Alexandria, revolution and the Salafists

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 22 Jan 2012

A year after the January 25 Revolution, many Alexandrians are sceptical about the rising influence of Salafist forces and their impact on Alexandria's cosmopolitan reputation

Qaed ibrahim mosque
Alexandria, Qaed Ibrahim mosque (Photo: Reuters)

At the entrance of Al-Qaid Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria, worshipers were exiting to join an expanding demonstration voicing demands for liberty, welfare and dignity.

The men and women protesting were the same ones who gathered at the mosque 25 January last year calling for an end to social injustice and police tyranny.

For Nevine, a lawyer by profession and an activist in her early twenties, the only thing achieved during the revolution "is that we got rid of the regime of Hosni Mubarak."

Nevine says she is "disappointed" with the management of the post-Mubarak political process, which she sees as conducted in a way designed to replace the Mubarak regime "with just any other regime rather than a regime that represents the revolution."

"We were never given enough time to organise and to properly compete for parliamentary seats," said Nevine. She added that the division of electoral districts and the "confused" electoral system that mixed the slate and independent formats were not helpful in ensuring representation for revolutionary political forces.

"At the end of the day those who won the parliament seats are not those who were at the forefront of the revolution, especially not at the early days. We made the revolution and the Salafists got the seats," Nevine stated.

The electoral victory that the Salafists scored in the once cosmopolitan Alexandria during the recent parliamentary elections was a huge surprise for many, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood that has a strong base in the coastal city.

"I would have never thought that the revolution would remove the Mubarak regime only to bring all these Salafists to parliament," said Saniya, a middle-aged lady of Alexandria.

Speaking as her hand adjusted a cross on her necklace, Saniya voiced apprehension about what the Salafists would do, to Egypt in general and to Alexandria in particular.

Saniya's most immediate concern is that the Salafists deepen the gap between Muslims and Christians in Egypt through what she qualifies as the "two most lethal weapons: education and the media." "I am afraid that they would introduce adjustments to the school curricula that are already incompatible with social cohesion."

Saniya is also scared of the "incitement" she suggests is common among Salafist preachers in mosques. Living next to one of the many Salafi-controlled mosques in Alexandria, Saniya makes references to clear anti-Coptic language in the air, including what she said was advice to young men not to allow their children to play with children "who worship the stakes " — a condescending reference to the cross.

For novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, whose literary work captured the diverse colours of Alexandrian society through the mid-1970s, the fact that this Mediterranean city has become a hub for "representatives of Wahabi (Saudi) Islam at the hands of the Salafists is very sad."

"This is the doing of (late president) Anwar Sadat who put Islamists on the rise in all Egyptian universities to defeat the influence of the leftists," Abdel-Meguid said. Given increasing levels of poverty, that drove many to seek work opportunities in Egypt's cities, including Alexandria, the grounding for the expansion of Salafist influence was laid.

Today, Abdel-Meguid argues, "as Salafists act to make Egypt a replica and a follower of Saudi Arabia," the remaining cosmopolitanism of Alexandria is under threat.

"I am not sure when the Salafists mushroomed so much here," said Adel, a middle-aged Alexandria taxi driver who has a big sticker on the inside of his car indicating his Muslim faith. Adel says he is convinced that it was "during the last five years when poverty was so harsh and people were looking for financial and spiritual support."

Once they gained ground, Adel suggested, the Salafists started to deviate from social assistance and spiritual guidance to imposing their code of conduct on their followers.

For Ashraf Thabet, the Alexandria-based leading figure of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, interference in personal freedoms is not the mandate of the Salafists, but the application of Sharia law (Islamic law) is an integral part to the Salafist call.

Thabet insists that Salafist followers, "who come from all walks of life," choose to follow the Salafist call out of conviction and not out of want or fear. He further insists that "those who hear directly from party members, including Copts, would know that Al-Nour Party aims to improve the quality of life of all Egyptians, while basing itself in Sharia law."

Thabet does not deny that his party has plans to "cement" the "Islamic studies," but adds that this is one of many priorities Al-Nour Party will pursue in parliament. Salafist parties insist that better healthcare and better infrastructure for poorer neighbourhoods are essential concerns.  

Thabet is not really concerned by talk of the negative influence some say Salafists have on the lifestyle of Alexandria. For Al-Nour Party, as their banners across the city state, Egypt is an Islamic country, plain and simple.

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