Inside Egypt’s Salafis

"All Americans think I’m a terrorist," 34-year-old Salafi political organizer Mohammed Tolba exhales with his trademark belly laugh. He grips his gearshift and accelerates to 115 miles per hour down a winding overpass in Cairo. "But I only terrorize the highways."  Since the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Tolba has constantly been on the ...


"All Americans think I’m a terrorist," 34-year-old Salafi political organizer Mohammed Tolba exhales with his trademark belly laugh. He grips his gearshift and accelerates to 115 miles per hour down a winding overpass in Cairo. "But I only terrorize the highways."  Since the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Tolba has constantly been on the go. "The media says we all wear galabeyas (long Islamic dress), put our women in niqabs (a face veil), and will cut off people’s hands," Tolba says, dramatically feigning a yawn. "We’re the new boogey-man, but people need to know we’re normal — that we drink lattes and laugh." 

To this end, the silver-tongued IT consultant shuttles regularly from the modish offices of popular television personality Bassem Youssef (he’s starring in a segment on the "Egyptian Jon Stewart’s" highly anticipated new show) to the considerably less shiny quarters of Cairo’s foremost Salafist centers. He’s been conducting leadership and media-training workshops for Salafis. "These guys don’t know how to talk to the public," says Tolba, rubbing his eyes in exhaustion. "Once they open their mouths and face a camera, man, they ruin everything."

The same might be said for their debut on Egypt’s main stage last Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Salafis joined other Islamist groups in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Droves of people from governorates across Egypt got off buses near Tahrir Square, chanting "Islamic, Islamic, we don’t want secular." One Salafi, Hisham al-Ashry, beamed with pride as he walked back from the square to his tailor shop downtown. "Today is a turning point, we finally showed our strength." Meanwhile, "the liberals and the leftists are freaking out. God protect the nation and revolution," noted popular blogger Zeinobia.

Who are the faces and voices of an oft-deemed bearded and veiled monolith that packed the square? And what exactly do they want?

"Salafi" has become something of a catchall name for any Muslim with a long beard, but Salafism is not a singular ideology or movement with one leader. As Stéphane Lacroix, a French scholar of Islamist movements, explains, it’s more a "label for a way of thinking" guided by a strict interpretation of religious text. Salafis aspire to emulate the ways of the first three generations of Islam. Many Salafis have cultivated a distinctive appearance and code of personal behavior, including untrimmed beards for men and the niqab for women. 

The Salafi culture has been growing in Egypt for decades, but until the revolution had little formal political presence. "Satellite salafism" hit Egypt in 2003, with around 10 Salafi-themed TV channels broadcasting from Egypt on Nilesat. The intensely popular Al-Nas, Arabic for the People, began broadcasting in 2006. Its programming focuses on issues of social justice and sermons by prominent Salafi preachers, like Mohammed Yaqoub and Mohammed Hassan, whose tapes and books are common fixtures among street vendors throughout Cairo. Nobody knows exactly how many Salafis there now are in Egypt, but Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a presidential candidate formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently estimated their number at around 20 times the number of Muslim Brotherhood members (unofficial reports estimate Muslim Brotherhood membership between 400,000 to 700,000 members). 

Salafis in Egypt abstained from politics for decades. Under Mubarak, many were arrested and tortured. Salafi gathering points like Aziz Ballah, where the charismatic Tolba has been doing most of his media training and outreach to Salafis, were known as the most intensely monitored institutions in Cairo. They rationalized their apolitical conditions with an elaborate ideological argument which rejected political participation as contrary to the Islamic Sharia. Most Salafis stayed away from the January 25 revolution. For decades, they lambasted the Muslim Brothers for their willingness to participate in a secular political system based on the laws of man rather than the laws of God. But now they are rushing to join that same system.   What do they hope to achieve through the ballot box?

Almost all Salafis currently agree on the need to protect and strengthen Egypt’s Islamic identity, which in practice means defending the Second Amendment of Egypt’s Constitution which preserves Sharia as the main source of Egyptian law.  The argument that Sharia is not only compatible with democracy, but actually required by democracy, is a new approach for Salafis who have traditionally rejected the very concept of democracy. Sixty-two percent of Egyptians believe "laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran," according to an April 2011 Pew Research Center poll. "Majorities usually run countries. So why should the minority [secularists] rule everything," poses Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, a prominent Salafi scholar and the spokesperson for the Salafi movement in Alexandria.

