Why are Egypt’s Salafists backing Sisi?

A Salafist coalition of parties won more than 7.5 million votes in Egypt’s first parliamentary elections after the 2011 revolution.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Problematic support. A file picture shows Salafist leader Yasser al-Borhamy (C) walking with his supporters in Alexandria. (Reuters)
Problematic support. A file picture shows Salafist leader Yasser al-Borhamy (C) walking with his supporters in Alexandria. (Reuters)

CAIRO - A campaign by Salafists to rally support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s re-election bid comes as no surprise to those observing relations between the ultra-orthodox group and the Egyptian regime.

Egypt’s Salafists remain the most organised Islamist political force in the country following the 2013 designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The group backed the 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-aligned President Muhammad Morsi and supported Sisi throughout his presidency.

“It is easy to see this alliance in the way Sisi’s regime treats the Salafists,” said Khaled Montaser, a TV commentator and anti-Islamist campaigner, “but to tell the truth, this alliance is confusing to everybody.”

There are millions of Salafists in Egypt. A Salafist coalition of parties won more than 7.5 million votes in Egypt’s first parliamentary elections after the 2011 revolution.

Although the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood are both Islamists, political infighting meant there was always tension between the two sides, with the Salafists ultimately backing Morsi’s ouster in 2013.

Since then the Salafists have been largely absolved from a major crackdown on Islamists, maintaining a presence in Egypt’s mosques, despite calls from liberals and secularists to bar their presence.

Salafist leaders appear on television, speak at public gatherings and give interviews to newspapers. Salafist parties, such as the once-powerful Al-Nour Party, remain in parliament but have been greatly weakened from their 2013 heyday.

“The authorities mysteriously turn a blind eye to growing Salafist presence,” said Gaber Asfour, a former Egyptian minister of culture. “They may be playing with fire in doing this.”

After the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the Salafists broke a tradition of refraining from political participation and formed political parties, including Al-Nour, and began to lobby publicly for a stricter interpretation of Islam.

In 2012, the Salafist-led Islamist bloc won 127 seats in Egypt’s 498-seat parliament and, together with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, controlled about two-thirds of the seats of the legislature.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, there was a belief that this was a make-or-break moment.

“This was a new beginning for all political forces,” said Yasser al-Borhamy, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the mother movement of all Salafist groups. “Like all other forces, the Salafists were dreaming of having their space on the political stage.”

However, when popular protests erupted against the Brotherhood in 2013, the Salafists quickly changed alliances and backed Morsi’s ouster.

Sisi warmly welcomed an alliance with the Salafists, observers said, because he was keen to discredit claims by the Brotherhood that in backing the uprising against Morsi, the army under his leadership was waging war against Islam.

Sisi also courted the Sufis to belie the same claims. An observant Muslim, the Egyptian president embraces a more moderate interpretation of Islam and has often led calls for Egypt’s religious institutions to modernise and reform.

Such calls, including a well-publicised 2015 push for a “religious revolution,” seem to contradict the alliance with the Salafists.

“The Salafists have a very strict interpretation of Islam and to allow them to expand their influence is dangerous,” Asfour said. “They spit their venom at the mosques and prepare the next generation of terrorists at a time we pay dearly because of terrorism.”

There are questions regarding the Salafists’ position towards Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which also strongly backs Sisi, and government attempts to promote female employment.

The Salafists’ recent opposition to the appointment of Egypt’s first female culture minister was strongly condemned by many Egyptians.

Last October, Salafists opposed the appointment of a Christian woman as a school principal in the central province of Minya. There has been Salafist opposition to the appointment of Coptic Christians to senior positions.

Borhamy said Egypt’s media were biased against the Salafists and sought to tarnish their reputation at a time when anti-Islamist sentiment was rife.

“The Salafists do not pose danger to society like these people claim,” Borhamy said. “We support the government to protect our country.”

However, Montaser warned that the Salafists’ continued presence on Egypt’s political scene served to promote division.

“The Salafists must be the target of the next religious and cultural war,” Montaser said. “Salafist influence needs to be trimmed; otherwise we will all pay the price.”

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