Alexandria, once the pulsing cosmopolitan heart of the Arab World, is now the base of Egypt’s Salafists, a hardline Islamist movement that has tied its fortunes to the country’s autocratic new president.
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — On a Friday morning in September, a few hours before prayers, I was picked up at my hotel in Alexandria by Ashraf Gomaa El Sayed, a 28-year-old preacher and administrator in the Salafi Dawa, the movement that coordinates the religious and educational life of millions of Egypt’s most conservative Muslims.
We drove along the Corniche, which borders the Mediterranean, past the delicately embroidered sugar cube that is the old Italian Consulate, shuttered only weeks before and taken over by a bank; past the outdoor tables of the Café de la Paix and the disintegrating stucco of the gaudy, Moorish-style apartment towers above them; past the crowds of idle men leaning on the ramparts and gazing out at the sea.
Our driver, Mahmoud Muhamad Abdul Ali, bearded like Ashraf, took a right turn away from the sea and into the interior, and we drove along new boulevards unknown to E.M. Forster, Constantine Cavafy, Lawrence Durrell, and the other bards of Alexandria’s Belle Époque in the decades before World War II. We nosed through a dismal slum of shattered building façades, drove along a road bordered with reeds, and finally reached our destination -- al-Hamd Mosque in Khorshid, a trash-strewn industrial suburb filled with impoverished families who in recent decades had poured into the city’s edges from the hinterlands.
I asked El Sayed to tell me about Salafism, but it was the driver who did most of the talking. Abdul Ali seemed not at all fazed to be pronouncing on matters of faith in front of a religious authority. “As a Salafi,” he said through a translator, “we are permitted to question the imam. It’s not like the Muslim Brotherhood, where you blindly follow the teacher’s authority. Our own authority is the Quran, and the Sunnah [the lessons taken from the life of the Prophet].”
Abdul Ali and his wife had been attending al-Furqan, the Dawa’s theological academy, and he was eager to explain to me what the Salafis mean when they say they take a “scientific” approach to applying religion to the problems of life. “When you study philosophy,” he said, “you read Plato and Aristotle. When you study English literature, you don’t read books from today, you read the classics. You must go back to the origins. For us, the first generation of the Prophet and his companions -- this is the most important source of truth. The next generation is the next most important, and then the one after that.” Beyond that, revelation subsides into history, with all its errors.
That, in a nutshell, is the Salafi worldview: Allah disclosed the truth during the first half of the seventh century, and then stopped; it is up to man to apply those eternal verities to life today.
I had gone to Alexandria to look at Egypt in a different light. In the mind-boggling narrative we've followed since the Arab Spring burst into bloom in the beginning of 2011, Egyptians first took to the streets in a euphoric celebration of democracy, went to the polls to elect an Islamist government, turned bitterly against that government and welcomed a military takeover, and then, finally, voted into power the general who led the coup. Now Egypt is back where it started, with a secular authoritarian government that recently oversaw a judiciary that exonerated the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, of the deaths of hundreds of protestors during his final days in office.
But this series of convulsions has deeply unsettled Egyptian society, and brought new forces to the surface. The Muslim Brotherhood has been crushed, but the Salafis have taken their place as Egypt's politically mobilized Islamist movement.
What is true in Egypt is true, albeit in very different forms, across the Middle East.
The Arab Spring raised immense hopes that liberal democratic values would finally flourish in the heart of the Islamic world. But with the exception of Tunisia, now making real progress towards democracy, the opposite has been the case. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have collapsed into civil war or near-anarchy. Religious extremism is on the march, with Sunnis and Shiites at war across the region. Christians and other minority faiths risk being expelled from towns and cities where their communities have existed for centuries.
North Africa used to be a civilizational crossroads in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews not only lived alongside one another but also shared one another's language and culture. This mingled society, formed from many intense particularities, is what we call cosmopolitanism. It was born in the Middle East, and it now seems to be disappearing there, including from the one place where the cosmopolitan ideal reached its supreme realization: Alexandria.
In an agonized reflection on the collapse of Arab culture, Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, recently wrote that a “byproduct of the depredation of the national security state and resurgent Islamism has been the slow death of the cosmopolitanism that distinguished great Middle Eastern cities like Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. Alexandria was once a center of learning and multicultural delights.… Today Alexandria is a hotbed of political Islam.”
