Egypt's Salafists: A closer look

Ali Bakr, Monday 15 Oct 2012

Salafists first appeared in Egypt early last century, but the Salafist map has since become increasingly complex. Ahram Online attempts to clarify the differences between the current's various subdivisions

Egypt's ultra-conservative Muslims, Salafists, attend a religious lesson at a mosque popular with Salafists in Alexandria (photo: Reuters)

The rise of Salafist parties after the Egyptian Revolution has raised many questions about this particular political current, especially among average Egyptians who do not distinguish between local religious groups.

Experts on religious groups know that Salafists are not homogeneous. Salafists in general appeared in Egypt at the onset of the Islamist revival at the beginning of the last century, but the Salafist map over the years has acquired a variety of ideologies and visions.
While Salafist influence has gained traction in Arab and Muslim societies in general – and in Egypt especially – the Salafist map has became so complex and intertwined that it is difficult to explore in detail all its components, ideas, symbols and directions.
Map of Egypt's Salafist current
One of the key reasons for the complexity of the Salafist map is that there are two types of Salafist: scholastic (traditional) Salafists and procedural (modern) Salafists. Both share the fundamental approach of Salafist thinking, especially regarding doctrine and monotheism, along with proselytisation and non-violence to achieve goals – namely the application of Islamic Sharia and the eventual establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
Scholastic (traditional) Salafism:
This is the ancient and inherent type of Salafism that focuses on the search for legitimate knowledge – such as interpretation, hadith (sayings of the Prophet), jurisprudence, etc. – more than focusing on other forms of proselytisation. This mostly takes the form of academic schools with their own sheikh who has several disciples who adopt their sheikh’s ideology and doctrine and are strict adherents of these ideas.
Loyalty to their sheikh and school overrides any other loyalty, while mosques are used to disseminate knowledge since they are viewed as schools and are given names such as the Salafist School in Alexandria, Cairo, Mansoura, etc.
'Traditional' or 'scholastic' Salafism has three forms:
The Salafist Call started in the 1970s through student activism and became organised in 1980 when Salafist youth decided to create a form of preachers’ union and called themselves the 'Salafist School.' After a few years of activism on the street, they renamed their organisation the 'Salafist Call.' Their followers swelled to the thousands and became well known in Islamist circles and the media as 'Alexandria Salafists.'
This group calls for a return to the application of Islam from its two original sources: the Quran and the Sunna (the Prophet’s teachings) from the perspective of the righteous disciple from the companions and devotees. They are focused on monotheism and correcting doctrine, as well as forbidding deviation and myth. They are also interested in books on heritage and the sayings of imams who established doctrines and scholars, and thus they were called 'Scholastic Salafists.'
After the Egyptian Revolution, the Salafist Call entered the political fray and created the Nour Party, which quickly became the second largest party in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. The Salafist Call is the more influential sect within the Salafist current, and Alexandria is its bastion, but it also has a strong presence in Delta governorates and in coastal cities.
Among its most prominent figures and leaders are Yasser Borhami, Mohamed Ismail El-Moqadem, Saeed Abdel-Azim, Ahmed Farid, Mohamed Abdel-Fatah, Ahmed Hatiba, Ashraf Thabet (the former undersecretary of the People’s Assembly), Emad Abdel-Ghafour (the president’s adviser) and Nader Bakkar (the Nour Party spokesman).
'Action Salafism'
As the Salafist Call was emerging in Alexandria, young Salafists were forming another Salafist group in Cairo, later known as 'Action Salafism.' The ideology of both groups is almost identical except that the latter not only excommunicates the ruler who has replaced Sharia, but also labels him a heretic through tangible steps. They publicly called the former president an 'apostate' and promoted this designation in their sermons, while proscribing political participation. After the revolution, they created the Assala Party.
Greater Cairo (Cairo, Giza and Qalyubiya) is the group’s epicentre and it also exists in several other governorates, such as Kafr El-Sheikh, Marsa Matrouh and Beni Suef. Its most prominent figures are Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, Fawzi El-Saeed, Sayed El-Arabi, Nashaat El-Masri, Ahmed Ashush and Hassan El-Zoheiri (Abu El-Ashbal), who is best known for his infamous religious edict that designated the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) apostate also.
