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National Interest: The Salafi Awakening

Authors: Daniel Byman, and Zack Gold
June 28, 2012

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In the wake of Egypt's revolution and subsequent elections, Westerners have focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptian Salafis, more conservative than the Brotherhood, bear watching as well.

SINCE EGYPTIAN president Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside on February 11, 2011, many U.S. academics and policy makers have issued warnings, reassurances and speculations on the question of how relations with Egypt will be affected by the rise of its largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. True to expectations, the Brotherhood did well in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, with its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) collecting almost half of the seats in the new People's Assembly. The biggest election surprise, however, was that its greatest rival was not one of Egypt's many secular parties, all of which did poorly, but rather another set of Islamists—the Salafi Islamist bloc won almost a quarter of the seats.

This surprising Salafi showing stirred many Egyptian liberals and international human-rights activists to warn that the Salafis, if given any power, would curtail the rights of women and non-Muslim minorities, particularly Egypt's large Coptic Christian population. For the United States, the potential consequences of the Salafi rise are also profound. In some circles, the label "Salafi" is understood to mean one particular stream of Salafism championed by Ayman al-Zawahiri (an Egyptian), Osama bin Laden's successor as head of Al Qaeda. And indeed, some of the Salafis in politics once were jihadis. Even if the Salafis are not all closet jihadis, they are feared because of their unrelenting hostility toward Israel, harsh stance on women's and minority rights, rejection of democratic principles and general anti-Americanism. The Brotherhood presents itself as a group of pragmatic, kinder and gentler Islamists. The Salafis do not.

Thus, a big question hovering over events in Egypt is how a strong Salafi influence there will affect U.S. interests in the region. Recognizing the concerns of the international community, the leadership of the largest Salafi party has gone out of its way to strike a pragmatic tone on foreign-policy priorities. However, it is hostile to U.S. military actions in the region and opposes U.S. counterterror measures and support of Israel. Tensions on issues such as minority rights also seem likely, as the primary Salafi focus is on domestic political and social issues. Perhaps most worrisome, many of the problems the United States has with the Salafis reflect mainstream Egyptian public opinion. Hence, far from being radical outliers, Egypt's Salafis represent a kind of barometer on the thinking of significant elements of the country's population, and any democratic leaders will take these feelings into account. As most U.S. interests in the region will not—and should not—change, the United States will only be able to offset some of this criticism, and often we simply must anticipate problems. Ideally, areas of disagreement should not be put at the center of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

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