I had gone to al-Hamd in order to meet ordinary Salafis at Friday prayers—though I would not have been welcome had I not received advance blessing from the Dawa. Once our car reached the mosque, my translator, Magda Magdy, had to peel off to the woman’s section behind the building. My photographer, Mosa’ab Elshamy, and I received a steady supply of cold drinks in the imam’s office, while other men in the office either scrolled down their smartphone or read scripture. We were given the Salafis’ daily paper, al-Fath (“The Conquest”). “It is well-known that the U.S. is the axis of evil and the source of all calamities in the Middle East,” read the lead editorial. “It has always aimed to inflame all conflicts and keep them from being solved. That has been its strategy along with Jews: Divide and Conquer.”
I walked into the main hall as prayers began. It was a simple structure; an overhead fan whirred as men gathered to pray. The imam, Sheikh Sabry Selim, mounted the elevated pulpit, known as a minbar, and began the khutba, or sermon. He admonished his listeners against the sins of disputatiousness, profanity, and aggressiveness, whether in person or on Facebook. Muslims, he said, “have lost sight of the Prophet’s example, and given the world a very poor image of Islam.”
This led the sheikh into a denunciation of daesh, as the Islamic State is frequently called in the Arab world. “Is it Islamic to kill?” he asked. “Is it Islamic to behead people? Is it Islamic to call someone an infidel? That is their ideology. But it is not Islam.”
This was a sermon that could have been written by Egypt’s official religious authorities at Al-Azhar University, which for over 1,000 years has served as the heart of Sunni religious learning. To some extent, it was: The sheikh explained to me afterward that he is obliged to collect his sermons every few weeks and send them to the central government’s Ministry of Endowments for oversight. In any case, the sheikh was an “Azharian Salafi” -- an Azhar graduate and a member of Egypt’s official religious bureaucracy, which other Salafis often denounce for imposing edicts at variance with their own conviction that each believer discovers the truth for himself. The Ministry of Endowments had been cracking down on non-Azhar preachers, and this summer issued a decree forbidding them to preach Friday sermons.
Despite their emphasis on strict piety and a long tradition of remove from public life, the Salafis have participated in politics vigorously since the revolutionary upheaval of 2011. While a number of small Salafi parties have sided with the Muslim Brotherhood or sympathized with the democratic opposition, the Alexandria Dawa's Nour Party, which won the overwhelming proportion of Salafi votes in the 2012 parliamentary election, offers unquestioning support to the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman president. Here is a strange phenomenon: Political Islam has thrown in its lot with secular authoritarianism.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, and above all in Syria’s civil war, Salafis are the shock troops of violent jihad. In Egypt, however, most Salafis share the general public’s abhorrence of violence and chaos. They do not want to rock the boat; they saw what happened to the Brotherhood. "The street is only for declaring an opinion," Bassam al-Zarqa, a senior Dawa figure, told me sternly. "Political participation must be done through political institutions."
Nevertheless, Egypt’s secular opposition parties view the Nour Party as a greater threat to Egypt’s identity than the Muslim Brotherhood. Mahmoud Badr, the leader of the Tamarod movement, which organized mass protests against the Brotherhood government, recently asserted that the party’s ideology “is much more extremist than the one espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood.” With parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year, a coalition of secular parties is seeking to have Nour banned under a constitutional provision prohibiting the formation of political parties on religious grounds. Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court is scheduled to hear the case in January.
The Sisi regime has given the effort no overt support—perhaps because the party and the regime have proved indispensable to one another. That may be the greatest source of danger: As Melhem writes, it's the convergence of the national security state with a newly organized and self-confident Salafism that makes Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism feel like a relic of another era.
Though it was never the military and political capital of the ancient world, Alexandria was for a time its intellectual and cultural center. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in the aftermath of his conquest of Egypt in 331 B.C., and was developed by Ptolemy I, the general he left behind as the new pharaoh. Flush with the wealth both of Egypt and of the larger world—whose ships thronged the city’s bustling Mediterranean port—Ptolemy built both a great library and a Mouseion, or museum, which functioned as an academy of scholarship. At its height, the Library of Alexandria held around 700,000 scrolls, including the now-vanished complete works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.
Many of the greatest scholars of the ancient world lived in Alexandria and frequented the Mouseion. So, too, did Jews, Syrians, and Greeks—for Alexandria was the center of the Hellenistic civilization in which Greek culture mingled with that of North Africa and the East. Ptolemy had conceived the city as a civilizational project: The library, he decreed, would accept volumes from “all nations so far as they were worthy of serious attention.” The library held a collection of Sanskritic texts from India. And it was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars translated the Bible into Greek, the work now known as the Septuagint.
