Inside Egypt’s Salafists

Islamists rallying last month In Egypt

Islamists rallying last month In Egypt


For those with enough time on their hands, here is an in depth look at Egypt’s fundamentalist Salafi movements.

Written by Stephane Lacroix, an expert on the subject, it examines the electoral success of hardline Islamists and offers some context about the history of Al Nour, the main Salafi party in Egypt.

Given the religious divisions creating fissures at the ballot box, it makes for a fascinating read.

Egypt’s constitutional conundrum

Members of the assembly which drafted the new constitution

Members of the assembly which drafted the new constitution


Somewhat belatedly, here is a lucid, even-handed account of the crisis surrounding Egypt’s constitution – from the seemingly omnipresent Nathan Brown.

He questions whether Egypt’s fragile institutions are ready for the majoritarian democratic principles of the Muslim Brotherhood, though suggests that many among the liberal opposition have not always acted in good faith during their dealings with Egypt’s Islamists.

“The Islamists have pressed ahead,” he writes, “willing to throw some concessions to their rivals but not enough to truly bring them along. Even had [they] been willing to give more, it is not clear that there was any good-faith bargain to be had, since some members of the opposition have simply rejected earlier electoral outcomes as “unrepresentative.”

A detailed analysis of the problems which have been thrown up over the past few weeks.

Egypt’s uprising has provided fuel for the fundamentalists

Egypt's fundamentalist Salafis have become increasingly vocal


Originially published at, July 11 2011

The sheikh sat in a slick office on the ninth floor of a tower block and twiddled with his mobile phone. Bathed in bright light from the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Nile, he outlined what kind of punishments Egyptians could expect under his ideal judicial system.

“In Shari’a law we have sharp sentences for every crime,” he said. “Whipping the back, cutting off hands. Shari’a involves big punishments for any people who do wrong things.”

Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a preacher who follows the increasingly high-profile strand of fundamentalist Salafi Islam, continued by saying that most people in post-revolutionary Egypt agree with his vision—they just don’t know it yet.

“In the end, Salafis will not oblige communities to use Shari’a if they don’t understand it,” he said. “But with explanation, all the Muslim people will accept it.”

Sheikh Abdel Moneim, a podgy, roly-poly preacher with the kind of Fidel Castro-style beard sported by many of his followers, is a prominent spokesman for the Salafi movement in Egypt.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged in underground political activity despite being banned for more than half a century, the Salafist movement—which first emerged in the mid-1800s from an intellectual base at Cairo’s long-established Al-Azhar University—has traditionally shied away from politics.

Yet, during the race to grab a toehold in the chaotic post-Mubarak period, some Salafis are abandoning their previous aversion to the political limelight. The Political Parties Affairs Committee gave the Al-Nour party permission to form on 13 June 2011, while a second fledgling party, Al-Fadila, is also scrambling around for support. A number of others are said to be in the pipelines.

This comes at a time of heightened tension between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, which many have blamed on the supposedly baleful influence of Salafism.

A total of 12 people were killed this month when violent clashes broke out in the Cairo slum of Imbaba. The riots were triggered by rumors that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held captive in a church, and most reports the following day focused on the large group of Salafi men who were present during the trouble.

The incident came after a flurry of other Salafist scare stories hit Egyptian newsstands, with reports about off-licenses being closed following demonstrations by Salafis, and protests over other alleged kidnappings or killings of female Muslim converts. After one incident, the Associated Press even went so far as to say that Salafism was “a few shades away” from Al-Qaeda—a sloppy comparison at best.

There is no doubt that some of Egypt’s liberals and secularists are not particularly fond of Salafism. As Ramy El-Swissy, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, put it: “I like religion but I don’t like that kind of religion. There is a difference between Islam and extremism.”

Moreover, it seems understandable that Christians might be concerned about their influence given the intransigence many Salafis have often shown to accommodating them. Speaking recently, another Salafi preacher, by the name of Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, explained how he thought that Egypt’s Copts were guilty of treason for establishing contacts with the West.

“It’s very sad when the Christians here go to the US and Europe and say, ‘Come to us and save our souls.’ They are betraying us. They don’t understand what the US did in Iraq and Pakistan.

