Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Will the Salafis change? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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It is not surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood won around 45 percent of vote in the Egyptian parliamentary elections. In fact, we expected them to achieve a landslide victory, based on their reported popularity. The performance of the Salafis was the real surprise. With no experience, no popularity and no political charisma; they won more than quarter of the votes. They won despite being subjected to criticism and ridicule from all sides, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Various political powers seemed to be in unison against the Salafis. The media accused them of receiving funding from abroad, whilst they were slammed as “malicious” and “scheming.” Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood was praised and courted by the same groups that had accused them in the past of backwardness, and being dependent on foreign powers.

Today, the Salafis have around 25 percent of the seats in Egypt’s first free parliament, where no party has won a decisive majority. It is no longer possible to accuse those representing a quarter of the Egyptian people of being agents of foreign powers. They can no longer be ridiculed as the group that deems it impermissible for women to “touch cucumbers or bananas”, and yet is happy to deal with Israel! The results of Egypt’s parliamentary elections indicate that Egyptians, and also Arabs, must accept a new reality, namely that the Salafis have seized a large share of the political map.

However, although conservative Salafism has deep roots in our history, the Salafis have little experience in politics. On the contrary to the 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis are still relative beginners. The Arabs and the wider world have never known a Salafi model of rule to judge upon, other than the Saudi regime. That’s why Riyadh is usually accused of being the worldwide Salafi mentor, although Saudi Arabia is often the first to be adversely affected and the last to gain from the group, as was the case when the Kingdom was accused of having ties to al-Qaeda. We know nothing of the Salafis succeeding as an independent political group, except in Kuwait.

Despite competing with them, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood will in fact benefit most from the emergence of Salafis. The Egyptians, as well as the West, are now obliged to choose one of two religious parties: the elegant Muslim Brotherhood or the “backward”, bearded Salafis. This is why foreign ministries across the Western world rushed to express their relief at the Brotherhood’s victory, as well as praising their civilized stances; whilst winking in reference to the “savage” Salafis. I would not rule out that the Muslim Brothers might have played a part in such anti-Salafi propaganda, as it undoubtedly serves their interests.

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood shouldn’t celebrate being victorious in the first elections; as the battle is still in its early stages. Salafism – which is basically a social movement in all its aspects – is capable of change, and thus it may cause a major political problem in the future if it is not contained. From an Islamic point of view, the Salafis stand to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood, in other words they are able to outbid them religiously. There is no doubt that the more religious members of the electorate will definitely vote for the Salafis. However, the young Salafis who were in charge of the recent election campaign are politically enlightened. Whoever listened to their speeches would realize that they are changing, and becoming more like the Brotherhood in their political discourse. Here we cannot help but admire the potentials of their rising star Nader Bakkar.

What is really concerning about the Salafis is not their strict social program, but the possibility of their political change. This reminds us of the Jihadist movements in Afghanistan, where the Salafis merged with the Brotherhood in Afghan camps during the 1980s and 1990s and created a new creature; namely “al-Qaeda”. The Salafis became popular among the extremists because of their conservative and provocative views. For example, one prominent Salafi once said that a woman’s face is like her genitals – in reference to the fact that it should be covered. In the future, the Salafis will become more radical and demanding in the political sphere. They will make demands that the ruler cannot implement, and then call for his exit as a religious duty.

The Salafis in the Gulf used to be more traditional. They believed in separating religion from politics; in other words, they applied the theory of mandatory obedience to the ruler, which is not applicable any more. In the majority of their political discourse, the Salafis have now become much closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, but wearing a Gulf thobe. However, because of their limited experience, they are less flexible than the Brotherhood.

I fear that the less politically aware Salafis might push their movement towards increasingly hard-line positions, in competition with the Muslim Brotherhood. In turn, this will make Salafi politics more radical, which we will see in the Egyptian scene over the next four years. Meanwhile, this will all take place under difficult conditions because of the fragility of the new Egyptian regime, and the willingness of all parties that lost out in the elections to exacerbate the scene, like the nationalist parties and the military council.