Ancient Alexandria, in short, was the cosmopolis par excellence—but it was not to last. The city was sacked by Romans and then by Christians. The library collapsed, and the scrolls crumbled into dust. The Pharos, the great lighthouse that was counted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, fell into the sea. By the time of the Arab invasion in 642 A.D., there was little left to plunder.
In the centuries that followed, the city was eclipsed by Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo. It came back to life only in the middle of the 19th century, when Egypt’s rulers, seeking to modernize the country, turned toward Europe. First Greeks, then French, Italians, English, Armenians, and others began to settle in this city, which looked across the Mediterranean to Europe. The Alexandria synagogue was built in 1836; the Opera House, which unlike the synagogue remains in use, in 1918.
By the early 20th century, Alexandria had become a home, not for mathematicians and astronomers, but for novelists and poets. E. M. Forster wrote a guide to city in 1922. Constantine Cavafy, the greatest of modern Greek poets, served as a kind of muse and presiding spirit of Belle Époque Alexandria.
It was Cavafy who urged Lawrence Durrell to write about the city. The British poet conjured Alexandria as a cosmopolitan ideal raised to the level of shimmering dream. “What is resumed in the word Alexandria?” he asks in Justine, a novel of romantic and sexual obsession whose main character, as Durrell continually asserts, is the city itself. “Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds.… But there are more than five sexes, and only demotic Greek seeks to distinguish among them.”
Cosmopolitan Alexandria came to a crashing end with the rise of the Arab nationalism championed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The idea of a foreign encampment on Egyptian soil came to be seen as an insult to sovereignty: In the burst of nationalism following the 1956 Suez War, the Europeans began to pack their china and silver in dusty suitcases long prepared for the inevitable moment of flight, and joined relatives in Paris or London, Athens or Rome. Nasser's nationalization of European property, culminating in 1961, drove out almost all those who remained.
The memory of Alexandria’s heyday still lingers in the city's streets and its architecture. I stayed at the Hotel Cecil, built in 1929. The Cecil's wood-paneled elevators still float up and down inside filigreed wrought-iron cages. Durrell’s Justine, the infinitely desirable but unpossessable figure at the heart of his novel, meets one of her lovers, Arnauti, when their gazes lock in the great gilt-framed mirror in the Cecil’s lobby. That mirror survives, though, like almost everything in the Cecil, it is now pockmarked with age.
Just beyond the hotel’s front door, lining Saad Zaghloul Square, are the venerable cafés Les Délices and the Trianon, where the protagonist of Naguib Mahfouz’s 1967 novel, Miramar, would sit and slowly stir his café au lait. The Opera House has been lovingly preserved, though the great orchestras and ballet companies no longer come through town. The old traffic-police kiosks, with their pointed red-tiled roofs, stand a ghostly sentry at many of the city’s intersections. The dust-coated tram still groans and clacks its way across the city. In Out of Egypt, his deeply nostalgic memoir of the last days of Europeanized Alexandria, André Aciman recalls how a distant relative, transplanted to Paris, conjured up the city through the magical names of the tram stations: Sarwat, San Stefano, Zizinia, Mazloum, Glymenopoulos.
You can, if you look hard, find the human as well as the physical remnants of that old city. Upstairs from the Minerva men’s clothing shop on the city’s main shopping street, the proprietor, 76-year-old Edmond N. Cassimatis, sits in an office dense with Greek memorabilia. “You want to hear about the old Alexandria?" Cassimatis said to me when I arrived. "Where have you been all these years?”
Cassimatis's father founded Minerva in 1908, which he says makes it the oldest such store in Egypt. Across from a photograph of his father, a mustachioed gentleman who had emigrated from Greece in the 1880, Cassimatis keeps a picture of Egypt’s penultimate king, the Westernized Farouk I. Cassimatis recalled the Greek magnates who had spun the finest cotton in Egypt, and sold the most, if not the best, liquor. He spoke rhapsodically of the great cafés and patisseries of yore. When he was a boy, he said, “The cafés, the bakeries, the waiters, they were all Greek. The pharmacies—Greek. The driver of taxis—Greek!”
Now he was one of only 500 or so Greeks who still live full-time in Alexandria. And when he retires? “My son,” said Cassimatis bleakly, “will come from Athens to sell the business.”
Alexandria is still, in its own way, a cosmopolitan city. There’s an underground music scene—though I was told that at one pop-up concert, outraged Salafis destroyed the stage. Amira Hegazy, a language teacher who also works with local researchers, made the peculiar observation that the city has the largest proportion of both gay men and Salafis in Egypt. “That’s Alexandrian cosmopolitanism,” she said. “Everyone can coexist.”