“The Christians are against the Muslims now. They don’t want Egypt to be Islamic.”

But others believe that the Egyptian media and political elite are guilty of scare mongering. In March, Egyptian voters decided overwhelmingly to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments—a result that paved the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

The result was a blow to many liberals who wanted a longer transitional period to help develop a more robust body politic. Many blamed the Salafis.

Gamal Sultan, editor of the Al-Masryoon news website and himself a Salafi, said: “It was probably during the referendum on the constitutional amendments when the political forces realized the huge ability of Salafis to mobilize and vote yes.

“That’s what got to the other political parties in Egypt. They got really mad at the Salafis when they realized their political abilities.”

According to Professor Stephane Lacroix of Sciences Po, who has spent many years studying fundamentalist Islamic movements, the main Egyptian sheikhs have publicly denounced the violence between Muslims and Christians that took place after the fall of Mubarak.

He said: “If you look at the statements from the majority of sheikhs, they have all condemned the violence. They have said it is to the detriment of Salafism.”

Mr. Lacroix added that Salafism has no over-arching structure or rigid top-down leadership, and that the Salafis who went to Imbaba were probably bad apples under the guidance of rogue “neighborhood sheikhs.” He also said that it would probably be a while before any of their political parties made a splash.

The modern history of Salafism in Egypt dates back to the 1970s—a time where campus activism was at its height and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU, first made its appearance.

Initially there were tensions between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, with both trying to attract followers and spread their message to a wider public. In an effort to co-ordinate more affectively, during the 1980s Egypt’s Salafis began to develop strong grassroots networks spreading across the country. With a base in Alexandria, the fundamentalist movement began to grow in popularity.

Analysts have divided the Salafi movement into a number of different sub-groups—most of which eschewed political participation up until the January 25 revolution.

One such group, sometimes referred to as the “activist Salafis,” trace their origins to the 1970s university movements and operated under the tutelage of sheikhs who preached that a ruler is heretical if he does not govern by divine decrees.

These Salafis have always refused to partake in democratic elections, viewing them as heretical and a departure from God’s law. Yet a number have since undergone a volte face, embracing the concept of democracy and using their vote to full effect when preachers called on their followers to go and vote in favor of constitutional amendments in the recent Egyptian referendum.

The establishment of Al-Nour is testament to this latest trend in Salafi thinking. As a result, and despite in the past being wholly opposed to any kind of political participation, the Salafis now have the first political party in their history.

There has, of course, been one particular brand of Salafism that has never shied away from making its political voice heard. Salafist jihadism, the strand of ultra-regressive Islam that counts Al-Qaeda members as some of its most strident adherents, holds that Muslims are duty-bound to fight any government s which do not apply Islamic law.

It came to the fore in the 1990s when the traditional Salafi aversion to politics morphed into the most absolute form of activist rejectionism. Yet this kind of “Semtex Salafism,” though adept at making headlines, never constituted more than a fraction of the overall movement’s followers.

You could make a similar case for Egypt’s Salafis when compared to the rest of the country’s Muslims today. Although Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat claimed that there were “millions” across the whole of the country, Stephane Lacroix said the number of is more likely to be around 200,000—though he conceded that the figure is not accurate , given how difficult it is to determine who exactly is a Salafi.

Yet, despite this, it seems clear that many Salafis have already permeated deep into Egyptian society. The movement is named after the al-salaf al-salih, or so-called pious predecessors of the early Muslim community.

Followers believe that only the early disciples of Mohammed practiced Islam correctly, and can often be identified by their short galabiyas, which are worn to comply with an early Islamic teaching that long clothing is a sign of vanity.

But such stereotypes are as unhelpful as they are misleading, according to Gamal Sultan. “The West is more concerned with looks: the beard, the clothes and the way they live,” he said. “But Salafism is a large phenomenon. You can see them in the poor neighborhoods, but it also reaches the higher classes. You see them as street vendors and professors or soccer players. They are everywhere.”

