Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Salafists Surge in Egypt

by Ryan Mauro

The West has long feared the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but the first round’s election results released Sunday night show an even worse group of Islamists surging: The Salafists. Nearly one-fourth of Egyptians voted for the group whose puritanism makes the Brotherhood look moderate.

On Sunday night, the Egyptian government released partial results for the first round of elections. Sixty-two percent of eligible Egyptians voted. The Muslim Brotherhood came in first place with 36.6%, followed by the Salafist bloc with 24.4%. The non-Islamists, the Egyptian Bloc and the Wafd Party, came in 13.4 and 7.1 percent respectively. It was a landslide victory for the Islamists, who are now expected to control about two-thirds of the parliament once all rounds of voting are completed.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a moderate group, but it appears reformist when compared to the Salafists. Whereas the Brotherhood embraces elections, the Salafists are hostile to the very concept of voting. The Brotherhood is pragmatic and aware of political constraints, whereas the Salafists have no qualms about expressing their desire to turn Egypt into another Saudi Arabia. The Brotherhood is “moderate” in comparison to the Salafists like Hamas is “moderate” compared to Al-Qaeda.

The success of the Salafists is particularly terrifying because they are honest about their objectives. Some supporters of the Brotherhood are misled about the group’s ideology. All of the Salafists’ supporters know what they are asking for when voting. The Salafists regularly call for closing movie theaters, gender segregation, creating a morality police, stoning adulterers, severing the hands of thieves and banning alcohol and “fornication.”

“I want to say: Citizenship restricted by Islamic Shariah, freedom restricted by Islamic Shariah, equality restricted by Islamic Shariah…Shariah is obligatory, not just the principles—freedom and justice and all that,” said one top Egyptian Salafist leader, Sheikh Abdel Moneim el-Shahat.

“In the land of Islam, I can’t let people decide what is permissible or what is prohibited,” says another.

One of the parties belonging to the Salafist bloc, al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, has Aboud al-Zumour, the mastermind of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, as one of its leaders. He still speaks affectionately about his old colleague, Ayman al-Zawahiri, calling him a “very kind and nice man.” He says he disagrees with his killings of civilians and tourists, but supports “resistance” against “occupiers.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, a group that supports terrorism and Shariah-based governance, criticized the Salafists for their inflammatory rhetoric. The Brotherhood favors a more incremental approach. The Deputy Supreme Guide, for example, says “the enforcement of Shariah punishments will need time, and will only come after Islam is planted in every heart and masters the life of people, and then Islamic punishments can be applied.”

The White House has yet to express alarm over the election results. The Israeli Defense Minister, on the other hand, said the results are “very, very disturbing.” Hamas is elated, as expected.

The non-Islamist Egyptians, many of whom wanted elections delayed so they could better prepare, were simply overmatched. Under the non-democratic regimes, the Islamists were still able to organize in mosques and by offering social services. The secularists had mere months to play catch-up. As Raymond Ibrahim explains, Anwar Sadat allowed the Brotherhood to build its support and infiltrate the institutions of government and society. In addition, approximately one-third of Egyptians are illiterate, limiting independent thought and forcing them to rely upon imams for political guidance.

“The simple voter didn’t know anyone on the ballot, no liberal political figures were allowed to emerge and lead, under Mubarak or during the post-Mubarak transition,” said Bassem Kamel of the Social Democratic Party.

To make matters worse, the upcoming elections for the lower house of parliament are even more favorable to the Islamists, specifically the Salafists. The first round included places where secularists should have had their best shot like Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and the Red Sea coast. A poll earlier this year found the Muslim Brotherhood with miniscule support in Cairo and Alexandria, but the Islamists still won by a landslide. The elections on December 14 and 27 will include the Salafist strongholds. The Salafists are confidently predicting that they’ll even outperform the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to cast itself as the force that will save Egypt from the Salafist puritans. It wants to ally with the liberal forces instead, but this is self-serving. It knows that the Salafists will vote with its agenda almost every time, creating an unofficial bloc in parliament. The Brotherhood’s goal is to sooth its opponents’ worries, to create a united front against the ruling military council and to share any blame it gets for stumbles in Egypt’s next phase.

The secular liberals in Egypt are therefore stuck between a rock and a hard place. It must either coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood or it will allow an Islamist super-coalition to dominate parliament. It also faces Islamists on the one hand and the ruling military council on the other.

Luckily for the West, the ruling military council does not intend to give up its power so easily. It is “vexed and concerned” about the results. It earlier vowed to prevent the rise of “another Khomeini.” We will soon see how serious the council was about that pledge.

Ryan Mauro


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