The Salafi movement wants to model Egypt’s future on Islam’s past. If the first results of the country’s parliamentary elections are anything to go by, many Egyptians agree with them.
Ultra-conservative Islamists may have won 20 to 30 percent of the vote in the first leg of Egypt’s three-stage parliamentary vote, an outcome that has surprised and alarmed many Egyptians. They are worried about what this might mean for freedoms and tolerance in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Salafis look certain to emerge as a vocal bloc in the first legislature since Hosni Mubarak was deposed, confirming the historic changes under way since the removal from power of a man who dealt with Islamists mostly as enemies of the state.
Their influence over officialdom could reach further still, depending on cooperation with other Islamists also doing well in the election, namely the long-established Muslim Brotherhood which looks set to win more seats than any other group.
Their role will also hinge on the system of government that emerges from a transitional period steered by the army generals who took over from Mubarak. The military has been silent on the election result, urging Egyptians to vote but not taking sides.
Though official results give little to go on − the final picture will not be totally clear until January − both the Salafis and others following the count say they are doing well.
The indications so far are heartening for Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a Salafi planning to run for the presidency in a June election. He sees the results as “a map” of how young Egyptians going to the polls for the first time had voted.
“There’s no doubt this is pleasing,” said the softly-spoken lawyer-and-politician with a long, grey beard, wearing a suit and tie in an interview on Egyptian television on Thursday.
Voters had realised the Islamists’ discourse was “logical and reasonable”, he said, at the same time outlining a conservative view typical of the Salafis.
He said men and women should be segregated at work and displays of public affection must stop. There must also be a halt of the sale and production of alcohol.
As in Saudi Arabia, Salafis would want to bar women and Christians from executive posts. They might also ban “un-Islamic” art and literature, as well as mixed beach bathing.
If implemented, such curbs would wreck Egypt’s vital tourism industry, which employs about one in eight of the workforce.
In a frontpage editorial, the independent Al Masry Al Youm newspaper said Egypt must not become Afghanistan, a reference to fears of Taliban-style hardline rule. “We are confident that the voice of moderation will prevail in the parliament,” it said.
Tapping support among Egypt’s pious population, the Salafis who call for a stricter application of Islamic law believe they can do better in the coming two rounds.
Al-Nour Party, whose followers wear the long beards typical of Salafis, looks set to secure a fifth of the seats contested in the first round, perhaps even more.
Figures displayed on a Brotherhood web site on Friday showed them with 30 percent of the seats assigned to party lists, not far off their own 43 percent. How that translates into seats won’t be clear until January, when the results are declared.
“I believe they can bring change,” said Mohammed Hussein, 30, who works in commerce, explaining why he voted for the Nour Party in the city of Alexandria, where Salafi banners urge women to wear the Islamic veil. “It is a party that loves religion.”
Hussein’s enthusiasm for the group is the result of years of listening to Salafi clerics in the mosque. Across the Middle East, the mosque has provided Islamists with a platform for politics denied to secular parties now trying to regroup.
As the remaining two voting stages move into the provinces, the Nour Party could do better still. “Rural areas tend to lean more towards religion than the cities,” Hussein said.
The Nour Party says it is learning from its mistakes in the first round. “We are assessing our performance in the first stage. We had some negative points that we are studying how to avoid,” Youssry Hamad, spokesman for the party, said.
The leader of the Nour Party, which hopes to siphon votes from the Brotherhood, said earlier this week that organizational failings meant his party had under-performed.
“We were not dispersed across constituencies, nor were we as close as needed to the voter. Other parties with more experience rallied supporters more effectively,” Emad Abdel Ghafour said in Alexandria, seen as a Salafi stronghold.
The party emerged from Daawa al-Salafiya (Salafi Call), a movement that has previously only backed preaching, not politics, to spread its purist interpretation of Islam.
Analysts believe the movement has a devoted following of 3 million people and may control 4,000 mosques nationwide. Egypt has around 108,000 mosques and smaller places of worship.
Salafis follow a puritan school of Islam that was revived in Egypt in the 1970s by university students inspired by the 19th century Wahhabi teaching in Saudi Arabia.
The emergence of ambitious Salafi parties is one of the starkest measures of change in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Militant Salafis shot Sadat
Mubarak was thrust into office in 1981 when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by militant adherents of the Salafi school. President of a country which also produced Ayman al-Zawahri, now leader of al Qaeda, Mubarak was a close ally of Western governments in their battle with militant Islamists.
During his 30 years in charge, Mubarak survived assassination attempts himself and fought an insurrection in the 1990s by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, one of the groups involved in Sadat’s killing, but which is now running for parliament.
The Gama’a name evokes memories of a bloody chapter in Egypt’s recent past. Though its leaders disavowed violence in 1997, a splinter group broke ranks that year to massacre 62 people, mostly tourists, at a pharaonic temple in Luxor.
The Gama’a, strongly opposed to violence these days, is now seeking a say in Egypt’s future through parliament.
But it isn’t doing as well as the Nour Party. Gama’a candidates will proceed to run-offs for five seats next week, said Sheikh Assem Abdel-Maged, a Gama’a leader, in his 50s, who spent half his life in prison for a role in the Sadat killing.
As expected, the most successful of all the Islamist groups is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and seen as the Muslim world’s first contemporary Islamist group.
Though its own ideology is rooted in the Salafi school, Brotherhood leaders have signaled that any kind of alliance with Salafi parties is unlikely, though analysts do not rule out the possibility which would give the bloc a commanding majority.
Some analysts expect the Brotherhood to seek a coalition with secular parties to ease concerns at home and abroad about its vision for Egypt, home to eight million Coptic Christians.
“They do not want to scare the Copts, women, liberals and the West,” said Abdel-Rahim Ali, an expert on Islamist groups based in Cairo.
But the Brotherhood will also have to reckon with the appetite of its conservative supporters for greater implementation of Islamic law.
Egyptians opposed to the Islamists are deeply worried about the influence they could now wield.
Abu Ismail, the Salafi presidential hopeful, batted away the concerns of anxious viewers who called in with questions during his television appearance on Thursday.
He also said freedoms were holy to Islam, stressing that its laws guarantee Christian rights under Muslim rule.
And he showed a flash of pragmatism perhaps intended to reassure viewers that radical change may not come immediately.
“They imagine that when I give an opinion now, that means it will be implemented right now,” he said.
“There is a difference between what I see as right and wrong, and the fact that some of these matters will not be implemented within 10 years or even 20 years.”