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.