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Dim Prospects for Egypt’s Salafis

Interviewee: Jonathan A.C. Brown, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University
Interviewer: Zachary Laub, Online Writer/Editor
July 19, 2013

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The decision by Egypt's largest Salafi party, al-Nour, to support the military's removal of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 "has been disastrous," says Islamic Studies expert Jonathan A.C. Brown. "When Islamists actually start succeeding in democracy, how could [Nour] possibly defend other Islamists calling for the coup," he asks. In the months of political transition ahead, Brown believes the fractured, ultraconservative Salafi movement will likely prove ineffectual. Al-Nour is "in for a rude awakening if they think that they're going to preserve Sharia gains that they made in the 2012 constitution," he says. Meanwhile, Brown plays down the notion that disillusioned Islamists will resort to violence. "There hasn't been this great realization that this whole democratic process is bogus," he notes.

How do Salafis fit into Egyptian politics at the moment?

Salafism is a theological and Islamic legal school of thought characterized by a strong, direct attachment to the original scriptural sources of Islam. This stands in contrast to the tradition of Muslim scholarship that has refined those sources into the details of Islamic dogma over the centuries, and in the process introduced countless compromises with political and social realities. In the twentieth century, Salafism is also strongly associated with the school of Islamic thought prevalent in Saudi Arabia.

Salafis can belong to many political persuasions. The Nour Party, as well as some smaller Salafi parties, were formed in the wake of Mubarak's ouster by conservative, non-Muslim Brotherhood Egyptians eager to steer Egypt towards greater Islamic observance at a social level and a greater embrace of Sharia law at a legal level. In that sense, they share the main objective of the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood.

Some Salafis, who are in or allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, stood with Morsi, and they continue to do so in [Cairo's] Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. However, the Nour party leadership decided in the fall to jump on the anti–Muslim Brotherhood bandwagon and have provided an Islamist fig leaf for the military coup.

How have Salafis historically encountered politics?

Globally, those who subscribe to the Salafi school of thought have ranged from extreme political quietists who condemn rebellion and even forbid voting, to those embracing a mainstream Islamist political agenda, to a minority who have deemed it acceptable to rebel violently against rulers like Mubarak or the Saudi royal family because of their failure to rule properly by Sharia law.

All three strands existed in Egypt prior to the 2011 revolution, but the quietists predominated. The Nour Party emerged from a school of thought that considered the Mubarak regime to be illegitimate but that deemed any attempt to resist it or even reform it to be futile. However, the revolution introduced the possibility of real political involvement.

How large a segment of the population are we talking about? Al-Nour, after all, won a quarter of the vote in parliamentary elections.

You can't think [of parliamentary elections] as a census of Egypt where everybody who votes for al-Nour is a Salafi. A lot of people voted for the Nour Party because they're Islamically inclined and thought that the Nour Party was not corrupted by politics--unlike the Muslim Brotherhood.

If that's what you were looking for, then the Nour Party is not what you want to vote for again. Not only have they been corrupted by politics, but on the one great decision in Egypt over the last year [on Morsi's ouster], they sided against the Islamists. I think that al-Nour's success in parliamentary elections [in 2012] is not going to be duplicated ever again.

The National Salvation Front, Nour Party, and the military made for strange bedfellows while calling for Morsi's exit. Now, the Nour Party is saying it won't participate in the interim government, but may be a spoiler. Can they govern affirmatively?

They were trying to straddle different political groups and appeal to different constituencies. Lots of people started leaving the party, and representatives from parliament resigned because they didn't like what they saw in the political world.

Their decision to support this military coup has been disastrous. When Islamists start actually succeeding in democracy, how could [Nour] possibly defend other Islamists calling for the coup? It's a ludicrous position for the party leadership to be in.

The interim government's "roadmap" for a democratic transition calls for the 2012 constitution, which was written by an Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly, to be amended within six months. What role will the Nour Party play in this process?

When the new constitution is written, or the old one is revised dramatically, the things that the Nour Party cares a lot about will not be included. There was very subtle language introduced [in the post-coup constitutional declaration that may] prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. I think they are in for a rude awakening if they think that they're going to preserve Sharia gains that they made in the 2012 constitution.

Have Islamists made a meaningful commitment to the idea of Egyptian democracy?

There are people, like the bulk of the Muslim Brotherhood, that have an objective of making Egypt a more Islamic country at a social and governmental level, but they have accepted and embraced the requirement to use the democratic process.

The Nour party leadership has very specific goals, namely to change the legal regime of the country to make it more Sharia compliant. They could care less if a democratically elected president is ousted by the military or not.

Between the mainstream Muslim brotherhood and the Nour Party you have a lot of people who were in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square protests. It's not jihadist rhetoric [there]; the word you hear them use the most is sharia, meaning "legitimate according to the law of the land." They are emphasizing that Morsi is the legally legitimate president. They feel that the rules by which they were supposed to play are not being respected by their opponents.

Do you think Egypt's Islamists will moderate if they are drawn into the political mainstream?

This question speaks to one of the reasons why the Nour party has split so much since they came to power in parliament. There were people who joined the party and ran as members of parliament because they wanted to improve governance in Egypt. But those people became alienated from the party because they were not really given a chance to engage in the process.

Now, people who are saying that we have to defend democracy and defend the rule of law because this is the only way that Islamists are ever going to come to power. However, it's difficult to imagine an Islamist supporting the Nour Party now because there's no mechanism by which the objectives of an Islamist are going to be promoted by the [General Abdul Fatah] al-Sisi/[Prime Minister Hazem Al] Beblawi government.

What can Salafis plausibly achieve in the current political climate?

They think that they're going to be able to promote and protect the gains they've made so far in the constitution by being involved in the process. But the people who have been named to the constitution writing committee are all dyed-in-the-wool secularists.

Is there a danger that Islamists disillusioned with democracy will turn to violence instead?

Former terrorists have actually been some of the most outspoken anti-violence supporters who have come out in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. There hasn't been this great realization that this whole democratic process is bogus--that they're never going to let Islamists rule legitimately so they have to go and do a jihad.

What are the prospects for Egypt's Islamists in the years to come?

One possibility is that the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters mount a civil, passive resistance to the new regime that moves [the interim government] to bring back Morsi. On the other hand, if the regime says we're going to crush them like the Egyptian government did in the 1950s and '60s--through prison, execution, and assassination--it would show anybody who is Islamically inclined that their only option is some kind of active or violent resistance. The third option, which is most likely, is a return to something like the 1980s, where you have the Muslim Brotherhood officially banned but tolerated, allowed to do certain things, but prohibited from doing others.

The United States has expressed a desire since the overthrow to engage with all parties. What should the U.S. role be in the weeks to come?

If the United States chooses to stand by its principles, then it would cut off aid to Egypt and its military and demand the reinstatement of Egypt's democratically elected president. If the United States chooses to act on its interests as they are generally perceived in Washington, it should keep a very low profile while trying to use its influence on the army and the transitional government to minimize political persecutions and resuscitate the democratic process.