Last Updated: Sun Jan 15, 2012 10:17 am (KSA) 07:17 am (GMT)

Will the Salafis ever change?

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed

It is not surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood won around 45 percent of the Egyptian People’s Assembly elections. Actually, we expected they achieve a sweeping victory, based on their claimed popularity. The ultra Islamist Salafis were the real surprise. With no experience, no popularity, no political charisma; nevertheless, they won more than quarter of the votes. They won despite being a target of criticism and ridicule from everyone, including the Brotherhood. Different political powers ganged up against the Salafis. The media accused them of receiving funds from foreign countries. They were slammed as “malicious” and “intrigued.” Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood was praised as celebrated by the same groups that had accused them in the past of backwardness and being dependent on foreign powers.

Today, the Salafis have quarter the number of seats of Egypt’s first free parliament, where there is no party won clear majority. It is not accepted anymore to accuse the representatives of quarter of Egypt’s people of being agents to foreign powers. After winning it won’t be easy to continue making fun of them as the party that shuns women from “touching cucumbers or bananas” and yet bend over for Israel! The results of Egypt’s parliamentary elections indicate that Egyptians, and also Arabs, have to accept a new reality, the Salafis have seized a big share of the political map and they are growing.

However, although conservative Salafism has deep roots in our history, it has little experience in the politics. On the contrary to the 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis are still beginners. The Arabs and the world have never known a Salafi model to judge, other than the Saudi regime. That’s why Riyadh is usually accused of being the mentor for all the Salafis worldwide, although Saudi Arabia might be the first to have been negatively affected and the last to gain from them. Similar when they were accused of being connected to al-Qaeda at the beginning. We haven’t even seen them succeeding as independent group, except in Kuwait.

Despite competing with them, it seems that the Brotherhood has benefited the most from the emergence of Salafis, which imposed on Egyptians, as well as the west, to choose one of the two religious parties: the elegant Muslim Brothers or the “backward” long-bearded Salafis. That’s why the foreign ministries in the west hastened to express relief by the Brothers’ victory as well as praising their civilized stands; while winking in reference to the “savage” Salafis. I believe that the Muslim Brothers might have taken part in such anti-Salafi attack, thinking it would be in their best interest.

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brothers shouldn’t celebrate the victory of the first elections; as the battle is still at the beginning. Salafism -- which is basically a social movement in all its aspects -- is capable of changing in the future and thus it might cause a big political complexity if it is not encountered. From the Islamic point of view, Salafism stands to the right side of the Muslim Brotherhood, I mean more religous. There is no doubt that more religious voters will definitely vote for the Salafis. Young Salafis, who were in charge of the recent election campaign, are however politically enlightened. Whoever listened to their speeches would realize that they are changing and becoming more like the Brothers in their political address. Here we cannot help but admire the potentials of their rising star Nader Bakkar.

What is really worrying about the Salafis is not their strict social program, but the possibility of their political change. This reminds us of the Jihadist movements in Afghanistan, where the Salafis merged with the Brothers in the Afghan camps in the eighties and nineties and created a new creature; namely “al-Qaeda,” which was lethal mixed. The Salafis became popular for their conservative and provocative views among extremists, for example women issues; as one of them once said that the woman’s face is similar to her genitals -- in reference that it should be covered. Politically, they would be radical and demanding.

Salafis in Saudi Arabia were less political. They believed in separating religious clerics from politicians; in other words, they applied the theory of obeying the ruler, which is not applicable any more.

I fear that the less politically knowledgeable Salafis might push Egypt to be more radical in competition with the Muslim Brothers. This is to be examined at the Egyptian scene in the next four years.

(The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published by the London-based Asharq al-Awsat of Jan. 14, 2012 and was translated by Abeer Tayel)

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