The institutional embodiment of this vision of a progressive Alexandria, and a progressive Egypt, is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a new version of the ancient library. The library, which opened in 2002, faces the sea from the far side of the Corniche, occupying the site where, it is believed, Alexander the Great founded the ancient city. The library’s granite façade is inscribed with the world’s alphabets; the roof is a tilted disk whose louvers let the light pour in. The great terraced reading room that occupies much of the interior steps down toward the sea like a series of gardens—an air-conditioned paradise for scholarship. It is the one interior public space in Alexandria that is elegant, spacious, clean, shiny, and welcoming.
The Bibliotheca was one of Hosni Mubarak's grand projects, designed to reassert Egypt's fading status as a forward-looking nation and the leader of the Arab world. The idea caught the imagination of Western leaders and institutions eager to promote progressive values in the Middle East. The $220 million cost was shared by the United States, Russia, EU nations, and Gulf and Arab states—Saddam Hussein even kicked in $21 million—and built by the Norwegian firm Snohetta. Over the years, the Bibliotheca has come to include museums and art galleries, research centers and conferences, and a planetarium. On the Bibliotheca’s website, the director, Ismail Serageldin, writes that it is meant to be “the world’s window on Egypt” and “Egypt’s window on the world”—as much Egypt’s lighthouse as its library.
The project always enjoyed the special patronage of Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, who served as chair of the board and placed loyalists in senior positions. This has not helped it gain the esteem of Egypt’s intelligentsia: Lina Attalah, the editor of Mada Masr, one of Egypt's dwindling stock of newspapers prepared to criticize the Sisi regime, dismisses it as “Suzanne Mubarak’s plaything.”
Others see Serageldin, an erudite former World Bank official, as a mini-Mubarak—an authoritarian who in January 2012 had to be rescued by Egyptian commandos when 400 employees went on strike and refused to let him leave his office, demanding he resign. Even the Bibliotheca’s more forward-looking efforts provoked suspicion. During Mubarak’s paralytic final decade, the library hosted an annual forum of regional elites that called for democracy and constitutionalism. Mubarak himself presided over the opening session in 2004. Of course, this was all for show: Neither Mubarak nor any other regional autocrat had any intention of allowing incremental reform to lead to real change. After those dammed-up energies led to the explosion of the Arab Spring, the annual meetings were discontinued.
Yet the Arab Spring did not entirely discredit the Bibliotheca. In an article that recapitulates many of the criticisms of the library, Amro Ali, a historian and urban researcher, writes, “[T]he Bibliotheca forms a crucial venue for activists, protestors, scholars, artists, musicians and students.” During the brief carnival of mayhem against anything perceived to be a state institution in 2011, the governorate office a few blocks away was burned down, but young people surrounded the library to keep it safe.
When I spoke to Serageldin in the glassed-in office from which he had been extracted, he brought out his iPad for a slide show: revolutionary youth linking arms in front of the building during the protests of early 2011; the giant Egyptian flag in which the library was draped; graffiti on an Alexandria wall showing three pyramids with a fourth representing the library. Those turbulent months, he said, had been a source of deep relief and profound vindication, proving that "the liberal values which we stand for have actually permeated the society.”
At the same time, Serageldin's association with the regime made him a very inviting target during the revolution. That association, in turn, rubbed off on the institution. Several staff members told me that during the first years of revolutionary upheaval they lived in fear of coming to the library or telling strangers that they worked there. “There was so much suppressed fear, anger, hatred,” says Heba El Rafey, head of public relations.
If you stand at the very top of the Bibliotheca and gaze out over the extending planes of the reading room, you can take in the Alexandria that once was and might be. That Alexandria stretched out across the Mediterranean toward the world beyond. But from this great height you see only a few dozen people sitting at the reading desks or working on the computers. Before 2011, as many as 4,000 people visited the library each day. Now the number is 200 to 300, and hours have been sharply reduced. The library, like Egypt, seems to be turning in on itself.
Alexandria’s remaining cosmopolitans have tried to make peace with the Salafis, but it is an uneasy match. Serageldin says that he has often had Salafis to the library for events, and several of the men at al-Hamd Mosque told me that they regarded Alexandria's cosmopolitan reputation as a mark of honor. In the Cecil Hotel’s lobby I met with a self-professed Salafi cosmopolitan, Muhammad Amara, who told me that he had studied filmmaking in Los Angeles and now worked on documentaries about the world’s great cities. Amara had the standard-issue long, ragged beard, but his genial manner felt more West Coast than Dawa. “People who live in cosmopolitan cities are different,” Amara observed. “They have a good mind. They don’t just accept things. They say, `Tell me the evidence.’”
