In Egypt and Tunisia, Salafis move from prisons to parliaments
After the Arab Spring uprisings, it's inevitable that Salafis will help steer the evolution of North Africa's new governments. The challenge is to make sure they do so peacefully.
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Just weeks after the Zaouia al Shaab was destroyed, four US diplomats were killed in an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi that US officials blame on a local Salafi Jihadi militia with possible links to Al Qaeda. Three days later, Salafi-led mobs attacked US embassies in Cairo and Tunis over an American-made film that lampooned the prophet Mohammed.Skip to next paragraph
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Mezmi and his friends blame such excess in part on a shaky grasp of religion. Several Salafi-led demonstrations in Tunisia have turned violent after hordes of young men – some perhaps Salafis, some apparently just poor and angry – seized the occasion to brawl with police.
“If Abou Iyadh calls for a demonstration, thousands of Salafis will turn out,” Mezmi says, citing a prominent Tunisian Salafi. “But so will thousands of other guys, because they’re Muslims, and some of them are ignorant and throw stones.”
The solution, they say, is better knowledge of Islam.
“We have sheikhs in Tunisia and abroad, like in Saudi prisons and in Yemen,” says El Arabi. “Their teachings are available online.”
Working within the system
However, that sort of ad-hoc study invites extremist ideas, says Mr. Ferjani, from Ennahda. His party wants to tackle job-creation while also training mainstream religious teachers to coax Salafis from society’s margins into political life.
In Egypt, that has already begun. Salafis generally stayed out of politics under Mr. Mubarak’s rule. Some objected on religious grounds to any semblance of democracy, however flawed. Others preferred to sit out a rigged game. But recently some have changed tack.
The Salafi Nour Party won nearly a quarter of seats in Egypt’s lower house of parliament, which has since been dissolved, in elections last year. It sees politics as a way “to express our own point of view, to have pressure power, and to participate in the next government,” says spokesman Nader Bakkar.
The Nour Party wants to put its stamp on Egypt’s new constitution. It strove to make a more direct connection to sharia via an article making the “principles of sharia” the main source of legislation and pushed hard – if unsuccessfully – for Cairo’s Al Azhar University, a leading Islamic authority, to vet laws for sharia compliance.
The prospect of Salafis in politics has gotten mixed reviews. While some Egyptians prefer them to the slick businessmen who rose to power under Mubarak, others worry of a clampdown on personal freedoms. As a Cairo taxi driver named Hossam put it, “they’ll make us stop listening to music and grow our beards.
In Tunisia, a leaked video in October showing Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, advising Salafis to work gradually, prompted liberals to cry conspiracy. Ennahda said the remarks, recorded last April, were taken out of context.
“Politics could bring an element of realism to [Salafis’] perceptions and approaches,” argues Ferjani. “They must make an adjustment, and that can only happen within the sphere of democratic interaction.”
Democracy vs. Islam?
In Tunisia, the newly-minted Reform Party hopes to play that role, says its president, Mohamed Khoja. Two decades ago his activity in underground Islamist circles earned him ten months in Ben Ali’s jails. Today his party wants to channel resurgent Salafi energy into politics.
“It’s not a choice between democracy and Islam,” he says. “The people can have political authority – what matters is that governance is Islamic and law adheres to sharia.”
For now, Mr. Khoja and his party are trying to win the ear of young Salafis. Winning their support may prove difficult. Many reject democracy as un-Islamic.
“’God’s governance but the people’s authority’ – that’s just philosophizing,” says Mezmi, using a term that in Islamic parlance often equates to “splitting hairs.”
He and his friends want to refashion society, but through other means than electoral politics.
“Governance should be what comes to us from God,” says El Arabi. “Not communism, not liberalism, not secularism. Only Islam.”
Kristen Chick contributed reporting from Cairo.