Under President Hosni Mubarak, thousands were jailed indefinitely without trial or charges, part of Mubarak’s campaign to prevent Egypt from heeding the call to jihad from Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda underground. That left most of the traditionally easygoing Muslims of Dubanah al-Kabirah free to practice the conservative but tolerant strain of Islam for which Egypt has long been known.
But since Mubarak fell Feb. 11, many Salafists held for years without a legal basis have been released, here and across the country. In Dubanah al-Kabirah, they have returned home, and the most aggressive of them are seeking to impose their radical views with a boldness they would never have dared exhibit in Mubarak’s days.
Dubanah al-Kabirah, near the Nile about 70 miles south of Cairo, is just one tiny village in a nation of 80 million people and an Arab region of 340 million. But what is happening here is a cautionary tale about the unforeseeable consequences of nearly all the political uprisings that have exploded across the Middle East since December.
The youthful protesters who occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanded genuine Western-style democracy, a goal applauded in Washington and around the world. The generals who took over from Mubarak have promised that goal will be reached eventually. But Mubarak’s departure set in motion a process that could change Egypt in many other ways as well, ways that Washington would find harder to applaud.
Most of Dubanah al-Kabirah’s farmers saw the revolution from afar, on their television screens, said Hussein Abdusattar, 58, a municipal employee, but they approved of the demands. Adel Shaaban, whose full beard is speckled with gray, said no one more than the Salafists of Dubanah al-Kabirah rejoiced in the Tahrir Square uprising, because it ended a period of injustice in which many followers of fundamentalist Islam were imprisoned for their convictions.
“Now things will be better,” he said over a glass of Sprite.
Not only were the imprisoned Salafists released to go about their business, villagers said, but the chastened local police force also no longer feels it has the authority to challenge them in the streets unless they clearly break the law.
“The police are the same people,” Abdusattar said, “but before, they could humiliate people, and now they don’t say anything to anybody.”
Determined Salafists have stepped into the void.
About 90 percent of the voters in this region cast ballots in the March 19 referendum to approve swift constitutional changes opposed by the main youthful protest movements in Cairo. Spearheading the “yes” campaign, villagers said, were the spiritual leaders of the Salafist faithful, who one way or another have the say in two-thirds of the families of the village and have imposed their imprint on village life.
About a third of the men walking Dubanah al-Kabirah’s dusty streets on a sleepy Friday wore Islamic prayer caps and untrimmed beards, symbols of fundamentalist Islam, along with their jalabiyas, or traditional robes. Most of the few women outside their homes wore full-face Islamic veils and loose-fitting robes. Some completed the look with black gloves so none of their skin was visible.
A Palestinian photographer visiting the village along with an American reporter was accosted by a Salafist preacher who said foreigners were not allowed to take pictures. Backed by a dozen young men, he forced the photographer to delete photos from his digital camera. Asked to intervene, a local telephone technician said there was nothing he could do to contest the preacher’s authority.
Along another street, a bearded Salafist man with heavily oiled hair and an immaculate white robe shouted at villagers who were speaking with the reporter, saying they were naive to confide in a Westerner because they had no idea what he was really up to. Challenged by the villagers, including a prominent local merchant, he walked away in a huff.
Most concern over Islamic extremism since Mubarak’s downfall has focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, an old-line Islamist political organization previously outlawed but now seeking a place in the new Egyptian landscape. The loosely organized — and more extreme — Salafist movement is more a set of beliefs. It has no political party as such, but its beliefs have inspired several underground groups, including an offshoot blamed in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
More recently, Salafist believers were blamed in the New Year’s bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria in which 21 people were killed. A Salafist identified in news reports as Sayed Bilal was arrested in connection with the bombing but, according to the reports, died under police torture before the crime was solved. Since then, he has been portrayed as a martyr by some Salafist publications.
Salafists have long been influential in remote farming villages where most residents are uneducated, but they seem to have become more assertive and more noticeable since the revolution, said Karam Saber, head of the Land Center for Human Rights in Cairo.
Kamal Samir Gadallah, a Muslim Brotherhood activist, said Salafists benefited from the years during which the Brotherhood was banned by expanding their influence in villages. This is particularly true south of Cairo, he said, and has intensified since Mubarak’s fall loosened law enforcement and led to the prison releases.
“Suffice it to say that there are some villages where Salafists have total control,” he added. “And when the revolution succeeded, we started seeing Salafists speaking out for the first time on politics.”
Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.