Amara’s cosmopolitan embrace of difference seemed to apply to those most remote from him, but not those nearby. He launched into a diatribe—a cheerful diatribe, to be sure—against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis' great rival for the loyalty of Egypt’s Islamists. The Brotherhood's professed commitment to Islamic principles, he insisted, was a sham. “The Brotherhood don’t do sharia [Islamic law]; they don’t do scientific thinking.” They lie about their commitment to democracy, he went on, their love of Egypt, their piety.
The Salafis, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, had shunned activism during the modest political opening of Mubarak’s last years in power, and sat out the euphoric street drama of early 2011. When I asked Dawa leaders why they had advised their followers to stay clear of the protests, the answer was always the same: “We were afraid there would be chaos,” said Ahmed Khalil Khairallah, a young member of the Dawa who now operates religious schools (and sells real estate).
But this was by no means the whole story. While the Brotherhood was prepared to make common cause with secularists demanding political rights, the Salafis were not. For the Salafis, secularism was blasphemy; their fear of undermining Egypt’s religious identity easily trumped their hope for a political opening. In early February 2011, two weeks into the protests, the Salafis called a mass rally in Alexandria at which they warned that Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which calls sharia “the principal source of legislation,” must remain inviolable.
The Salafis increasingly took to the streets—not in concert with other protesters, but in opposition to them. In advance of a massive rally in Tahrir Square on July 29, 2011, after Mubarak had been deposed and Egypt was being ruled by an interim military government, the Dawa announced its opposition to “a minority known for its secularist and liberal affliction against the aspirations of the people.” That “minority” referred to all Egyptians who did not seek a state guided by sharia law.
This marked a violation of an implicit truce. Brotherhood and non-Islamist protesters had agreed to avoid divisive issues of identity and to unite behind a call for a swift transition to civilian rule. A phalanx of bearded and white-robed Salafis disrupted the rally, chanting, “Islamic, Islamic!” Appalled revolutionaries dubbed the rally “Kandahar Friday.” It became all too plain that the Salafis viewed politics as an instrument for religious mobilization.
That’s not quite the way the group’s leaders describe their entry into electoral contest. Ashraf Thabet, a veteran Dawa preacher, told me that Salafis had long viewed politics as a “farce” incapable of producing social change, but concluded that the revolution had opened up new possibilities.
And so, in the summer of 2011, the Dawa organized the Nour Party, which opened its headquarters in Alexandria. The party platform was highly pragmatic, calling for a French-style presidential form of government and increased spending on research and development, while largely steering clear of invidious religious language. The party initially forged an alliance with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party—which it quickly broke from in favor of a coalition with two Cairo-based Salafi groups.
In the parliamentary elections held in late 2011 and early 2012, the Salafi coalition shocked practically everyone in Egypt by winning 28 percent of the seats in Parliament. The outcome placed them second after the Brotherhood’s party, and gave them a larger weight in Parliament than all secular parties combined.
Most Nour candidates called for sharia while avoiding discussion of a religious agenda. One study of the election noted that most voters had little idea of the religious differences between the Salafi parties and the Brotherhood. Nour candidates often distinguished themselves from the Brotherhood by claiming that they were figures from outside Egypt’s traditional political game, while the Brotherhood had long been implicated in the dirty politics of decades past.
After their stunning victory at the ballot box, however, the Salafis struggled to wield power effectively. Their long-standing contempt for politics made them indifferent legislators, chiefly concerned with issuing edicts on religious principles. And their reputation for integrity soon faded: After one member was arrested with a woman in a car on the side of the road, and another lied about a nose job, the Nour Party came to be seen as a party of buffoons. However, they remained a thorn in the side of the Brotherhood, which controlled the Parliament and was trying to shape the process of writing a new constitution.
An election for president was looming in the spring, however, and the Nour Party’s chief political goal seemed to be undermining the Brotherhood’s prospects. After much internal debate, the party chose not to endorse the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, instead backing the much more liberal Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, who had broken from the Brotherhood and was attempting to transcend the Islamist versus non-Islamist divide that had come to define Egyptian politics.
Yasser Borhami, the person most responsible for the decision, explained to me, “We feared the Brotherhood would seize all power for itself.” That, Borhami said, would have been destabilizing for Egypt. But the decision to back Abul Fotouh, which startled the party’s own rank and file, also made it clear that for all their thunderous chants of “Islamic,” the Salafis were prepared to soft-pedal their convictions in order to expand their political space.
