Egypt’s Salafists wary as Saudi Arabia treads path of reform

There is a division within Egypt’s Salafists over how to adapt to the changing times.
Sunday 18/03/2018
 Younes Makhyoun, the head of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, speaks during a press conference in Cairo, on January 28. (AFP)
Uncertain future. Younes Makhyoun, the head of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, speaks during a press conference in Cairo, on January 28. (AFP)

CAIRO - Following a pledge by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz that Saudi Arabia would return to “moderate Islam,” Egypt’s Salafists — major recipients of financial assistance from the kingdom — expressed concern about what the future holds for them.

Amid a crackdown on Islamists in Egypt, Salafists have avoided the fate of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, largely by backing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nonetheless, Egypt’s Salafists have suffered a major reversal of fortunes, particularly in the political arena.

Wael Magdi Abdel Moneim, a member of the Salafist Call organisation in Mansoura in northern Egypt, blamed the Brotherhood for that. “What is happening in Saudi Arabia is similar to what happened in Egypt and this is all due to the ruthlessness and recklessness of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

Abdel Moneim said the Brotherhood sought to amass too much power too quickly following the 2011 revolution, leading to the group’s downfall and a wider backlash against all Islamist parties.

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party enjoyed de facto control of Egypt’s parliament, thanks to an unofficial alliance with the Salafist Call’s Al-Nour Party, which was the second largest party in the 2012-13 parliament, behind the Brotherhood’s political wing.

Compare that to today when the Freedom and Justice Party has been disbanded and Al-Nour Party has just 12 representatives in parliament after boasting 111 in 2012.

Abdel Moneim said a similar backlash has taken place against hard-line Islamists in Saudi Arabia, specifically against those subscribing to so-called Sururist Salafism, a radical trend tied to former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood figure Muhammad Surur.

“That trend [Sururist Salafism] adopted a revolutionary and seditious approach against the government in Saudi Arabia as it was allowing an opening to secularists and liberals in the country,” Abdel Moneim said.

Surur, who died in 2016 in Doha, was integral to the rise of Salafist jihadism and is widely quoted by radical Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

This process of opening in Saudi Arabia includes the social reforms championed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, not least calls to fight radical Islamism and promote “moderate” Islam. This is not to mention Sisi’s calls to “reform” religious dialogue and other statements promoting “moderate” Islam.

It is these same calls that have raised fears among Egypt’s beleaguered Salafists.

Ahmed Nader al-Amir, a member of the Salafist Call in Cairo, agreed it was the move by Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, to hoard power that led to a popular counter-movement against Islamism in general.

“Based on their [the Muslim Brotherhood’s] desire to monopolise power, we have seen increased gaps between scholars and those in power and greater suspicion towards Islamists,” he said.

Despite the reversal of political fortunes for Egypt’s Salafists, there have notably been no calls for protest or violence.

“Disagreeing with those in power… does not mean clashing. If not, Salafists would be no different from the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groups,” said Saleh Abu Abbas, a Salafist preacher in Alexandria.

The Muslim Brotherhood was officially designated as a terrorist organisation in Egypt in December 2013, with Cairo accusing the Brotherhood of being behind the Hasm militant group that attacked police and politicians in Egypt.

“The solution is to adopt a reformist approach that allows, in the long-term, for a stronger [Salafist] presence in society. This is based on using peaceful means and popular influence to repair an image that others have ruined,” Abu Abbas said.

Egypt’s Salafist Call issued a statement in February announcing its support for the Egyptian Army in the major military operation targeting ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula and across the country.

“The Salafist Call, like all the Egyptian people, stands behind its army in its war on terrorism, and prays to God to help it [the military] prevent [terrorists] from corrupting the land,” the statement said, using clear religious imagery.

There is a division within Egypt’s Salafists over how to adapt to the changing times, with some supporting the establishment of political parties like Al-Nour and others preferring that Salafists adhere to a tradition of non-political involvement.

For the latter, it is far more important that the Salafists use their influence to promote charitable works and proselytisation, rather than be embroiled in politics.

Many Egyptian Salafists have reacted with concern to changes in Saudi Arabia and its reform movements, which included the establishment of cinemas and theatres and the development of a local entertainment industry.

Sameh Abdel Hamid, a former leading figure in Al-Nour Party, denied that Egyptian Salafism could seek to echo similar reform measures.

“These will not have any effect on Salafists in Egypt whatsoever. We will not waver on our convictions. For example, we believe that musical concerts are religiously forbidden and we will not and cannot change our convictions for anybody or anything,” he said.

Although many Egyptian Salafists have preferred to remain silent, others have sought to enumerate the intellectual and economic independence of Egyptian Salafists.

Hisham Al-Khatib, a member of the Salafist Call in Mansoura, traced Salafist roots to ninth-century jurist Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and 12-century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah. “This was before the oil wells,” he said.