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Book review: The Salafist movement in post-revolution Egypt

Hani Nesira studies facets of the Salafist movement in Egypt and how it transformed after the January 25 Revolution

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 17 Jul 2011
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Al-Salafeya Fi Masr (Salafism in Egypt) by Hani Nesira, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

The Salafist movement moved quickly to the forefront of political life in Egypt after 18 days of revolution brought down the Mubarak regime, revealing the true size of these movements and their diversity. This revival has led many Salafists to revisit their thoughts and fixed beliefs. In this last issue of the Strategy Paper series, Hani Nesira dives into a political review of the roots of the Salafist phenomenon and presents a map by which to interpret their actions, tracking their transformation after the revolution and ending on future scenarios, including their relation to jihad, or their promoting violence.

The author powerfully asserts from the very first lines that the Salafist movement in Egypt never accepted or came to terms with the religious reform movement led by Gamal El-Din El-Afghani and Mohamed Abdo, or even Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; on the contrary, they attempted to contradict it and hold reservations against it.

The book tries to clear up the common confusion between Salafists and other Islamist movements, such as Jihadists and the Brotherhood, attempting first to discriminate between different types of Salafists within the Salafist framework itself. Nesira reveals that they are not one distinct movement, but rather a series of currents with common aspects.

The paper is divided into four sections: the author first presents a map of the movement in Egypt, including the basis of the movement which he identifies as “tasleem” (submission) and “istislam” (surrender) to the holy text, the Quran, and the Sunna, without interpretation or diversion, renouncing “personal interpretations” and refusing to go against the ruler, including maintaining silence in any debate between the followers of the Prophet Mohammed. Among their strong beliefs is rejection of any non-physical product of modern civilisation, emphasising the wholeness of religion — its completeness — without need for modernity outside its material advancements. Hence, liberals — who embrace modernity and its values — are considered enemies of Salafism.

The second section covers Salafist reactions to political Islam and the general political debate in Egypt. The change in the Salafist attitude after the revolution is discussed in the third section, describing their decision to get involved in politics and join the revolution. The final section in the study tracks the differences and common factors between Salafism and the jihadism in Egypt.

In regards to their stance on the revolution, Nesira relates that Salafists didn’t welcome the revolution or join any of the days of uprising or the sit-ins that spread all over Egypt, stemming from their solid beliefs that religious studying and prayer are their top priority. However, as expressed by the author, they used the “political freedom allowed by the revolution, although they were never part of it; so they held their public conferences and gatherings all over Egypt, and their youth — with blessings from the elders — started El-Nour Party although none of this action has been among their constants prior, and they strictly rejected partisan work."

The revolution didn’t only reveal their presence and power, but also their strong antagonism to secular thought and even to Copts during the referendum on the constitutional amendments, described by one of their leaders as “Ghazwet al-sanadeek” (the religious battle of the ballot box). In fact, their stance on the Church and Copts remains a dangerous factor in the political scene of Egypt, while they deny direct involvement in religious tensions, including pulling down the church in Atfeeh in March and the cutting of the ear of a Coptic youth in May. Nonetheless, they defend those who committed these acts.

Same goes for the events that followed the appointment of the Coptic Governor of Qena Governorate in the south of Egypt in April 2011, when Salafists, headed by one of their leaders, staged in a sit-in to interrupt the railroad on the basis that a “kafar” (disbeliever) should not be responsible for a believer, claiming that there are many reputable positions that Christians can hold but that the religion of the majority should be respected.

Nesira ends his study pointing out that the majority of Salafists are not ready to transform themselves into political groups or jihad groups, while elitist elements in the movement advocate a push in one or both directions.

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