It wasn’t the last time that the Salafis would undercut the Brotherhood, seemingly at the expense of their religious principles. Borhami and his colleagues felt deeply vindicated when Egyptians took to the streets in summer 2013 to demand the downfall of the Brotherhood government. On July 3, 2013, the military stepped in once again; senior Nour figures stood alongside the generals at the news conference announcing the coup.
Nour Party leaders claim, improbably, that they had done all they could to prevent the Brotherhood government from imploding. “There was a strong polarization between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secularists,” says Bassam al-Zarqa, the Dawa leader. “Both played a zero-sum game. We acted as a bridge between them.”
Zarqa and others told me that the salient difference between Morsi and the generals was not religiosity but order. Only the military could have quelled the chaos that Brotherhood rule had unleashed, they said. But then the Salafi leadership remained silent when the security forces unleashed their own chaos: They did not murmur when the new regime turned its guns on Brotherhood protesters in Rabaa Square, a Tiananmen-style massacre in which 817 people were killed. And when, seven months later, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed his military uniform to run for president, the Nour Party endorsed him and used its organizational muscle to turn out votes.
Both decisions infuriated many younger members of Nour, who had sympathized with the revolution. “We have already lost many people,” Ahmed Khalil Khairallah, the young Dawa businessman, concedes. But it was a price they were prepared to pay.
The Salafis seem remarkably blithe about putting off their long-term vision for Egypt in order to crush their Islamist rivals. I told Zarqa that I was surprised by the party’s willingness to postpone its religious agenda to a remote future. Zarqa corrected me: “You’ve been hearing that there are two visions for Egypt: sharia and non-sharia. The non-sharia does not exist. That vision does not exceed 15 percent [of the population].”
Salafis believe not only that secularism is a fringe position in Egypt—this may well be so—but that virtually all Egyptian Muslims are Salafis. “Even a dancer is a Salafi,” Zarqa said to me. This is a much more dubious proposition. Men like Zarqa have the calm faith in the future that Marxist-Leninists had in the high noon of Soviet power. Sharia will come, so they can afford to be patient.
What is the Salafi vision for Egypt, anyway? It’s not easy to say; Dawa and Nour leaders have learned to hold their tongues in mixed company. Most of my interviews with them felt like a game of cat and mouse. After one particularly evasive answer, Ahmed Khalil Khairallah smiled and said, “I admit that I answered the last question a little bit slyly.”
Yasser Borhami, who is both the chief ideologue and the lead political tactician of the Dawa, does not admit to delivering sly answers. His father was a Brotherhood official who was jailed by the Nasser regime when Yasser was seven. Like many Dawa leaders, Borhami migrated to the stricter Salafi strain of the faith while a student at Alexandria University.
He is a figure of notable gravity, even by Salafi standards: While most of the Dawa and Nour Party leaders I met wore suits and met me at the party headquarters or at their apartments, Borhami wore a faded blue-gray galabiya, the traditional robe, and received me in his crowded office in central Alexandria, where he works as a pediatrician. The furnishings of his office are limited to a littered desk, a chair or two, a medical cabinet, and, oddly, a curtain rod (with no curtain) that runs diagonally across the cabinet.
Borhami is a big and broad man with a particularly scraggly beard and an almost showy zbiba, the forehead callous that comes from ardent prayer. In a 2011 interview with Egyptian television, he said that while he honored his obligation as a doctor to treat Christian patients, as a man of religion he viewed them as “kufr”—infidels. Only Muslims can be said to have faith in God; a Christian is an “apostate,” though one who “has rights.” When I asked Borhami if he viewed Christian as infidels, he turned the question back on me.
“You are Christian?”
“So you think that Muslims are infidels.”
I tried to explain that the word was foreign to my nature, and that people who thought as I did assumed that different understandings of God could coexist.
Borhami said, “Yes, this is what I say.”
Of course, that’s not what he said. The possible coexistence of different ideas of God is central to the idea of cosmopolitanism—one does not, by contrast, hold a conversation of equals with infidels. When I asked Borhami if he thought that Christians should pay the jizya, the tax once levied on non-believers, he adopted another artful dodge. “Jizya,” he said, “is one of the main systems available in Islamic law, but it is not the only system.”
Borhami is a theological dogmatist but a political pragmatist; he is prepared to blur his convictions in order to secure a place for the Salafi Dawa in Egypt’s new political order.
