The Arab Spring was not only a spring in terms of Arab revolutions but also on other levels, including with regards to the Salafis. This is not because of the major presence imposed by the Salafi trend on the political map, especially in Egypt, after the first genuine and transparent parliamentary elections there, but rather because of changes in the Salafi trend’s discourse.
The Salafi movements traditionally adopted very strict criteria in their view of ruling legitimacy, and hence their entry into politics clashed with elements of their literature. This explains the extreme confusion that first characterized Salafi stances towards the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak, but in the end the Salafis opted in favor of the revolution by participating in the demonstrations to topple the President. This stance against the ruler of the country, contrary to Salafi literature, was the beginning of several subsequent pragmatic Salafi positions. It seems that their support base, particularly the younger members, have exerted pressure upon the leaders of Salafi movements, their symbols and their sheikhs.
The Salafi trend excelled in interpreting the course of its rivals the Muslim Brotherhood; the best organized and most experienced Islamist entity in the political arena. The Salafis recognized that their Brotherhood rivals are one coherent body, harmonious in their decisions and choices, as well as in their moves on the street. The Salafi movement on the other hand, despite the rapid spread of its ideology and its acceptance on the Egyptian street, consisted of a number of factions linked within a weak singular entity, with varying degrees of interdependence. There is al-Da'wa al-Salafia, the largest and most widespread Salafi entity, along with Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, al-Salafia al-Harakia and al-Salafia al-Awali Amria, the latter two strictly adhering to the principle of “obedience to the ruler”. There is also the well-known al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and al-Gama'a Al-Shar'iyya, in addition to various Salafi scholars who chose not to associate with any of these groups, preferring to communicate with everyone.
In my opinion, the post-revolution stances adopted by the Egyptian Salafi movements are no less surprising than the significant victories they achieved in the parliamentary elections. Most notably, the Salafis have opted to coexist with the new Muslim Brotherhood rule by showing much restraint, and by not entering into vast areas of dispute with the Brotherhood’s orientation. These areas of dispute are certainly much smaller now than the areas of cooperation between the two Islamist factions. They have communicated effectively and unified their stances towards a number of issues, such as: The referendum on constitutional amendments, maintaining Article II of the constitution (Islam as the religion of the state), and the battle over Egypt’s Islamic identity. The Salafis and the Brotherhood were also unanimous in calling for the elections to be postponed whilst a constitution is drafted, and they jointly undertook a million-man march on the 29th July 2011. The two Islamist groups also share positions on the role of the army in the forthcoming constitution, and hold reservations against the “al-Azhar document”, despite accepting it in principle.
A number of Salafi symbols and leaders have sought to communicate with the Muslim Brotherhood trend in its new political reign, and have put aside their differences and united efforts. These include the popular scholars Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, Sheikh Mohammed Abdel Maksoud, Sheikh Ahmad al-Naqib, Dr. Safwat Hegazi and Dr. Yasser Brhamme, who recently met with Sheikh Qaradawi and many others from all colors of the Islamic rainbow.
This Egyptian Salafi maturity in interpreting the political scene is what some Salafis in a number of Gulf States have been lacking, instead busying themselves with their severe harassment of fellow Islamists from other factions. They have yet to strengthen their own approach and they have not allowed others to operate away from their noise and uproar. It is interesting that these same Salafis in the Gulf have embarked on less “pure” and logical alliances with currents that are fundamentally hostile to Islamic ideology, even in its moderate, pragmatic guise. Hence, sometimes, we find those who advocate democracy and secularism in the same trench as those committed to the fundamentals of religion.
The writer is a columnist at the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, where this article was published on Oct. 15, 2012