Acts of hard-line vigilantism committed recently in Egypt are fuelling debate and concerns over the role Islamists could play after the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, who suppressed Islamist groups which he saw as a threat to his rule, analysts said.
Salafis were tolerated as a religious group under the former president as a counterweight his top foe, the Muslim Brotherhood group. But they appear to be playing a more political role in the country after the January 25 revolution.
That has alarmed many of the secular and liberal forces in Egypt because of the group’s extremist discourse and imposition of sharia (Islamic law.)
Reports of some acts of hard-line vigilantism, which lately dominated the news in Egypt, include an arson attack on the home of a woman deemed of “ill-repute,” and a punishment attack which involved a man’s ear being cut off.
According to police, one villager was killed and eight others were injured in Fayoum province after fighting broke out when Salafi followers ordered the owner of a liquor store to close. The Salafis have been trying to forcibly impose their strict interpretation of Islam by banning consumption of alcohol.
In the Upper Egypt town of Qalyoub, residents were angered when arsonists set fire to a shrine, widening the scope of a campaign that has echoes of Pakistan. Sunni hardliners have blown up shrines there.
Some people see acts of Islamist vigilantism as a warning sign about the hidden intentions of Salafis of ruling Egypt.
“The Egyptian people are faithful by nature, but they will never accept a religious rule,” Mohammed Obeid, a political analyst, told Al Arabiya.
“Egypt’s openness and liberty, as well as the presence of a Coptic minority that exceeds 10 million of its population—all these factors prevent a Taliban-like model from ruling Egypt. This would surely threaten Egypt’s cultural and economic potential,” he said.
The head of al-Azhar, Egypt's most prestigious seat of Islamic learning, has called for efforts to confront hard-line doctrine. “We'll be up to our knees in blood,” Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb warned, as quoted by al-Shorouk newspaper.
The campaign against the shrines has drawn severe criticism from Egypt’s Mufti as well. In a Friday sermon, Sheikh Ali Jomaa accused the perpetrators of having a “misinterpretation” of Islam and “causing strife in society.”
Some accuse the media of exploiting a handful of cases to scare-mongering: playing on fears of Islamists suppressed by Mr. Mubarak to strengthen the case of conservatives seeking a return to the authoritarian ways of his regime.
“I don’t think Salafis have anything to do with the accidents that happened recently in southern Egypt, including the cutting off of a man’s ear. You know southerners are all conservative by nature and the story involved an ill-reputed woman, so that’s why it happened,” Alaa al-Nabarawi, an Islamist writer, told Al Arabiya.
“I actually don't see any increase in their influence. Salafis before the Egyptian revolution are the same as after the revolution. Their voice might have become a bit higher, but no there is no change in their policy,” added Mr. Nabarawi, dismissing all controversy created over the Salafis’ role in Egypt.
Seeking to ease concerns among moderate Egyptian Muslims, secularists and the Christian minority, the ruling military council has said it will not allow Egypt to turn into an Iran-style theocracy.
“Egypt will not be ruled by another Khomeini,” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said in reference to the cleric who led Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will not allow extremist factions to control Egypt,” Deputy Defense Minister Mohammed Mokhtar said, according to Reuters.
“They (Salafis) don’t seem to be ready to tolerate anyone, who might question their anachronistic ideas and teachings, exhumed from ancient Islamic history,” wrote political analyst Mohsen al-Araishi in the Egyptian Gazette.
“Nor do they appear to be content to discussing things with their opponents: they seem determined to take the law into their own hands to compel moderate Muslims and non-Muslims (Copts in particular) to feign appreciation for their dogmatic ideas,” Mr. Araishi wrote.
(Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)