The Salafis are equally vague on the question of democracy. They believe in what Borhami calls the “process” of democracy, which is to say, politics and elections. They don’t believe in the “philosophy” of democracy—which is to say, rule of the majority. For the Salafis, sovereignty inheres in God, not man. This marks another point of friction with the Muslim Brotherhood: When I interviewed Brotherhood legislators in 2007, I asked whether they would accept a legislative decision they considered un-Islamic, and they said they would. I mentioned this to several of the Salafis, and they told me that the Brothers were lying to me. Perhaps they were, but at the very least, they thought it was important to state such a position. For the Salafis, no legislative decision to adopt gay marriage, for example, could ever be deemed acceptable. Of course, since they believe that virtually all Egyptians advocate sharia law, this was a purely hypothetical problem.
After the Friday sermon at al-Hamd Mosque, I spent several hours talking to worshipers and local Salafi leaders. Should Egyptian law include hudud, the Quranic punishments for crime, such as cutting off the hand of a thief, which are common in Saudi Arabia? “This is a tiny part of religion,” said Mustapha Morsi, an electrical engineer. Sometimes it is applicable, sometimes not.
Was the government massacre of protestors at Rabaa justified? A pharmacist with a barrel chest and a great black beard said, “We must analyze this without emotion or sentimentality.” The Brotherhood had created provocations, he explained, and the security forces had no choice but to respond.
Afterwards, I was brought to the home of Sheikh Selim for lunch and more conversation. Would it be permissible, the sheikh said, to ask me questions? Of course. “Since the United States cooperated with al Qaeda in the past, how can we believe that Osama bin Laden caused 9/11?” Hadn’t the United States collaborated with the Taliban who fought the Russians in the 1980s? We batted this back and forth for a while, and then I asked for a show of hands of who believed that Osama bin Laden had organized the terrorist attacks. My escort, Ashraf Gomaa El Sayed, too polite to risk offending me, declined to vote. The others voted unanimously against the proposition.
The view that 9/11 was an “inside job” is widespread in the Arab world. But it is also true that the Salafis are not a worldly bunch. Sheikh Selim’s parents were peasant farmers from a neighborhood at the edge of Alexandria. Until 2011, figures in the Dawa talked largely to one another, and dwelt on spiritual matters. They may have given the impression of disingenuousness because they were being pressed to think about questions they had simply taken for granted in the past. Political engagement may moderate their views, as happened with the Brotherhood after they joined Parliament in 2005. Secular critics believe, on the contrary, that their protestations of loyalty to the Sisi regime are a Trojan horse designed to bring them inside the Egyptian political establishment.
As I listened to the Salafis rationalize the deals they had made with Egypt’s new regime, I began to think that their deference to military authority was more troubling than their aspiration to implement sharia. Indeed, the clamor for authoritarian control is the one point of convergence between Islamic reactionaries and liberal secularists. It was former revolutionaries gathered under the banner of the Tamarod movement who organized the 2013 mass demonstrations that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government and ushered the military back into power. Its fury had seemed hyperbolic, if widespread: The Morsi government had been incompetent and high-handed but was scarcely threatening to turn Egypt into a theocracy.
The coup drew a new dividing line across Egypt. Those who support the new government refer to that uprising as Egypt’s second revolution, but the young people I met whose lives had been given meaning by the Arab Spring viewed the 2013 takeover as a collective expression of failure. To this second group, the mass jailings, the shootings, the torture, and the crackdown on all forms of dissent are indications of that failure.
One needs only to wander through the Bibliotheca to see this divide. One younger administrator told me that she had decided to emigrate to the United States or Canada rather than confront the only choice she felt she had: knuckling under to the regime or going to jail. But Sherif Riad, the library’s director of external affairs and a former top security aide for the Mubarak family, spent the better part of an hour celebrating President Sisi and the Egyptian Army, and deploring President Barack Obama’s alleged support for the Brotherhood government—a “stab in the back” for a loyal ally. Had I heard about the massive blackout that had hit Egypt in late August? That had been sabotage by the Brotherhood, Riad said, comparing the group to the Taliban. “It only takes nine men with laptops,” he explained.
My conversation with Ismail Serageldin was much more complicated and nuanced. This past January, on the third anniversary of the beginning of the revolution, the director of the Bibliotheca had posted a manifesto on the library’s website.
