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Egyptian Salafis straddle fence

 


CAIRO—Muhammad Rizq slowly ascended the pulpit at the Al-Munira mosque in Imbaba, a poor northern Cairo neighborhood. His brusque leg movements made the wood creak with every step. “What do the people want?” he asked his flock rhetorically.  “Do we want Islamic law or what the (Muslim) Brotherhood offered—civil strife?”

As Egypt splits into two rival camps pitting secularists against Islamists, the puritanical Salafis are on the sidelines unsure of their next move. Salafis are Sunni Muslims associated with a strict, literal approach to Islam. They support the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to inject a more Islamic hue into a society that has been governed by secularists for 60 years. But they are uneasy about the organization’s divisive tendencies and go-it-alone approach.

Despite their newly discovered neutrality, Al-Nour, the largest Salafist party was a key element of the coalition that deposed President Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood.  The Salafis provided the largely secular organizations the religious cover they needed to portray their revolt as being against dictatorship and not religion.

“The protesters could have never deposed Morsi without some religious backing,” Al-Ahram Strategic Studies Center Fellow Emad Gad told The Media Line. “And Al-Nour gave it to them.”

But as quickly as they offered their support, the Salafis retracted it when they learned Nobel laureate and arch-secularist Mohamed ElBaradei would be named prime minister in an interim government. 

“Egypt is an Islamic country,” Al-Nour leader Dr. Hisham Abu Nasr told The Media Line. “It has no place for anti-Muslim men like ElBaradei.”

Worshippers at the Al-Munira mosque agree.  They believe that ElBaradei, who is a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and his secularist clique is bent on Westernizing Egypt rather than returning it to its Islamic roots.

“We need more religion, not less,” says 35-year old fruit vendor Yusuf Darwish.  But when asked why he supported Al-Nour’s decision to back the anti-Morsi forces, he replied, “because the sheikhs say so.”

That is a common refrain in the Salafi world and explains why the movement has historically supported the government in power rather than seeking to topple them like other Islamist movements.  Salafis rely on the Quranic verse “O believers, obey God, and obey the Messenger and those in authority among them” to explain their support for secular governments.  Such backing has sheltered them from the crackdown other Islamist movements have experienced, allowing them to build educational and social networks throughout the Arab world.

“The Salafists are very strong here,” notes Muhammad Salah, Cairo bureau chief of the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.  “If they step out of line politically, they could lose their support from above.”

But maneuvering between their social base’s desires and the tacit support they need to receive from the authorities to prosper has become a delicate balancing act. At the Ibn Al-Jawzi Salafi center in the southern city of Giza, Atif Sha’ban illustrates this dilemma.  The 43-year old teacher is thankful for the job he has preaching to disillusioned youth.  But he is equally frustrated with Al-Nour’s decision to bring down the first Islamist government Egypt has known.

“The Brotherhood was good for Islam,” he tells The Media Line pointing to the adolescents in his center.  “Morsi helped Islam. Why do we need to go back to the (President Hosni) Mubarak years,” he asks, referring to the president deposed in 2011.

Analysts here say that Al-Nour had very little wiggle room in the days leading up to the June 30th coup. 

“The army helped make the Salafis a powerful political force after Mubarak fell,” notes Cairo University political science professor Mu’taz Billah Abd Al-Fatah. “Al-Nour owes the generals and they cashed-in on June 30.”  

Average Egyptians though scoff at any talk of collusion between the Salafis and the military. 

“We don’t support the military,” says 43-year old construction worker Kamal Fahmi.  “We support stability and that is why Al-Nour went with the army.  We need time to repair Egypt.”

But with Egypt’s political factions jockeying to establish themselves in the post-Muslim Brotherhood era, it is doubtful Al-Nour will have much more time to buck the desires of a military it desperately needs in order to remain relevant. 

 

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