At one of Cairo's luxurious Nile side hotels, in a lavish ballroom, around a hundred Egyptian Salafists, including some of their top religious scholars, gathered to launch their Salafist movement's first business association.
Business House, a Salafist NGO established nine months ago, launched its first initiative under the name of Bader (Arabic for initiate) on Saturday aiming to help fundi small and eedium enterprises (SMEs).
The event did not come across as a traditional business gathering with the venue a full house of bearded men in well-cut suits, in addition to some people wearing galabeyas (traditional Muslim dress).
Speakers at the podium, however, sounded very professional as they talked about the merits of entrepreneurship in a mixture of colloquial and formal Arabic, sprinkled with English terminology.
Launching BADER marked the debut of many Salafist businessmen who are not as known to the Egyptian public as much as their counterparts in the Muslim Brotherhood. Such obscurity is mainly due to the relatively smaller size of Salafist businesses, mainly in the commercial sector.
BADER, the first formal Salafist attempt at aggregating Salafist business efforts, aims at endorsing the domestic economy by injecting LE500 million through SMEs in co-operation with a technical management company named Hadath.
In its "Code of Honor," Business House says its participating businessmen pledge to adhere to "moral dealing" in the framework of "faith, ethical, behavioural" values.
Walid El-Sayed, a Business House executive, explained that the NGO seeks to promote ethics, spiritual and moral values among businessmen rather than legal rules which are easily violated and misused.
“The policy of team working and combating monopoly is one of our aims,” he explained.
Asked about whether such "moral values" could be simply translated into "Islamic values," El-Sayed did not disagree.
"Islamic values are necessarily ethical, but we aim to engage in business dealings that are not just legal, but also moral," El-Sayed added.
He alluded that Business House will provide alternate means of finance that comply with Islamic Sharia.
"We look to orchestrate its efforts with Islamic banks; regular banks are not on the list," he explained.
Business House is mainly funded through donations from participating businessmen. The NGO's official opening will be in January 2013.
“Sixty businesspersons have joined Business House until now, and half of them are not belonging to Salafism,” El-Sayed said.
Among the donors is Bassam Al-Zarqa, the advisor to the Egyptian president and the ex-member of the Supreme Committee of El-Nour Party. Also present is Essam Sharaf, the former prime minister.
Yasser Burhami, head of the influential El-Dawa El-Salafiya (Salafist Calling) group, was one of the prominent attendees at the event.
While El-Nour Party is El-Dawa El-Salafiya's political arm, Business House is widely believed to be the group's business arm.
Burhami told Ahram Online that his presence at the conference is evidence that his group supports the new business launch, which has chosen its headquarters to be in Alexandria. The Egyptian coastal governorate is a Salafist stronghold.
“We need their push and their large presence in the different Egyptian provinces, but our organisation is not political,” El-Sayed told Ahram Online.
El-Sayed said that ties to Islamist politicians have could help the conservative businessmen group in pushing for business friendly legislation, such as expanding the tax exemption circle.
“We will form our lobby,” he commented.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s EBDA
It has been claimed that the Salafists are attempting to snatch the spotlight from the Muslim Brotherhood through launching a business initiative similar to the one launched by the Brotherhood earlier this year.
In March, the Muslim Brotherhood launched its first business development association under the name EBDA (start), including 150 members.
“We do not follow on the heels of the Muslim Brotherhood; they have their initiative and we have ours, and Egypt needs much more than that,” El-Sayed replied.