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As Egypt's new parliament convenes, eyes on ultraconservative salafis

Salafis want to roll back the clock to their vision of sixth-century Islam. They captured a quarter of the votes, far more than many expected. 

By Correspondent / January 23, 2012

A general view for the first Egyptian parliament session after the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, January 23. Egypt's parliament began its first session on Monday since an election put Islamists in charge of the assembly following the overthrow of Mubarak in February.

Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS

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Cairo

As Egypt's new parliament holds its first session today, the Muslim Brotherhood took its seat at the head of the table, with a parliamentary plurality after decades of being hounded by the Egyptian security state. 

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But what's really interesting – or alarming, depending on your perspective – is the faction playing second fiddle: Nearly one quarter of the new representatives will come from the ultraconservative salafi movement that follows a strict interpretation of Islam like what is practiced in Saudi Arabia.

The official results from nearly two months of staggered voting, released Saturday, show that an alliance of salafis led by the Nour Party won about 25 percent of the seats. The alliance led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took about 47 percent, meaning that Islamist parties will make up about 70 percent of the first parliament since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

While the strong showing of the Freedom and Justice Party was expected, few had predicted that parties following a stricter interpretation of Islam would capture so many votes. Now the spotlight will be on the Nour Party as Egyptians wait to see how it will handle its new power.

Will it push to implement Islamic law, banning alcohol sales and regulating women's dress, as some fear? (both are actions that could harm tourism, a major industry for Egypt.) Or will it focus on issues like improving Egypt’s poor social services and propping up the faltering economy? The party has pledged to do both, depending on who was listening. While often playing up the rhetoric of social conservatism to its supporters, party officials are careful to present a moderate agenda to a Western audience.

In an interview, spokesman Mohamed Nour said his party would focus on bringing political stability and security to Egypt, and balancing the powers of the legislative, presidential, and judicial branches of government, after decades in which authority was concentrated in the presidency.

But Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements at the University of Exeter, says it is likely the party will lean toward a socially conservative agenda. “They will want to maintain their credibility in front of their audience,” he says. “They want to reflect the idea of upholding the [Islamic] identity of Egypt and upholding the promises that they made. This is easier than trying to monitor or control the security services or trying to push the military out of politics.”

The Salafist Call

Nour isn’t the only party in parliament formed by salafis, or Muslims who believe in practicing Islam as close to possible as it was practiced in the first generations after the prophet Muhammad. That means enforcing strict gender segregation, forbidding alcohol, and generally supporting the application of sharia, or Islamic law. But Nour far outpaced the other salafi parties in the elections because, like the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, it was born out of an organization with a large following in Egyptian society.

That organization is the Salafist Call, which was formed in the 1970‘s on an Alexandria university campus as a rival to the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Brotherhood, it has a long history of providing social services to Egyptians in need – like running orphanages and schools. Though salafist groups have never participated in elections before, that grassroots organization and following helped it surprise many liberals with such a large percentage of the vote. Mr. Nour dismisses such surprise, saying that in better conditions, the party would have won more seats. 

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