In a few days, several Salafist leaders will go to the US on their first trip to Washington, led by preacher Yasser Borhami of the Salafist Call. It was only a matter of time before they would visit the US capital after the creation of several Salafist political parties that declared their respect for the rules of the democratic political process and rejected violence as a means to achieve political goals. Also, after Salafists won nearly 25 per cent of People's Assembly seats before that body was dissolved by the courts.
Although the visit is an ordinary one, many are compelled to blow it out of proportion. Borhami denied his itinerary in the US would include meeting a number of US politicians and officials, saying that once the trip takes place it will be a missionary not political trip.
He added in statements to Al-Shurouq, however, that it is very likely the trip will be cancelled because entry visas are taking nearly an entire month to acquire. He explained the trip is based on an invitation by two Islamic centres in the US, Al-Manhal and Al-Tawheed, who are led by Salafists.
Borhami added that El-Nour Party will visit the US in the coming phase as well, as part of its campaign to connect with Egyptian expatriates there, and that there wasn’t too much coordination between the two trips since they have different itineraries.
I spoke to an Egyptian official, who believes Washington played a major role in everything taking place in Egypt, who said the trip will pave the way for Washington to switch its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood for one with Salafist groups, especially because the Brotherhood has performed so poorly since President Mohamed Morsi came to power in the middle of last year.
I then spoke with a leader in the liberal current in Egypt who frequently visits Washington, who said US President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson “are die-hard defenders of the Brotherhood-Salafist Islamist project.”
I then spoke to a former US official about the trip, who was not surprised at all. “It is normal for Salafists to visit the US,” he said. “Just like the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals do.”
Many in Washington believe a successful link with representatives of Egypt’s Salafist current is likely, although only a few months ago it was unimaginable that there would be direct dialogue between the two sides. An indicator of this was the fact that no talks or meetings were held between senior US officials who visited Egypt over the past few months and any Salafist leaders, unlike with senior Brotherhood and liberal leaders.
Meanwhile, Salafists will face a serious problem during their visit to Washington. They have already been preceded by the Muslim Brotherhood that presented itself as the legitimate representative of moderate Islam, and was generally accepted in US and Western circles. As for the Salafists, no one knows how they will present themselves in the West. Will they pose as an alternative to violent political groups? Will they promote themselves as an alternative to Al-Qaeda? Or will they present themselves as representatives of conservative fundamentalist Islam?
Salafists can easily remind US officials and citizens of what Obama said at Cairo University, in terms of his respect for the desires and choices of the people. He had declared: “The US welcomes all governments that are elected democratically and peacefully.” Salafists in Egypt are on the far right of religious politics, and the political right for the rest of the world. They are a key component of Egypt’s reality that cannot be ignored.
If they do end up travelling to Washington, Salafists will be assailed by an onslaught on their positions — positions are difficult to understand from an American perspective or to justify as part of “Egypt’s cultural individuality.” It is no longer a secret that some Salafist leaders have altogether rejected the entire “democratic process” and some of their senior sheikhs discourage political participation, such as balloting or nominating themselves in elections, or even participating in protests. Some of them believe democracy is merely a vessel and tool to be used to apply Sharia law.
Washington will also ask Salafists about their position on women’s issues and how some sheikhs said women’s attention should focus on the home and family, rejecting the notion of women going out to work. They will also be asked how some Salafists demanded the imposition of Islamic dress on all Egyptian women.
As for the issue of the Coptic minority, I do not believe Salafists have any convincing answers for the people of Egypt or the rest of the world that could justify their extreme and sectarian positions against a Christian becoming president, or even taking a senior position in the state.
The biggest hurdle will be Salafist rejection of political pluralism in its broader sense. Salafists have not yet found a clear, let alone convincing, answer to the issue of the “Other”, which includes definitions of citizenship, and the political and non-political rights and duties of citizens irrespective of faith, devoutness or gender. Continuous Salafist demands for the release of the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman will fall on deaf ears in Washington. Abdel-Rahman is convicted of crimes related to terrorism, being implicated in the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993 that killed American citizens. It is impossible for Salafists to expect him to be released as part of any kind of political arrangement or deal.
Direct contact between Washington and Salafsts serves US interests and will be a great asset for Washington. The US will be able to boldly declare it is open to all political forces in Egypt, especially those who do not share its ideology or outlook. Such a declaration would also support the leverage of US negotiators when they sit with Egyptians to discuss pending bilateral issues that are sometimes fraught.