Mr Lacroix said that the movement has definitely grown in the past 10 years—in large part because of the Salafi televangelists who were licensed by the Mubarak regime in order to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he added that Egypt was unlikely to see any kind of serious political Salafism for a while.

Many ordinary Egyptians seem to agree. If you speak to liberal voters—the kind of people who are meant to be tearing their hair out with anxiety over the supposed Salafi threat—most seem unperturbed, preferring to dismiss the movement at an irritating irrelevance rather than a sinister force to be reckoned with.

The real influence, as Stephane Lacroix points out, seems cultural more than electoral—though perhaps this should worry the liberal elite just as much. “If you take a taxi, very often the driver seems to think the niqab is the correct form of Islamic dress. He will say something like, ‘My wife doesn’t wear it. She should, but we’re weak.’ You never heard that in Egypt 50 years ago.”

If you believe the likes of Sheikh Abdel Moneim and Shekih Khalid Abdullah, every Muslim is a Salafi even if he or she thinks otherwise. The forthcoming elections will prove just how far this theory goes.

Christians and Muslims on a knife-edge in Egypt

Fire ravages a church in the district of Imbaba

Originally published in the Independent, May 9th, 2011

Just a few yards away from the alter in Saint Menas Church, and not far from a large painting depicting the resurrection of Christ hanging on a nearby wall, the floor was sticky with blood.

“They were putting injured people inside the church,” said Awatef Saad, a 44-year-old nurse. “There must have been 100 people in total. We were trying to stitch all the wounds but there were so many injuries.”

Some of the dead were also brought here. One was a middle-aged man called Medhat Magdy, according to Ms Saad. “He was shot in the neck,” she said. “I found his body at the alter when I arrived at the church.”

He was just one of 12 people who were killed during violent clashes between Muslims and Christians which flared up on Saturday night in Imbaba, a dirt-poor district of western Cairo.

The pitched street battles continued into the early hours of yesterday, and two Coptic churches were set ablaze in a night of unrest which also left 200 people injured. The trouble began on Saturday after a rumour spread around the neighbourhood that a woman was being held against her will in the Saint Menas Church because she had married a Muslim man and wanted to convert.

The claim was denied by Christians at the church and never substantiated, but by nightfall several hundred members of the Salafi movement – a hardline branch of Islam which has become increasingly vocal since the fall of the former president Hosni Mubarak in February – had gathered in the street outside.

After barricading themselves inside the church, the Christians were attacked by Salafists, who hurled petrol bombs at homes and shops and torched the front of the church building.

Gunfire rang out around the area as the two sides hurled stones and bricks at each other. Riot police and soldiers arrived later and fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowds, while another nearby church, the Virgin Mary Church, was also torched. “The people who did this were from outside the area. But we have nothing but love to give and we don’t want anybody killed in return,” said Misak Gameel, a priest who works at the Saint Menas Church. “The gates of hell themselves couldn’t destroy this church. We blame the army and the police. They didn’t deal with the Salafis and thugs as required.”

George Ishak, a prominent Christian pro-democracy activist who visited Saint Menas Church yesterday, said: “There is a very tense atmosphere in our country between the Muslims and the Christians. What happened on Saturday was a very bad thing. We don’t accept it. Why is there so much anger? Where is it coming from? It’s unbelievable how people can treat each other.”

Speaking from a nearby tea-house as he sat smoking a shisha pipe, an elderly resident called Abdul Rahman said he had seen large groups pf Salafists gathering in the area on Saturday night. He added: “The Salafists don’t even like me, and I’m a Muslim. They don’t like the revolution because they think we will end up like Lebanon.”

Egypt’s government moved swiftly to try to quell the unrest, with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelling a tour of Gulf Arab states to chair a cabinet meeting where it was decided to deploy more security forces near religious sites and toughen laws criminalising attacks on places of worship. The military, struggling to maintain security and public support in the aftermath of protests earlier this year, said that 190 people would be tried in military courts over Saturday’s violence.

Running scared: Egypt’s Christians looking to leave

Egyptian Copts take to the streets

Fears that Egypt’s revolution could be hijacked by increasingly vociferous political Islamists are threatening to cause an exodus of the country’s minority Coptic population.

Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February, large numbers of Egyptian Christians have been making plans to leave the country if political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood manage to take control in elections scheduled for later this year.

Lawyers who specialise in working with Coptic Egyptians – who account for around 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million citizens – say that in the past few weeks they have received hundreds of calls from Copts wanting to leave Egypt because of the political uncertainty.

Naguib Gabriel, a prominent Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, said his office had been receiving at least 70 calls per week from people wanting to know how they can emigrate.

He said: “Every day people come to me and ask how they can get to the American or Canadian embassies. They are insisting on leaving Egypt because the risks of staying here are too great.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he added. “Many Christians are afraid of the future because of the fanatics in the mosques.”

Though much of the focus on Egypt’s uprising has remained upbeat – especially in comparison to the bloody quagmire developing in neighbouring Libya – the period since Mubarak’s ouster has been marred by vicious bouts of sectarian strife.

At least 15 people, Christians and Muslims, were killed last month in a chain of violence which erupted because of a relationship between a Coptic man and Muslim woman in a village south of Cairo.

This led to a hundreds of Christians joining a prolonged demonstration outside Cairo’s state TV building in a bid to secure better protection for the Copts from Egypt’s ruling military council.

In recent days there have also been clashes involving Egypt’s Salafi movement, a fundamentalist Islamic sect which is considered even more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to reports in the Daily News Egypt, a Coptic service centre in Cairo was closed down this week after being picketed by Salafis, while in the Fayoum province south of the capital fights broke out after the sect tried to force the closure of a shop selling alcohol.

It all seems a far cry from the days when demonstrators in Tahrir Square were declaring: “Muslims and Christians are on one hand”.

“The issues now are worse now than in the past,” said Mr Gabriel. “In the past there were problems, but there were long periods between them.

“But after the revolution every day we are seeing new things.”

Mamdouh Nakhla, a Coptic lawyer, said his office was speaking to around 150 people per month who were making plans to leave Egypt because of the political situation.

Some were Muslims, he said, but most were Copts who were worried about the prospects of a Brotherhood-dominated government.

He said: “They want to leave to countries where there is freedom of religion.”

According to both Mr Nakhla and Mr Gabriel, most of the people planning to emigrate want to go to Canada, where there is a large Coptic population of around 50,000.

The Canadian embassy in Cairo said it could not reveal how many Egyptians had applied for visas there since the uprising began.

But Sam Fanous, who runs a company helping Egyptians emigrate and settle in Canada, said that over the past month his office had been “bombarded” with requests from Copts who wanted help in leaving the country.

He added: “I have people coming to my Cairo office until midnight. Often I tell my assistant to shut down the phones because we have so many people calling.”

“The majority of people want to emigrate. Some ask about asylum, but I explain they cannot get refugee status from Egypt.”

Mr Fanous said most of the people coming to him were well-off professionals.

“Some want to go and not come back. Some want to take their families and then come back until it becomes time to leave.”

But he also said there was a difference in attitude between older Copts he had spoken to and the younger generations.

“The young want to fight it out. They were in Tahrir Square and they are not as scared as the older generations.”

Nada Rafik, a 21-year-old Copt from Cairo, said that since the revolution her mother had been making plans to move the family to Canada.

She said: “My mother has been trying to get a Canadian passport for the past year, but since the revolution she’s been saying ‘let’s try and get this done quickly’.

“She is taking precautions and saying that the family has to leave.”

Ms Rafik, a financial analyst, said that she would also consider leaving, but only if the situation got much worse.

“The older generation are more scared than us. They have lived with Mubarak for 30 years and are used to him. Now they are afraid because they see the Egyptian media talking about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, but they don’t see the other side really.”

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected later this year after a recent referendum rubber-stamped constitutional changes which the government had argued were necessary for a fair ballot.

Critics have said that holding the polls this year will benefit only the Muslim Brotherhood and formerly-ruling National Democratic Party, as they are the only organisations currently strong enough to fight an election.

But the Muslim Brotherhood has swatted away concerns it will secure too much power, saying it will not contest more than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats and will field no presidential candidate.