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Egypt's Salafists enter the politial arena

The 25 January Revolution opened new spaces of freedom not only for the youth, but also for radical Islamists

Amani Maged, Saturday 12 Mar 2011
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Salafis could be defined as puritans or strict fundamentalists. Before the revolution: restrictions, banned from television appearances, banned from giving Friday sermons, their broadcast channels shut down. After the revolution: openness, extended airtime on prominent TV programmes, reactivation of some Salafi channels, a landmark sermon at Al-Nur Mosque (one of Cairo’s largest), the announcement of a new sermon by Sheikh Mohamed Hassaan, the prominent Salafi cleric at Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque (one of Cairo’s oldest and prestigious state-owned mosques).

More importantly, calling on Sheikh Hassaan to assist in calming down the situation in Atfeeh where sectarian confrontations are flaring up. This while Al-Azhar steps back in trying to calm tensions between the Copts and Muslims, as Al-Azhar’s Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb left Cairo for his hometown of Luxor for a vacation and sent his representatives to address the problem.

The entire Salafi scene in Egypt needs close attention and raises many questions about the future of the movement at a time when the role of Al-Azhar is weak and recessive, especially after Al-Tayeb was strongly criticised for prohibiting demonstrations after the appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president. At the same time, many Azhar scholars are demanding that several clerics, including the leader of Al-Azhar, step down.

As much as the Salafiya movement, or the Salafi doctrine as its leaders prefer to call it, has a popular following in Egypt, it also faces strong criticism for focusing on outward expressions, such as long beards for men and the face-covering niqab for women, abstention from public life and only practicing proselytisation not politics. 

Critics add that Salafi dogma prevents a Muslim from thinking for himself and that Salafists are linked to Wahhabis who fund them. They say that Salafists assert that God has a hand but unlike that of a human being, and a face which is unlike anything ever seen. In this manner, they have a shallow or literal interpretation of scripture. Other criticism leveled at Salafis includes their apathy, by refusing to run for office or participate in political life. Some even refuse to protest against autocratic rulers.

Key figures in the Salafi movement, which is divided into several sects, include Sheikh Yasser Borhami, a paediatrician in Alexandria, as well as Sheikh Hassaan, Mohamed Hussein Yacoub and others in Cairo.

These leaders advocate that Salafiya is a doctrine which adheres to the sunna (teachings and habits) of the Prophet Mohammad, the sahaba (companions) and tabieen (followers), and constitutes a comprehensive lifestyle. They assert that because of security restrictions in the past they could only preach, but many of these leaders now say that conditions have changed and that participation is essential. It is believed that the Salafis will ally themselves with other forces who adopt similar views.

Accordingly, it was not unusual to find some Salafists taking to the streets. Since the beginning, Sheikh Hassaan joined ranks with revolutionary youth in Tahrir Square although his actions were condemned by other Salafi sects. Other leaders such as Sheikh Yacoub believe that because the Salafis did not engage forcefully in the revolution this contributed to its success; the revolution’s Egyptian character, not Islamic character, guaranteed its success.

Meanwhile, some Azharites went to Tahrir Square but Al-Azhar leadership shunned them. In an official statement it declared, “they are merely employees,” although they wore Azhar robes, and the leading Sunni institution also adopted other anti-revolution positions. 

The role of Al-Azhar teetered further in response to events at Atfeeh, although the sheikh of Al-Azhar met with a Church delegation and sent his representatives to the site.

All these developments indicate that after the doors of freedom were flung wide open and the role of Al-Azhar was dimmed, Salafists are on the rise and will have a strong presence on the Egyptian scene. But will the rise of Salafists continue or peak at a certain point? Will they return to pre-25 January posturing? These are unanswered questions only time will resolve.

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