with Salafis no longer offering a candidate and shut out of the presidential race, will some of them resort to violence again? If not violence, then at least higher levels of animosity toward the president, the central state, and its supporters? It’s too early to tell, but the risk of higher levels of grievances that fuel separatism and confrontation amid Salafis must not be understated. The coming months in Egypt will be tough for all concerned.