A Salafi fear industry has developed in the Egyptian media, especially after the group’s sudden emergence in the aftermath of the revolution — to the shock of many secular Egyptian elites. There are indeed legitimate fears about the religious intolerance that may spread as a result of Salafi activism. But to properly grasp the “Salafi phenomenon” requires an understanding of the new political context in which Egyptian Islamist groups are operating.
Salafis’ popularity in Egypt has been evident over the past decades. They are a fairly well-entrenched religious tendency that has been quite present on the Egyptian street. However, their potential for impact should not be exaggerated. In my view, Salafis are politically confined to “trouble-maker” status but nothing more. They lack the organization, political expertise and mindset to translate their doctrinal intransigence into meaningful political gains on the ground, even within the Islamist camp.
Salafis’ political potential should be assessed in terms of their doctrinal objectives and attitudes towards politics. Their primary mission is to monopolize the Islamic public sphere and disregard all religious authorities, save their own. Before the revolution, Salafis remained apolitical. They didn’t have political platforms and never concerned themselves with establishing an Islamic state, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood or Egypt’s various jihadist movements. Salafis have always believed in Islam as an all-encompassing system that includes public as well as private affairs. However, their high standards for what constitutes “Islamic” activism — the exclusive supremacy of sharia’ law and a favorable domestic and international balance of power — has kept them distant from politics. So, as long as these criteria were not fulfilled, Salafis would not engage in political activism. They distinguished themselves from the gradualist reformist approach of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they denounced as being religiously unorthodox and practically ineffective.
This does not however mean that Salafis held an ascetic worldview, like various brands of Sufi Islam. Rather, they believed their political moment had not yet arrived, many of them famously saying, “We are concerned with politics, but we don’t do politics.” Salafis’ main mission was doctrinal: to safeguard the orthodox status of literalist religious interpretations (particularly on issues of faith and jurisprudence) by spreading their message through mosques, media outlets, and other venues.
The Egyptian revolution has changed the Salafi approach to politics. Their primary objective is still control over the Islamic public sphere. But the revolution surpassed their expectations and even drew considerable participation of from the Salafi grassroots, in defiance of stern warnings from their clerics. This left Salafis in disarray. The sudden politicization of wide-segments of Egyptian society contravened their well-established belief that Salafis’ political moment had not yet come.
Now, Salafis feel compelled to engage directly in politics if their ideas are to remain relevant to Egyptians. Their goal in the coming period will not be to outbid secularists and liberals. Rather, their main target is the Islamist reformists. Salafists know very well that Islamist reformists may enjoy a wider public appeal in an open political system where they can compete freely. This can reverse the existing balance of power in the Islamic public sphere. After a decade of relative success in extending their influence over this sphere, a change of fortunes would be the Salafis’ worst nightmare. Salafis will do whatever it takes to avoid this scenario, even if it requires engaging in mendacious politics and making alliances with counter-revolutionary forces such as business oligarchies, ex-security forces, and even allies in Saudi Arabia.
For the time being, topping the Salafi agenda is the expansion of their proselytizing activities. This explains the on-going campaign of mass Salafi conventions organized by preachers nation-wide, after having been restricted to their stronghold in Alexandria for decades by Mubarak’s regime. When the Salafi understanding of Islam rises to the level of everyday common sense, this will be their biggest success. In the lead up to the referendum, Salafis relentlessly pressured the Brotherhood into more confrontational profile. Their goal was to first unify the Islamist bloc and then impose their colors on it. Now, through their would-be political party, Salafis are expected to employ a strategy of mass populist mobilization through fiery propaganda. This threatens to re-invigorate identity politics and sectarian strife in Egypt.
The success of Egypt’s uprising has caused Salafis to rethink their position in Egypt’s political order. They had no option but to support the revolution, or else risk becoming irrelevant. Now they are trying to reap its fruits and justify their own reactive politics in religious terms. This course of action is unusual for a group that is traditionally unbending in its doctrine. But the prospects of Salafi success are limited. Salafists barely have any experience with electoral politics (in terms of cadre building, resource mobilization and interest-aggregation techniques). Their mobilizing capacities are overrated and past successes have relied less on good organizational structures and more on exploiting public emotions and prejudices. Egypt’s new political atmosphere is pushing Salafis into unfamiliar territory. But the hegemony they so eagerly seek over Egypt’s Islamic public sphere may be undercut by the Salafis’ political incompetence.