Laura Dean on Salafis in the Arab World

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, May 10, 2013, 10:30 AM

Laura Dean is a journalist and writer living in Cairo, from where she has been doing election monitoring projects in countries around the region. She is also a good friend, from earlier days when she lived in Washington and worked on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Recently, she has been spending a lot of time talking to Salafi groups about life in a democratic culture---and about one another. I found the piece fascinating and thought Lawfare readers would too.

Salafis on Salafis

Tunisia has long been considered one of the most moderate Arab nations. Yet in the two years since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, it has seen the rise of hardline, sometimes even militant, Salafi groups. Though the term is disputed, the word ‘Salafi’ in North Africa has come to refer to adherents of a strict form of Sunni Islam with a particularly literalist interpretation of Quranic doctrine.

From attacks on concerts and liquor stores, to the month-long takeover in late 2012 of Manouba College of Arts and Sciences in greater Tunis (two students who wear the full face veil who were involved in the sit-in were just convicted of destroying public property in the incident), to breaking into the US embassy last September, Salafi groups have asserted their power and opposition to a more compromise-oriented form of political Islam.

During a brief trip to Tunisia a few weeks ago, the mounting tension between the secular ‘gauchists’ and Islamists of various stripes was palpable. People I met seemed particularly worried about Salafi groups they accuse of committing extrajudicial and occasionally violent acts in recent months. They complained that the ruling party, el Nahdha, the Tunisian affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was unwilling to intervene for political reasons when Salafi groups attacked liberal protesters and cultural events they deemed ‘un-Islamic.’

In the West we tend to think of Salafis in fairly monolithic terms, but in North Africa there is a diversity of them, who differ by country and by attitude.

Egypt’s Salafis, in contrast to those in Tunisia, have chosen a more orthodox path to power – party democracy. Since gaining over twenty percent of the vote in Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections, they have emerged as a significant political force in a country of over 85 million people.

Upon my return to the ‘Mother of the World,’ as Egypt is referred to here in the region, I decided to ask some Salafis about their thoughts on their counterparts next door. After a recent schism there are now two main parties: el Nour Party and el Watan Party and a handful of smaller entities with similar ideological convictions. With elegant media offices and dexterously deployed democratic rhetoric, Egypt’s Salafis seem to be working hard to show the world that they are a serious political force and nothing to be afraid of. I wondered if they felt that their neighbors were tarnishing their image.

In Egypt we have “Democratic Salafis” said Ali Abdel Aal, Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Islamion,’ website, pointing out that in Tunisia many of the Salafi movements have a more jihadist bent while the Salafis in Egypt were interested in more of a hearts-and minds-oriented approach.  His online platform is maintained by a group of journalists and researchers who say they are committed to giving an accurate portrayal of political Islam.

Yousri Hamad, former spokesman for el Nour, now Vice President of the Watan party, agreed, saying, “I think Salafis in ... Tunisia are similar to el Jihad party,” a newly formed political party in Egypt, founded by a movement that the United Nations has embargoed as an Al Qaeda affiliate. When I asked if the political Salafi movements were looking to create a regional political organization, similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamad maintained that for the moment, the Salafi parties' agenda is an Egypt-focused one, “we are trying to establish our country, make our country educated, making an effort in our country, not outside”

Dr. Mohamed Noor is the president of the media committee of the newly formed el Watan Party, and a member of what Political Science professor Dr. Ashraf el Shereef calls, “the Salafi Intelligentsia.” Dr. Noor smiled warmly when I walked in to his office and in the course of the interview we talked about his time living in Europe and shared our views on Barack Obama's and Bill Clinton's respective rhetorical styles. (He went to the Democratic Convention in the US in the run-up to the elections this past fall and attended speeches by both which he recorded and listens to often. “Clinton’s speech was excellent” he said, “It affected me a lot...it was the reason for Obama's success the second time.”)

On the subject of violent actions taken by their Tunisian namesakes, he was adamant: “we are not a part of them and we have no relationship to them” saying “that the popular Salafi movement [in Egypt] is very far away from these actions.”

In fact, he informed me, there have been efforts to bring the Tunisian Salafis into the political fold: “I was the head of a delegation with the Noor Party [to Tunisia]. We were trying to develop the party experiment there because in the end people will be convinced by democracy in general when they feel that it has achieved results...If they knew how to express themselves democratically, that would close the door to other [presumably violent] forms of expression. And that is a very good thing. “

His views on extrajudicial actions generally though, were a bit more equivocal. When I asked him about a recent report that a group of Salafis broke up a night club in Cairo and warned its owner that he had two months to find a new source of income, he said he hadn’t heard anything about it. But, he went on, “of course these actions [in night clubs] are rejected by most Egyptians…combating such behavior [that goes on in night clubs] is the obligation of every one of us...if someone does that, that’s something good, like young men who condemn sexual harassment when they see it.” Even in cases of violence, he suggested that sometimes there were justifications: while he condemned violence in Tunisia he also said “sometimes there are some actions that are a kind of provocation to all people, not just Salafis.”

Similarly, on the subject of a case two weeks ago of a man being sentenced to 80 lashes, a sentence said to come from Islamic Sharia, for walking down the street drunk in the middle of the day he said, “there is nothing like that in the law.” However he went on to say that “if the majority of the people are alright with the laws, then fine... but it’s the society’s right to object to a particular punishment and to change the law.” The implication: if the majority of the population is in favor of the application of Sharia, then it should be the law of the land. These days in Egypt, many people I have spoken to feel uncomfortable admitting publicly that they are against the application of Sharia or other Islamic principles.

“Democracy is a tool,” Dr. Noor said, “for me there is no such thing as the philosophy of democracy.” A tool, perhaps, alongside other kinds of societal engagement including, he suggests, demonstrations, but also, perhaps, the enforcement of religious principles by groups of civilians via means other than the official justice system. Later in the interview Dr. Noor told me how much he enjoyed the film ‘Lincoln’ and asked if I could recommend some book titles on the US federal system.

Anecdotally, more and more erstwhile Brotherhood supporters I talk to say they want to vote for the Salafi parties in the upcoming elections, seeing them as honest brokers, in contrast to a Muslim Brotherhood who are seen as increasingly power hungry. The Brotherhood's failure to achieve any meaningful power-sharing agreements has created bitter resentments from other political quarters---among both the liberals and the Salafis. But unlike the liberal parties, the Salafis have a natural network in the country's religious communities and a strong presence across rural Egypt. How they will use these democratic 'tools' in the event that they find themselves with a bigger portion of the political pie will be interesting to observe.