The green backyard at the Salafi sheikh’s house in the old Mediterranean city of Alexandria was full of guests. They weren’t students who came for religious lessons as usual but rather politicians appealing for the sheikh’s political blessing in the presidential elections. It should be no surprise: Yasser Burhami, the ultraconservative Salafi leader and patron of al-Nour party, has become a key player in Egyptian politics. Ironically, a year ago, Burhami kept his distance from the Egyptian revolution and requested that his followers also do so. But today, he is deeply immersed in political strategy and tactics as he struggles to navigate the new terrain confronting the Salafi movement.
The Salafi movement’s strategy has become clearer with its surprising decision to endorse the Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for Egypt’s presidency. This was not an obvious call. The decision to choose Aboul Fotouh over the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi or other possible contenders took weeks of negotiations and discussions within al-Dawa al-Salafiyya (the Salafi Call), the main political Salafi force in Egypt, and its political arm, al-Nour party. That decision has once again reshuffled Egypt’s political cards — and offered new insight into where the Salafi movement is headed.
Conversations with trusted Salafi sources reveal a wide range of factors behind the Salafi decision to back Aboul Fotouh. The political partnership with Aboul Fotouh is based on mutual political interests, not ideological or religious affinities. Such a partnership will be tactical until both parties consolidate their relationship. A key political goal is to counterbalance the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which they claim seeks a political monopoly over all institutions in Egypt. They also hope to avoid voting fragmentation among Salafis which would only benefit the "feloul" candidates (the remnants of the Mubarak regime), such as Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq. "We were looking for a ‘consensual’ candidate who can unite Egyptians and has a clear vision to the future," a Salafi source said.
The calculations of the Salafis have also been shaped by the disqualifications of two leading candidates by Egypt’s electoral commission. The disqualification of the popular Islamist candidate Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail "made our job easy," mentioned a high Salafi source. "We’ve managed to throw two birds by one stone: bargaining with Aboul Fotouh on the one hand, and overcoming an organizational and ideological burden on the other," referring to the internal rifts over Abu Ismail’s candidacy. The disqualification of Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat el-Shater left the MB with Morsi, a less formidable candidate. Backing Morsi, they feared, would strengthen the MB position at the expense of the nascent Salafi movement. Alternatively, leaving the Salafi grassroots to decide on their candidate would risk causing organizational disintegration (plus losing a good card in the political game). For many Salafi leaders, therefore, the Aboul Fotouh card was the only way out of such a predicament despite their real concerns about Aboul Fotouh’s liberal inclinations.
It is clear that politics, not ideology, dictated the Salafis’ decision. Both Aboul Fotouh and the Salafis understand the consequences of such a decision, even if just for the short term. Yet the cost-benefit calculus led both to insist on making the deal. Aboul Fotouh will get the political, organizational, and social support of the Salafis, particularly in the rural areas that are difficult to reach. And the Salafis will get a friendly president who will secure them a say in high politics even if he is not from their own movement. Contrary to the stereotypical image of Salafis as "ultraconservative religious monsters," religion had almost no weight in their decision to endorse Aboul Fotouh. As Nader Bakar, an outspoken young Salafi leader, blatantly put it, "we were looking for a president who can be a mere executive manager not an Islamic caliph."
The mechanism behind the decision is another astonishing development in the Salafis’ dynamics. Known by their regressive stance on democracy, the vote for Aboul Fotouh was internally democratic, although it was under the banner of the religious rule "the mandatory Shura." Both al-Nour and al-Dawa al-Salaffiyya held internal elections to vote over which candidate they would endorse in the presidential race. According to many sources and media coverage, the voting process was transparent and clean. Firstly, they held an election debate between Islamist candidates including Mohamed Morsi and Mohamed Selim al-Awa, as well as an aide, Ibrahim el-Zafaria (a former MB member), delegated by Aboul Foutoh who could not attend. After the debate, the candidates and their aides left and the voting process started. To avoid any biased pressures on members’ decisions, they segregated both institutions, al-Nour’s high commission and its parliamentary bloc (105 members), and the Consultative Council of al-Dawa al-Salafiyya (150 out of 204 members voted). And the elections were conducted simultaneously in two different rooms. Aboul Fotouh received 70 and 80 percent of the votes from the institutions respectively.
The gains for the Salafis for endorsing Aboul Fotouh are enormous. First, it will re-position al-Nour and its patron at the heart of the political process in Egypt particularly if Aboul Fotouh wins the elections. Backing Aboul Fotouh, who is relatively without an institutional or social base, will secure a foothold for the Salafis in Egyptian politics. Second, the decision will increase the public appeal and respect for Salafis. It resonates with popular aspirations to have a revolutionary and "consensual" president like Aboul Fotouh. The process behind the decision offers a stark comparison between the MB and Salafis on internal transparency and democracy. Third, the decision will inevitably hurt the MB’s image and political weight. On one hand, it shows the MB as the heartless movement that expelled Aboul Fotouh whereas Salafis safeguarded him. On the other hand, it will increase the alienation and isolation of the MB particularly within the Islamist context. Moreover, the Salafis’ backing of Aboul Fotouh will have a significant impact on a large constituency of undecided voters, especially among low and lower-middle class voters. However most notably, the endorsement of Aboul Fotouh hasn’t only revealed the Salafis’ increasing political savvy and shrewdness, but also proved that politics, not piety will reshape their future.
Khalil al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC. He can be reach at: email@example.com.