Egypt’s Al Nour (“The Light”) party, the second-biggest in the country, named a new leader, Younis Makhioun, last week.
The previous leader of this hardline Salafi party, Emad Abdel Ghafour, resigned suddenly in late December, deciding to form a new party called Al Watan (“The Homeland”).
Makhioun was selected as the party’s second president at a conference in Cairo carried live by some satellite channels.
“We thank Allah for granting us such a position after we were chased and kept in the darkness of jails – and for giving us this political party to present our reform views,” Makhioun told party leaders. “We want to reform life by religion.”
The Al Nour party was founded by Alexandria-based Salafi group Al Dawah Al Salafi (“The Salafi call”) in May 2011, about three months after the ouster of longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country since 1981 and harshly suppressed his conservative religious rivals.
Salafist media’s growing influence in Egypt
For decades, Salafis – who adhere to a puritanical interpretation of Islam – were forced to stay away from politics, fearing persecution. They focused instead on religious preaching and social work. Salafi scholars advised their students and followers not to engage in any political activity to avoid being persecuted by Mubarak’s heavy-handed security regime. They also justified this political withdrawal with the argument that Egypt under Mubarak was too closed and secular for them to participate with their puritanical religious views.
“We were besieged, threatened, and had no rights,” Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a well-known Salafi preacher, told Al Jazeera Arabic’s “Sharia and Life” weekly TV programme last month. “Any state security officer used to rule any neighbourhood as if he was representing God. He had the ability to put any one of us in jail for 15-20 years.”
This is why when the January 25 uprising started, Al Dawah Al Salafia initially advised its followers against participating. They were suspicious of politics and feared persecution if the uprising failed.
But this did not prevent some Salafi groups and individuals from participating in the mass protests at Tahrir Square – such as Tamer Meky, a leader of Al Asalah party, one of about five Salafi groups now taking part in Egyptian politics.
“We follow Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud, who made a fatwa [religious verdict] that we should participate in the revolution. The rest of the Salafis did not join the protests. This is what distinguishes out party. We deal with all political groups. We are not closed to Salafis only. We are open to all civil groups.”
Meky is now a member in the national security committee of the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper chamber of parliament.
A few months after president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Salafis stepped into the political arena, forming parties and running for office. They surprised many observers in and outside of Egypt by winning about 25 percent of parliamentary seats, making them the second most powerful political force in the country after the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood participated in elections during the Mubarak era for more than two decades, despite being officially banned, by running candidates as independents or under the auspices of other parties.
Salafis say they align their views with the teachings of the first few generations of Islamic scholars (called “salaf” in Arabic, meaning “predecessors”) – especially those who urged a literal interpretation of Islamic texts to counter the influence of foreign thoughts and habits.
The birth of modern-day Salafism in Egypt coincided with the rise of Islamist movements across the Middle East in the 1970s after the defeat of Egypt’s secular, pan-Arab regime under Gamel Abdel Nasser in the 1967 war against Israel. Salafism is particularly prevalent in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf, who spread their theology among poorer Muslim nations.
Traditionalists versus jihadists
Egypt’s Salafis believe that to reform one’s self and community, one must purify one’s religious faith. Muslims who don’t accurately practice their religion will live misguided and fruitless lives, Salafis say.
This “traditional” or “scientific” Salafism differs from the form practiced by groups like Al Qaeda, who subscribe to what is often called “jihadist Salafism”.
Jihadist Salafis say Muslims need to live in an Islamic state that implements sharia, or Islamic law, in all aspects of life.
But the main Salafi groups in Egypt are traditional ones, and they are led by Al Dawah Al Salafia. The party is a network of hundreds of religious preachers based all over Egypt and benefit from a wide network of mosques, religious educational institutions, social aid organisations, and popular TV satellite channels.
Salafis in politics
“Modern political culture became part of the Salafi mind, in addition to the traditional culture.“
– Hisham Jaafar, expert on Egyptian religious movements
Al Nour’s ascent to power has been rapid: the party’s first president, Emad Abdel Ghafour, became an aide of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and other senior party leaders have served as Morsi advisers.
Al Nour was also a main player in the Constituent Assembly that drafted Egypt’s new constitution adopted last year. The Salafis were blamed by liberal and secular groups for imposing their conservative views on the new constitution. Article 219, for instance, defines the principles of sharia, which are the main source of legislation in Egypt.
The recent rift in Al Nour was spurred by disagreement within party leadership over the role played by Al Dawah Al Salafia scholars in running party affairs. Abdel Ghafour and other party leaders seen as reformists wanted more independence from the scholars.
After months of wrangling and reconciliation efforts, the party split. The departing leaders announced they will ally with the controversial Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, whose populist and hardline Salafi political doctrines are winning him popularity among Egyptians.
“Modern political culture became part of the Salafi mind, in addition to the traditional culture,” Hisham Jaafar, an expert in Egyptian religious movements, told Al Jazeera.
Jaafar thinks Salafis in Egypt are straddling an old culture led by religious scholars to a new, more political culture led by activists and directed towards a broader audience.
The party has been “able to attract [a] political audience who would have stayed away from politics if Al Nour was not there”, said Jaffar, warning that it is too early to predict Salafis’ political future in Egypt.