News / Africa

Egypt's Salafists Raise Their Political Profile

Separate elevators for men and women at the Towahid mosque in Cairo, April 5 2011
Separate elevators for men and women at the Towahid mosque in Cairo, April 5 2011
Elizabeth Arrott

As Egypt prepares for its first elections since a popular uprising, many new actors have entered the political scene. Among them are Salafi Muslims, whose fundamentalism is seemingly at odds with both hopes for a democratic future and the country's long history of tolerance and pluralism.

The mosque of Sheikh Shaaban Darwish sits side-by-side a Coptic church, not an unusual sight in Egypt where roughly ten percent of the people are Christian. But the Taawoun area of Giza is unmistakably Muslim, and conservative Muslim at that. The bearded men wear prayer caps, and the form-fitting clothes of women in wealthier neighborhoods give way to the flowing head-to-toe black of the niqab.

Salafi Sheikh Shaaban Darwish at his office in Giza, Egypt, April 5, 2011
Salafi Sheikh Shaaban Darwish at his office in Giza, Egypt, April 5, 2011

The Salafi sheikh, whose Saudi headdress is a nod to prominent backers of puritan Islam, points to the proximity of the church as a sign of tolerance. He also welcomes the coming of democracy, just not the hypocritical, anti-Muslim kind he says is espoused by the West.

Darwish says democracy has some of the advantages of Islam, but he argues Islam is "the authentic commodity", and democracy an "alternative." Islam, he says, allows for a democracy that convinces Muslims and others "that Islam is the end and not the means."

Such beliefs are not surprising among a group that follows the ideas of the first three generations of Muslims some 1400 years ago. But as Salafis raise their political profile, they are also raising alarm among democracy advocates who sought to bring Muslims, Christians and secularists together on Tahrir Square.

Activists look to recent incidents that seem to undermine their efforts at pluralism. In Fayoum, south of Cairo, one person died in a clash between Salafi Muslims and the Christian owner of a liquor store. In Qena, Salafists attacked a Coptic man they accused of renting an apartment to a prostitute. They cut off his ear.

Darwish dismisses such incidents as the work of individuals and blames the media for making too much of them.

Besides, he says, Salafi ideology doesn't count cutting off an ear among its punishments.

In addition to fears of people coming under attack, some worry even Egypt's heritage would be in danger should Salafists have their way.

Darwish says he distinguishes between monuments and idols, and that the pyramids, for example, are safe.

He says Salafists wouldn't even physically destroy idols, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Rather, he says, they will "destroy them in people's minds, their culture and their hearts" through "right preaching."

The former government often justified the heavy hand of its security by pointing to the threat of extremists stoking sectarian divides. Such fears were not lessened when the overwhelming approval of last month's referendum was tied in part to the slogan "Islam is the answer."

Moreover, while much attention has been paid to upcoming presidential elections and the largely secular potential candidates, it is the parliamentary vote that will likely have a more deciding effect on the country's future. The next parliament will decide on a new constitution, and with it how secular or religious the new Egypt will be.

Just how well Salafists might do is unclear. There are few reliable opinion polls, so it is hard to know how wide their appeal is after decades of repression. The more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, despite also being harassed, has a well-established social and political network and some believe the two could join forces to give Islamists a prominent position in the next parliament.

But Mohamad Salah, the head of the London based el-Hayat newspaper and an observer of Islamic movements, thinks that unlikely.

Salah says it would be difficult for the Brotherhood to associate itself with any movement seen as extremist. He argues it has spent a long time denouncing radicalism and opening up its base to present a more voter-friendly movement.

He also does not believe Salafism is very widespread, although he points to changes in recent years that may have attracted some Egyptians.

He says the increase of satellite channels - in particular Saudi religious ones - as well as the spread of poverty and what he calls ignorance have all boosted the fundamentalists' ranks.

But those channels have brought something else - a greater window on the world.

That awareness is on display upstairs from the Sheikh's office.

Step out of the elevator - there are separate ones for men and women, with a recording of a travelers' prayer playing as the car ascends - and one enters a ceremony for women of the mosque. The celebrants have successfully memorized the Quran.

There is singing and laughing and for entertainment, a dead-on parody of Moammar Gadhafi and his recent, rambling "zenga zenga" speech.

These women are separate, but they are informed.

It's that kind of information - what is happening both at home and abroad - that helped spread the pro-democracy movement across the region and, in Egypt, for now, helped put an end to repression.

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More