Serageldin wrote of the terrorist violence that increasingly afflicts Egypt, blaming it on “the Muslim Brotherhood and its Jihadist allies”—though no evidence has emerged of an alliance between the Brotherhood and the jihadi warriors known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. However, Serageldin observed, the imperative to respond to violence almost inevitably leads to “an increasingly autocratic and repressive regime,” which in turn “paves the way to dictatorship.” Before long, he observed, “the autocratic regime throws its net wider, captures more and more of the opposition that it can label as terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers.… Opposition, any opposition is soon considered unpatriotic and even treasonous. The dream of pluralism and inclusion and of building the mechanisms of democracy … fades away.”
At the time Serageldin wrote these words, it was plain that Sisi would soon become president. The Bibliotheca director, who had been close to the Mubaraks, expressed the desperate hope that Sisi would “show the restraint of a George Washington, and allow a nation of laws to emerge.” Serageldin hadn’t exactly broadcast his misgivings; scarcely anyone I spoke to, including some members of his staff, had read the essay. Nevertheless, I was amazed, and impressed, that a figure as careful as he had issued so blunt a warning. Sisi is not only the all-powerful president of Egypt but also, by law, the chairman of the Bibliotheca’s board.
I told Serageldin that his dire forecast seemed to be coming true before his eyes. Actually, he said, that wasn’t quite right. Sisi was no dictator; he had acted in response to overwhelming public feeling. I pointed out that his essay had warned precisely of the situation in which the leader is empowered by the public demand for a ruthless response to a perceived threat. Perhaps, Serageldin said, “but we are now in a terror phase.” The United States had passed the Patriot Act after 9/11, he argued. How could you expect Egyptians to show greater restraint? In short, Alexandria’s most prominent spokesman for liberal principles had accepted, if not embraced, the new autocratic dispensation.
It doesn’t seem likely that either the spirit of intellectual freedom represented by the Bibliotheca or the cosmopolitan charm of old Alexandria can withstand the combination of populist authoritarianism and piety that defines today’s Egypt.
Amro Ali, the local historian, dreams of re-establishing the city as the intellectual and artistic agora it was two millennia ago. That would be a monumental task: As Ali points out, Alexandria has only a second-rate university and no great museums, and has lost most of its intellectual capital to Cairo. And President Sisi is not to be confused with Ptolemy I.
The brittle fabric of Alexandria feels very much endangered. One evening, I took a journey across the city with Muhammad Awad, a 65-year-old architect who runs the construction firm that his grandfather founded in 1911, and his friend Maurizio Barracco, the chairman of the Banco di Napoli, who was visiting from Italy.
Bulldozers are making short work of old Alexandria, and Awad is the core figure of the city’s beleaguered community of preservationists. Last year, the preservationists tried to save the Rialto, the most beloved of Alexandria’s movie palaces. They failed. Where the theater once stood, the Stanly Group, an Egyptian development firm, has erected a blue plywood fence with an image of the wavy glass office building they plan to erect in its place—also called the Rialto.
As we drove, Awad and Barracco talked about the great old Syrio-Lebanese families of Alexandria, and of vanished aristocrats. We passed the great villa that had served for decades as the Italian Consulate, and had just been leased to AlexBank. Awad had tried, but failed, to persuade the Italian government to give the building to a cultural organization that would preserve its character. “It’s terrible,” said Barracco. “They’ll carve it up into small rooms and put in office furniture.”
We passed the shuttered palace that had once belonged to Princess Fatima, a member of Egypt’s royal family. The palace had been converted into a museum of jewelry, formed from the princess’s own collection. After the revolution it had been closed for security, never to reopen.
We drove on along the Corniche until we reached our destination—the Four Seasons, Alexandria’s one world-class hotel. It seemed like an odd choice for a man as deeply in love with old Alexandria as Awad, but his boyhood friend Mounir, from one of the old Lebanese merchant families, had wanted to meet there. We sat outside in the cool evening, and Awad talked about the rise and fall of Belle Époque Alexandria, the waves of expulsions—the Germans after World War I, the Jews after World War II, then everyone else.
Who was left? Awad looked around the table at Mounir and Mounir’s girlfriend, an old Alexandrian and former actress who looked like Lauren Hutton. “We are,” he said, “the last generation of cosmopolitan Alexandrians.”
Perhaps cosmopolitan Alexandria should be allowed to subside into the sea. It is in the city’s nature to disappear before the eyes of those who love it. After all, its elegy was already "written a century ago:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear/
an invisible procession going by/
with exquisite music, voices,/
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,/
go firmly to the window/
and listen with deep emotion, but not/
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;/
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,/
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,/
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing./
“The God Abandons Antony,” 1911/
- Constantine Cavafy