What would this mean, exactly? Many non-Salafis fear that implementing Sharia on Salafi terms would force women into niqab, turn Christians into second-class citizens, and impose Quranic punishments for serious offenses such as flogging or cutting of hands for theft. Some Salafis give ample causes for such fears, but others see this as a red herring. "Egyptians aren’t against Sharia, they just fear the people who they think will impose and enforce it ignorantly," reasons Doaa Yehia, Tolba’s equally quick-witted wife.  

The Salafi party Al-Nour, Arabic for light, has tried to present what it considers to be practical solutions to economic and social problems, in part to avoid the perception that they are only interested in imposing Sharia. Nour spokesman Mohammad al-Yousri argues that "everyone thinks Sharia is our only aim, but that’s like someone who has cancer and you tell them to get a nose job. Right now, Egypt’s a poor, weak underdeveloped country." Or, as Sheikh Ahmed Bin Farouk told me after Friday prayer in Ain Shams, a poor section of Northeastern Cairo, "everybody wants to talk about the cutting of hands. Khalas, stop. Before this could ever happen, we’d have to assure almost full economic and social equality. And obviously that could take anywhere from five to 500 years."

Where the politically saavy Muslim Brotherhood figures have mastered a public discourse of moderation and compromise, Yousry says Salafis know "when to take a stand. We’re not all smiles like Amr Khaled [a popular moderate Muslim televangelist who’s consistently likened to the "Billy Graham of Islam."] We know what we believe and there are limits to flexibility." When asked how he lost two fingers, he recounted his fighting in Iraq in 2004 with the resistance against U.S.-led forces.

During another conversation with scholar and cleric Sheikh Hassan Abu Alashbal, known for one of his televised appeals to President Obama to "revert" to Islam, I asked what Salafis might do if a moderately liberal figure, like famous opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, should come to power through the ballot box. "Don’t worry, we’re not going to kill him," Hisham al-Ashry, a Cairene tailor, comically interjects with a Brooklyn drawl he acquired from living in New York City for 15 years. "We’ll just cut off his hands or maybe his throat." Sheikh Alashbal glares at him, unfazed by the joke. "We are not worried about liberals," he says. "If you only watch television, you’d think they’re everywhere, but if you go to villages and among the true Egyptian people…you will find they’ll only take Sharia."

Such talk may be meant to reassure non-Salafis but often only frightens them even more. They point to the Salafi rejection of their attempt to establish "supra-constitutional principles" guaranteeing personal and political freedoms as evidence of their intention to impose their own vision on all Egyptians. Liberals warn that democracy is not only the rule of the majority, but also an agreement on the fundamental rules of the game. But Salafi slogans at the July 29 rally pointedly declared that "there is nothing above the constitution but God’s Sharia."

Years of repression left the Salafi movements disjointed, with each wagging the finger at the other for being the less authentic or authoritative representative of Islam. Richard Gauvain, a scholar on Cairo’s Islamist and Salafi organizations, argues that their power structures are severely weakened by internal feuding. There’s little to suggest individuals within the organizations will be able to agree among themselves on questions of political importance. Lacking a clear internal organizational structure, the hallmark of the Muslim Brotherhood, different Salafi schools and other Islamist groups hold sway in varied areas of the country. For them to succeed at the ballot box, they will need to overcome these deeply ingrained divides. It is not clear that they can.

There are also generational divides. Many high-profile Salafi sheikhs voiced opposition to the Arab uprisings on grounds they were not modeled on the behavior of the prophet and that the suicide of the iconic young Tunisian Mohammad Bouazizi who set himself on fire was haram. It remains to be seen whether these sheikhs can regain popularity among a younger generation of Salafis who defiantly took to the streets despite contradictory calls from a fractured leadership. "We actually have more trouble connecting people inside the movement than we do connecting with liberals," says Al-Nour spokesman Mohammed Yousry. "The challenge is telling these people this is the real Salafi way. It’s wide open and progressive."

