Can the Salafis Win in Egypt?

Can the Salafi movements win the election?

A Salafi government in Egypt has been seen as unlikely by many – until, that is, the mass protest last week that brought hundreds of thousands of Islamists to Tahrir Square in a demonstration of strength. My first reaction concerned the separation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which attended the rally, from both the more conservative Salafis as well as the liberal/secular side of Egyptian politics. Lauren Bohn has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy about the Salafi movement that describes how the Islamists (outside of the Brotherhood) have been historically disconnected from politics and how this has resulted in divisions within the Salafi movement:

Years of repression left the Salafi movements disjointed, with each wagging the finger at the other for being the less authentic or authoritative representative of Islam. Richard Gauvain, a scholar on Cairo’s Islamist and Salafi organizations, argues that their power structures are severely weakened by internal feuding. There’s little to suggest individuals within the organizations will be able to agree among themselves on questions of political importance. Lacking a clear internal organizational structure, the hallmark of the Muslim Brotherhood, different Salafi schools and other Islamist groups hold sway in varied areas of the country. For them to succeed at the ballot box, they will need to overcome these deeply ingrained divides. It is not clear that they can.

There are also generational divides. Many high-profile Salafi sheikhs voiced opposition to the Arab uprisings on grounds they were not modeled on the behavior of the prophet and that the suicide of the iconic young Tunisian Mohammad Bouazizi who set himself on fire was haram. It remains to be seen whether these sheikhs can regain popularity among a younger generation of Salafis who defiantly took to the streets despite contradictory calls from a fractured leadership. “We actually have more trouble connecting people inside the movement than we do connecting with liberals,” says Al-Nour spokesman Mohammed Yousry. “The challenge is telling these people this is the real Salafi way. It’s wide open and progressive.”

These divisions are exactly what had many believing that the Salafi parties would not be much of a threat in any sort of future elections in post-Mubarak Egypt. Yet, the Salafi movement may have taken a page out of the Hezbollah/Hamas playbook by gaining favor by providing services for the poorest in Egypt. Hezbollah’s provision of goods, health care, education and more for Lebanese in south Lebanon, and particularly in the southern suburbs of Beirut, won the group a lot of popularity throughout the country (though mainly from Shi’a). Similarly, Hamas provided much-needed assistance to the poor of Palestine before the group took control of Gaza. In other words, the provision of much-needed social services is an easy way to gain popularity before elections. Bohn writes:

Their strategy rests in part on the tried and true Islamist method of outreach and social services. Mohammed Nour, director of the Nourayn Media group and member of the new party, sits in his fashionably orange-speckled office near Cairo’s corniche, constantly switching between his iPhone and iPad. For him, the math is simple. “Other parties are talking to themselves on Twitter, but we are actually on the streets. We have other things to do than protest in Tahrir.”

One Friday in early July while protestors occupied Tahrir Square, Nour party member Ehab Zalia, 43, distributed medical supplies in the slum city of El Ghanna. Another Friday, 24-year-old Ehab Mohammed sold gas tubes at a reduced price to residents of the impoverished Haram City. “This isn’t campaigning, this is our religion,” he explained. One resident in the neighborhood, Aliaa Neguib, 42, says she has no plans to officially join the group, but in a country where 40 percent of people live below the poverty line, efforts like these are effective. “We need services. If they are loyal and give us that, we will support them.” And they will, promises spokesperson Yousry.

Perhaps more worrisome for the liberal/secular movements, the Salafis in Egypt have fewer obstacles than Hezbollah and Hamas. The Lebanese group is seen and defined strictly in sectarian lines, supported by nearly all Shi’a and very few Sunnis. Hamas, on the other hand, had to deal with a competing resistance ideology from Fatah, which greatly weakened the group. In Egypt, there are few Shi’a or Christians and while there are competing political ideologies that will be able to challenge the Salafis, most Egyptians support an Islamic Egypt (although this is fairly poorly defined).

If the Salafi movements are able to reconcile their internal differences, the Salafi social outreach programs that mainly target the rural poor may make a big difference in the Egyptian elections. It still seems rather unlikely that Salafis will win a plurality of votes, but it is certainly possible that the results may disappoint those who predicted a Salafi defeat.

Photo from Roar Magazine

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