The view from the ground.

Egypt’s Salafi Surge

These guys make the Muslim Brotherhood look like latte liberals.


MANSOURA, Egypt — It's the morning of the third and final round of Egypt's parliamentary elections and Ammar Fayed, an activist for the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, is nervous as hell.

MANSOURA, Egypt — It’s the morning of the third and final round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections and Ammar Fayed, an activist for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, is nervous as hell.

The 28-year-old marketing manager, who sits on the executive board of the youth branch of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in the governorate of Dakahlia, sports a tiny FJP pin on the lapel of his gray blazer and a thumb stained blue from voting. He explains the situation: Thirty-six seats are up for grabs in this province in the fertile Nile Delta. The conservative region is in the Brotherhood’s heartland — it should have been a cakewalk.

There’s just one problem, Fayed admits: "We made a fundamental miscalculation."

The Brotherhood has found itself outflanked on the right by the Salafi al-Nour Party, which has challenged the movement’s religious credentials and gained a surprising degree of traction in the process. The Salafis appear poised to claim between 25 and 30 percent of the vote, though the Brotherhood could still win an outright majority and will certainly become the largest party in the new parliament.

Who could have predicted that the Salafis — adherents to a fundamentalist version of Islam that until Egypt’s revolution eschewed politics as un-Islamic — would morph into an electoral powerhouse? Even the Brotherhood, whose vote-counting abilities would impress the likes of Karl Rove, never saw it coming, and the Salafis’ success threatens to upend the movement’s carefully laid plans for dominating Egypt’s post-revolutionary political scene.

After decades of trying to convince Egypt’s liberals, leftists, and other activists of their seriousness in solving the country’s titanic economic problems, the Brothers suddenly find themselves forced to talk about how and when they will implement Islamic law. Not only do their efforts to bolster the movement’s religious credentials promise to cause tensions with the other parliamentary blocs, but conflicts with the al-Nour Party will also provide useful fodder for Egypt’s calculating military rulers, who could exploit the rivalry to keep themselves in power and above scrutiny.

The Brotherhood can’t afford to ignore the Salafis’ rise. Nour is "directly attacking our core," Fayed complains, "saying the Brotherhood is a party like any other, that it is playing politics instead of being a guardian of Islam."

The two Islamist factions are already trading barbs over the most divisive issue: legislating Islamic law. To get the Salafis’ perspective, I met Ibrahim AbdulRahman, the bushy-bearded Nour spokesman in Dakahlia governorate. He names the place: an upscale coffee shop in the center of the city of Mansoura.

It was a difficult interview: The Salafis don’t seem particularly keen on explaining themselves to foreign reporters. AbdulRahman slumped in his chair and spent most of his time averting any attempt at a genuine conversation, at first denying Nour was a religious party and feigning confusion as to why Christians weren’t running on its ticket, despite public statements by its leaders that their party would never support a Christian president.

After about 20 minutes of useless chatter, AbdulRahman finally stuck the knife into his competitors. "I would say that Salafis and the Nour Party are more aware of the religious sciences and know religion more than the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.

The parties’ disagreement over how quickly to implement sharia law, AbdulRahman explained, is at the center of their conflict. "For the Nour Party, one of the primary major goals is to implement sharia at the nearest possible opportunity," he said.

If AbdulRahman was unconcerned with explaining himself to the Western media, Mohammed Yousef, the FJP spokesman in the same governorate, was much more anxious that the world not misunderstand his party. I met him at the FJP headquarters in Mansoura — a prim office with white walls, flat-screen TVs, and computers. A map that showed the percentage of Muslims in African countries, coded in varying shades of green, adorned the wall. Over his shoulder, an FJP banner with a rising white dove had "Freedom, we protect it. Justice, we build it" written across the bird’s wings.

Nour is "very fundamentalist," Yousef said — a stark contrast with the FJP, which "sees the state as a civil state with an Islamic background. All rights to all citizens would be preserved, guarded by the law and the constitution, not by religious beliefs of citizens."

Yes, Yousef admits, the Brotherhood also wants to implement Islamic law — but only gradually, with a horizon measured in decades, so that society is prepared. "Nour sees it as a hammerhead action of total transformation to a sharia system," he told me.

In the quiet hum of the office, Yousef described the coming conflict between the two movements. "If the Nour Party or a Salafi party in parliament pressures to implement the hudud [punishments stipulated in the Quran that include stoning adulterers or cutting off the hands of thieves] swiftly, the Muslim Brotherhood will stand firmly against them to prevent that from happening," he said.

That’s not the only issue putting the two groups on a collision course. While the Brotherhood wants to talk about its plans to create new jobs, the Salafis will try to focus the debate in parliament on public social virtues, like headscarves, religious idolatry, and banning alcohol. The Brotherhood is also far more concerned with increasing the powers of parliament and sending the Egyptian military back to barracks, while Nour’s red-meat issue remains the promotion of its conservative social agenda.

Some are even speculating that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces could turn to the al-Nour Party, the second-most powerful force in parliament, to undercut the Brotherhood — after all, it was a tried-and-true tactic that served Mubarak well.

"Basically, the military would encourage the Salafis’ agenda of legislating public morality in exchange for their support in allowing the military to retain its Mubarak-era prerogatives," said Omar Ashour of the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, who is in Cairo to observe the elections.

The thoughts of most voters in Mansoura, however, are a long way from future power struggles. Rather, Egyptians are looking to elect a government that represents a clean break from the past — and what could be cleaner than a party that has never sought power?

Mosaab Talaat, a 21-year-old veterinary student drinking tea in a small mobile-phone shop with his two friends, said he voted for the al-Nour Party, but seemed abashedly shocked when asked whether he considered himself a Salafi. He maintained that he voted for Nour because he thought the party would be less corrupt than Egypt’s old ruling class.

"They’re different than what we had before, because of their religion. Because they are Muslim, they’ll take care of Egypt," Talaat explained. At the campaign events Talaat attended, he saw a famous Salafi sheikh who campaigned for the al-Nour Party in Mansoura. It made him think that perhaps Islam combined with politics would breed less corruption.

Ultimately, Talaat thought competition between the Brotherhood and the Salafis would be good for Egypt. "This should be normal. In any parliament there’s opposition," he said. "Now, both will be working for the betterment of Egypt."

Whether that’s true remains to be seen. If "competition" means brandishing Islamic credentials and providing the military with another tool to divide and rule, Egypt’s turbulent transition to democracy and badly stalled economy will remain just that — and the Egyptian people will pay the price.

Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @satopol.

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