Such divides make it difficult for Salafis to present a clear, unified message. For instance, while Salafi political spokesmen emphasize the modesty of their political aims, scholars like Sheikh Alashbal say there’s no doubt the caliphate, referring to the first system of government established in Islam that politically unified the Muslim community, will be established. "This is the purpose of the revolution," he explains in his ornate living room lined with leather-bound scholarly tomes  — many his own. "It’s Allah’s plan for us to build one country in the Muslim world and rule the world. There is no doubt we won’t."

For a movement that abstained from politics for decades, the Salafi "ground game" has been impressive. Their ability to organize transportation of their cadres from all over Egypt to Tahrir Square last week opened some eyes. The Nour party registered even before most of its mainstream counterparts. Armed with a logo of a bright blue horizon, they’ve already set up three spacious offices in Cairo, branches in the Delta, and even up the Nile throughout the oft-neglected Upper Egypt. Its spokesman Yousry predicts Islamists will yield 40 percent of seats in parliament. In a single breath, he rattles off the names of cities and governorates in Egypt where he "knows" the party has the most presence and power on the ground.

Their strategy rests in part on the tried and true Islamist method of outreach and social services. Mohammed Nour, director of the Nourayn Media group and member of the new party, sits in his fashionably orange-speckled office near Cairo’s corniche, constantly switching between his iPhone and iPad. For him, the math is simple. "Other parties are talking to themselves on Twitter, but we are actually on the streets. We have other things to do than protest in Tahrir." 

One Friday in early July while protestors occupied Tahrir Square, Nour party member Ehab Zalia, 43, distributed medical supplies in the slum city of El Ghanna. Another Friday, 24-year-old Ehab Mohammed sold gas tubes at a reduced price to residents of the impoverished Haram City. "This isn’t campaigning, this is our religion," he explained. One resident in the neighborhood, Aliaa Neguib, 42, says she has no plans to officially join the group, but in a country where 40 percent of people live below the poverty line, efforts like these are effective. "We need services. If they are loyal and give us that, we will support them." And they will, promises spokesperson Yousry.

The efforts of a new generation of Salafis to find their place in a post-Mubarak Egypt take many paths.  In a virtual parallel reality outside of Cairo, nestled in Egypt’s own Paramount studio lot, Mohammed Tolba strokes his beard and gets ready for his close-up. Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, Tolba and like-minded friends created Salafayo Costa, a spin on the international-coffee chain, as an internet-savvy PR campaign meant to debunk stereotypes. With a Facebook group of almost 9,000 members, the coexistence group hopes to broaden political dialogue. He and his brother Ezzat, a liberal filmmaker, released a video on YouTube called "Where’s my Ear" in an attempt to bridge what they deem a dangerously growing chasm between secularists and Salafis in post-Mubarak Egypt. The film is in reference to a notorious sectarian crime in late March when Salafis allegedly assaulted a Coptic Christian and cut off his ear.

Now, he’s bringing these "normal Salafis" to a broader Egyptian audience through the comedian Bassem Youssef’s hit show. Under hot lights, Youssef pretends to throw a punch at him in "a battle for the future of Egypt." After taping a segment in which Tolba and his liberal brother make light of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast throughout the day and festively break in the evening, one of the show’s directors grows nervous, worried the segment will offend Egyptian viewers.

Youssef promptly cuts him off. "We need to diffuse anger and tension the Egyptian way — with comedy. It’s time liberals and Salafis talk to each other, get out of their comfort zone." Tolba poses for a picture with one of the show’s young production assistants who excitedly announces it’s the first time he’s talked to a Salafi. Tolba pantomines as though he’s cutting off his ear.

Still, his toughest critics might be Salafists themselves. Tolba’s efforts have registered unfavorably among an old guard of strident Salafis who’ve labeled his approach "inappropriate" or "unnecessary." He’s received a steady flow of hate mail on his perpetually drained white blackberry. And some scholars and even friends have refused to speak with him.

"Look, I’m calling for Salafis to get off their chairs and talk to those people who are scared of them, and for liberals to do the same. Stop isolating yourselves," Tolba says, before taking a call from a "not so funny" sheikh — a gratuitous reminder the task won’t be so easy. "This is democracy. This is the new Egypt."

Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn.

Lauren Bohn is a multimedia journalist based in Istanbul and co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, an initiative dedicated to amplifying female voices in foreign policy. She's the founding assistant editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt, where she was a Fulbright fellow and Pulitzer Center grantee. Twitter: @LaurenBohn

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