Al-Madkhalia Salafism
Al-Madkhalia was founded in the late 20th century by Saudi Salafist leader Rabi Al-Madkhaly. It is similar to some other Salafist currents that forbid dissent against a Muslim ruler even if he is a malevolent one. But unlike most Salafist currents, this group believes it is forbidden to oppose the ruler under any circumstance, even if only to advise the public. They believe this is a key principle for those who obey Sunna and congregation, and any violation of this rule means dissenting against the Muslim ruler.
This group also believes that acknowledging the ruler and submitting to him alone is not enough, but that other state institutions should also be acknowledged, such as the grand mufti or Al-Azhar. Also, no one should violate the religious edicts of the country’s official scholars.
They are also unique in believing that the Muslim flock includes both state and ruler, and therefore the group strongly condemns Islamist groups and describes them as partisan because their actions contradict the definition of flock in their view so thus they are 'dissidents' against the regime and deviators. Their criticism aims to end divisions in the nation and gather all subjects around their ruler.
Al-Madkhalia are mostly concentrated in Greater Cairo, but are also found in some governorates such as Menoufiya, Damietta and Daqahliya. Their most famous sheikhs are Mahmoud Lotfi Amer, Osama El-Qosi, Mohamed Saeed Raslan, Talaat Zahran, Abu Bakr Maher bin Attiya, Gamal Abdel-Rahman, Ali Hasheesh and Abdel-Azim Badawi.
Independent Salafists
These are an extension of proselytising Salafists and do not believe in organised group action and are disinterested in politics, although they broadcast their political opinions in their sermons and media. Their political rhetoric is confined to explaining their positions about the political reality and its problems. They strongly believe in Sunna, combating deviation and focusing on outward signs of religiosity, such as dress codes, beards, haircuts, the veil, etc.
They have a strong presence in the media especially on religious satellite channels, are well known in society, and exercise great influence on many segments of society, especially among the youth and women. They are not concentrated in any one area because they are not linked to a specific group in a specific location, although their influence and fame is well known around the country. The most famous among them includes Mohamed Hassan, Mohamed Hussein Yacoub, Abu Ishaq El-Howaini, Sayed El-Afani, Osama Abdel-Azim and Mohamed Mustafa El-Debesi.
Procedural (modern) Salafism:
These are religious currents that do not originally belong to the Salafist school but have adopted the Salafist doctrine and have their own forms of proselytisation that are not like traditional Salafist schools. Most notably:
Advocates of Mohamed’s Sunna
This group was established in Cairo by Sheikh Mohamed Hamed El-Fiqi based on the call to purify monotheism from any trace of polytheism, as well as true Sunna according to the interpretation of the righteous disciples. They also guide people to the texts of the Quran and reject deviation, myths and innovation in religion, as well as the belief that Islam is a religion and a condition of government, worship and governance, and valid at all times and in all places. Thus, there is a need to call to establish a Muslim society governed by God’s laws.
Members of this sect are found across the country at nearly 100 offices and in 1,000 mosques. Its most famous figures are Gamal El-Mawakbi, Safwat Nour El-Din, Abdel-Razeq Hamza, Abul Wafa Darweesh, Mohamed Khalil Harras, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab El-Banna and Abdel-Zaher Abu El-Samh.
Sharia-based society
The group's full name is 'the Sharia-based society for cooperation among those who adhere to the Book and Mohamed’s Sunna.' Its main aim at its inception was preaching and guidance, as well as calling for the application of Sunna and combating deviation, along with boosting the value of cooperation and solidarity among the citizenry.
Its 350 offices are spread across the country and focus on social and economic services. The group's most important figures include Mohamed El-Mokhtar Mohamed (the society’s current president), Abdel-Lateef Moshtaheri and Fouad Ali Mekheimar.
Jamaa Islamiya and the Jihad group
Both groups emerged in the 1970s. At the time, Jamaa Islamiya included members of the group as well as Jihad, before they split after members were arrested following the events of 1981 in the Jihad group case. In the past, the two groups represented the jihadist current in Egypt and entered a bloody standoff with the government until they thoroughly revised their ideology.
