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. 

Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS
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.

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. 

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. 

During the rule of Mubarak, state security repressed salafis, along with members of the Brotherhood. Some followers were arrested, and leaders were monitored. Dr. Ashour says when he tried to meet influential salafi sheikh Abdel Moneim Shahat in Cairo in 2006, Mr. Shahat said state security would not permit him to leave Alexandria.

Many Egyptians are uneasy with the Nour party’s strong showing. Some who support the Brotherhood are uncomfortable with the more strict salafis, while many liberal Egyptians are downright scared that individual freedoms will be restricted.

Alcohol and bikinis

Some Western diplomats are also worried, although the US ambassador met with the party Sunday. Nour leaders appear to be keenly aware of how the party is perceived by foreign journalists and diplomats. Spokesman Mr. Nour is tired of the “alcohol and bikinis question,” as he puts it, after a parade of foreign journalists who have come through the party’s headquarters in a southern Cairo suburb to ask if the party will attempt to ban alcohol sales and regulate beachwear.

“We have different priorities than that. What we have to deal with now are the 40 million people who don’t have clean water to drink,” he says, adding that now is not the time for such discussions. When pressed over whether the party would eventually like to regulate such things, he repeatedly evades the question without denying or confirming it. “In public places, we must respect the will of the majority of the people. We must respect the culture that we have,” is the closest he would get to answering it.

That is a far cry from the rhetoric of Shahat, the religious leader in Alexandria who ran and lost as a Nour candidate in the elections. Most recently, Shahat said on a television program that Muslims should not offer greetings to Christians on Christian holidays. He has also criticized the deceased Nobel-prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz for inciting promiscuity and prostitution.

To be sure, not all the party’s political rhetoric is religious. Like most other parties, Nour emphasized issues like unemployment, the need for better education and social services, and ending corruption. Some supporters said they voted for Nour because their candidates were honest, unlike the politicians of the Mubark era. But the issue of Islamic law, and Egypt’s identity as an Islamic country, is one that many respond to.

A coming indicator of how the party will engage will be the drafting of the constitution. The new parliament will appoint 100 people to write the document. Nour party officials have said that they would support amending the old constitution to say that the provisions of sharia, rather than the principles of sharia, are the main source of legislation. That would form a more literal connection between the constitution and sharia that would open the door for implementing more Islamist approaches to law, says Ashour.

But to be successful in such endeavors, the Nour party will need coalition partners. And so far, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has indicated it is not interested in forming an all-Islamist coalition with Nour.

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