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Situation Assessment 09 January, 2012

Salafists and Politics in Egypt

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Omayma Abdel-Latif

Was an assistant researcher and coordinator of the think tank monitoring report at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. She holds an MA in Middle Eastern Politics from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London and a BA in Media studies from Cairo University. In 1992 she established a career in journalism and has since 2004 held the position of Assistant Editor-In-Chief in Egypt’s leading English newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly. In 2006 Ms. Abdel-Latif joined Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut as a project coordinator and researcher. She has published numerous papers and studies with regards to Islamist groups Egypt’s domestic politics and regional politics with special emphasis on Iraq Lebanon and Syria.

The surprising results achieved by parties with Salafist backgrounds - headed by Hizb Al-Nur - in the first stage of Egypt's parliamentary elections have raised numerous questions on the nature of these parties, their political programs, and their social visions.

This paper maps out the roster of Salafist parties in Egypt, attempting to examine the effect of the entry of the Salafist current onto the country's political scene will have for the future of its democratic transition.

One of the notable developments after Egypt's January 25 Revolution was increased presence of Salafist groups in the public debate. The strength of the current was reflected in the number of appearances by Salafist clerics as guests on various Egyptian satellite channels to opine on current affairs, a new development since such exposure had previously been limited to stations owned by Salafists or their sympathizers. Some organizations active in the Salafist current came to the fore, including "the Coalition for the Support of New Muslims". Organizations with Salafist backgrounds gained prominence on several fronts, including as a reaction after a number of incidents in which Christian women who had converted to Islam were handed over by the state to the Church (e.g. the cases of Wafaa Constantine or Camelia Shehatah), as well as their input on major issues such as the referendum on constitutional amendments and debates over the future of the country's political system.

The Salafists came into confrontation with other political and social groups after the January 25 Revolution. Their entry into the political sphere and the opinions they expressed on a variety of political matters sparked a broad social and media debate, especially after they were accused of having been the main instigators in a number of incidents with sectarian dimensions, such as the attempt to apply Sharia legal punishments, inciting demonstrations in Qena against the appointment of a Coptic governor, and controlling a number of mosques affiliated with the Ministry of Islamic Endowments and transforming them into platforms for their movement (although there has been no conclusive evidence proving the latter claim).

Salafists view their resurgence, following years of repression and marginalization under the previous regime, as a return of the right, especially since they have - according to their leaders - "participated in the revolution unceasingly since the first day. In fact, they were present at the points of entry and exit for Tahrir Square, in order to protect the revolution."

Some analysts attribute the rise of the Salafists to the fact that such movements were exposed to violent repression under the former president, arguing that their return to the political scene is just one of several results of the aftermath of January 25 Revolution, including political fluidity and the weakness or absence of the state. The same analysts attribute the Salafists' lack of political experience to the fact that they did not previously engage in public affairs due to the repression practiced against them, and argue that while they represent a large political pressure group and an important voting bloc, they have no political future. On the other hand, others argue that the rise of the Salafists is a worrisome phenomenon due to the spread of their influence among a third of the Egyptian population.

Some members of the Coalition of the Revolution's Youth have described the Salafists as the real threat to the revolution, calling for a meeting to discuss the effect of recent Salafist maneuvers, and the development of means to confront them and/or to limit their influence in Egyptian society. This perspective is based on the premise that Salafist demands do not emanate from the national cause, and some activists say that while they are understanding of the repression and injustice meted out against the Salafists during the rule of the former regime, they cannot comprehend what they view as the Salafists' continued insistence on increasing sectarian tensions during this delicate stage of Egypt's history.

Another camp in the Coalition of the Revolution's Youth views the Salafists as having been manufactured by the former regime, and their presence on the political scene as a threat to the success of democratic transformation, due to the extremist dogma they espouse. One activist said that concerns regarding the rise of the Salafists emanate from the fact that the Salafist movement is "disparate groups without a single head or leaders".

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