Egyptian Salafist Muslims in the Spotlight


Sheik Mohamed Ali is a Salafist leader at mosque in Imbaba, Cairo. (Photo: Magdy Samaan)

By Matthew Bell

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In post-revolution Egypt, a wide range of forces are vying for power and influence. But the group that's got many Egyptians worked up right now are Salafist Muslims.

Egyptians Salafists have been around since the early 1900s. They represent a diverse and largely unorganized segment of Egyptian society. But in general, Salafists practice an ultra-conservative form of Islam that harkens back to the contemporaries of the prophet Mohammad and the two generations that followed.

For decades, Egyptian Salafists viewed political Islam, in the style practiced by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, as too modern and worldly.

But that might be starting to change.

In recent years, Salafi teachings have taken hold in poor, rural parts of Egypt, and in urban centers like Cairo's Imbaba district. Imbaba is a gritty, sprawling warren of narrow alleyways, best navigated in a motorized rickshaw called a "tuk-tuk." This crowded working class neighborhood was the site of deadly violence between Muslims and Christians last weekend.

The fighting in Imbaba killed at least 12 people and wounded more than 200. A group of Salafists were blamed for setting things off.

An online video shot last Saturday night shows a bearded man, who calls Christians dogs and tries to rally his fellow Muslims to be "real men" and burn down all the local churches.

Later that night, two churches were set on fire.

The next day, a Christian man who witnessed the violence named Mukhles Hillah said it was Salafi Muslims who started the confrontation, and that they need to be dealt with severely.

"The government needs to crack down on these people with iron fist," he said. "They don't want dialogue, they only speak through violence."

Analysts say the category of Salafist is a broad one, and there are some genuine jihadist militants lumped into it, including people who espouse a violent ideology similar to that of al-Qaeda.

But a Salafist sheik from the Imbaba neighborhood, Mohamed Ali, told The World that he is trying to tamp down sectarian tensions.

Ali captures the Salafi look. He wears a long pristinely white cotton robe called a galabeyya, a matching skull cap and a big gray and black beard. He said, "Islamic Sharia law forbids the burning of churches or even damaging property."

"Yes, there was violence and sectarian division here," Ali said. "But Muslims and Christians live together here, they eat together, and they love each other."

Ali blamed elements of the former regime of Hosni Mubarak for causing the trouble in Imbaba.
New Fundamentalism in Egypt

Indeed, a government inquiry determined that criminals instigated some of the worst violence. But the report also stated that there has been a resurgence in fundamentalist ideas in Egypt.

During Mubarak's time, the government largely ignored the rising Salafi trend, because unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, these Islamists were generally unorganized and they stayed out of politics. But that is beginning to change, according to political analyst Diaa Rashwan.

"The old, traditional theory of Salafism is to not participate in politics," he said. "Now we are seeing a radical change in the Salafist theory."

Rashawan cautioned against thinking of Egypt's Salafists as an organized movement. But he said more Salafist leaders appear to be gravitating toward political Islam, and away from social conservative Islam.

This could be a good thing, Rashawan added. As more Salafists come out of their mosques and engage with political life, this could very well have the effect of moderating the trend.

Rashwan said that is precisely what has happened with other Islamist movements in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Turkey.
Engaging in Political Life

"To have change, you have to real democracy," he said. "If you put people in mosques or jails, you will have this conservative and radical Islam.

Rashawan said someone like Kamal Habib is an example of what political engagement can do to a radical Islamist. Habib is a founding member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was accused of playing a role in the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and he spent ten years in prison.

In the early 90s, Habib changed tack. Now, he is working to get a new Egyptian political party off the ground. It's called the Peace and Development Party.

"With the killing of Osama Bin Laden," Habib said in an interview in his Cairo office, "we are now entering a new era."

"The Egyptian revolution accomplished in 18 days what al-Qaeda never achieved," he said. "There is a new paradigm for the whole Arab world."

It is far from clear how that paradigm will play out in Egypt's political future, and exactly what role the Salafists will play. But they will play a role.