In an unprecedented move in the history of Islamist currents, they evolved from jihadist groups to Salafists after they completely abandoned armed operations and took up preaching. After the revolution, Jamaa Islamiya established the Construction and Development Party and the Jihad created the Safety and Development Party.
Jamaa Islamiya is heavily present in Upper Egypt, especially in Minya, Assiut, Sohag, Qena and Aswan. Its key leaders are Nageh Ibrahim, Mohamed Essam Darbala, Assem Abdel-Meguid, Karam Zohdi, Osama Hafez, Abdel-Akher Hammad, Aboud El-Zomor and Tareq El-Zomor.
Meanwhile, the former Jihad group is present in Greater Cairo, especially in Shobra and Boulaq Al-Dakrur, as well as the governorates of Sharqiya and Beni Suef. Among its top leaders are Kamal Habib, Abbas Shanan, Nabil Naeem, Saleh Jaheen and Ahmed Youssef Hamdallah.
Jihadist Salafism
This is the name that this current was given by the media, rather than a reflection of reality, since a Salafist cannot actually be a jihadist, because one of the key principles of Salafism is not to take up arms or dissent against the ruler. These are the characteristics of the jihadist current.
The term Jihadist Salafism is "the jihadist current that adopts Salafist beliefs, monotheism and adherence to the Book [the Quran] and the Sunna." In fact, this is a characteristic of all Islamist currents in Egypt.
Jihadist Salafism is somewhat similar to Action Salafism in terms of ideology, especially in terms of governance – although the latter never takes up arms.
Salafist currents and political participation
Just as the January revolution changed Egypt’s politics, it has also impacted Salafist groups. An ideological earthquake occurred within this current as it raced towards political participation. Overall, Salafists entered the political process in every way, whether by joining political parties or establishing their own, such as the Nour, Assala, Construction and Development, and Safety and Development parties.
Salafists turned down an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and created the 'Islamist bloc' to challenge other political forces, including the Brotherhood. They began political activism after the revolution by mobilising the street to vote 'yes' on a raft of constitutional amendments aimed at offsetting political forces who wanted the majority to vote 'no.' Salafist groups summoned the power of all their members, leaders, sheikhs and preachers of all stripes en masse during this political race.
It was the first time in the Salafists' history for them to participate in political life, and soon after the constitutional referendum some Salafist currents began creating political parties.
The ideological transformation of Salafists regarding political participation was dizzying, since several groups within the current still ban political activism. But after the January revolution, Salafists dove head first into the political fray. This represented a significant shift in ideology in a very short period of time.
Even more unusual is that Salafists began discussing issues they would never have touched or discussed in the past because they conflict with Salafist thought and beliefs, such as citizenship, Coptic rights, the rule of law, a civil state, religious discourse, and other such topics.
Reasons for the post-revolution rise of Salafism
There are two key factors that helped Salafists succeed in the first round of the last parliamentary elections, especially after the Nour Party’s list of candidates won 24 per cent of votes. First, the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and its repercussions, which triggered several transformations, including a new freedom for political activism and forming parties without obstruction.
This allowed Salafist groups to establish their own political parties and participate in electoral politics. Also, the fact that there were no real liberal, national or leftist forces with grassroots support that could compete against religious currents in general and Salafists in particular, religious groups gained the upper hand.
Secondly, we must consider the influence of Salafists on the ground because of good organisation and strength, as well as massive numbers of cadres and youth, not to mention strong financial backing that was out in the open during the electoral process.
What's more, the group boasted a strong capacity to mobilise the street after long years of proselytisation that enabled it to penetrate society and use religion in its campaigning to good effect. This included the use of mosques, where the group’s clerics and preachers urged congregants to vote for Islamist candidates in general, and Salafist ones in particular.
Salafists had always been very active in providing social work and services to the public, which greatly influenced ordinary folk to follow the Salafist lead and support the movement by all means – most notably by voting for the current’s candidates in national elections.
* Ali Bakr is an expert on Islamic movements
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