“They say that the people do not want sharia,” said Gamel Saber, a back-slapping Salafist activist who said he dreams of a day when his country’s courts will fully implement Islamic law. “But that is not true. They are ready.”
Saber’s dream is shared by millions of allies across North Africa, and that reality is proving to be the most serious challenge yet for the months-old governments struggling to find their feet in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
As moderate Islamist leaders in all three countries begin to craft post-revolutionary constitutions, the Salafists in their midst are pushing — sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes at the point of a gun — to create societies that more closely mirror their ultraconservative religious beliefs and lifestyles.
The formidability of the Salafist awakening and the problems it poses for the new governments are unexpected. While challenges from remnants of the old regimes and from disgruntled liberals were widely anticipated, the Islamist bona fides of those who took power had been considered beyond reproach. All have vowed to restore Islam to its rightful place at the center of society after decades of marginalization.
But many Salafists, emboldened by what they see as growing public enthusiasm for their cause, have denounced the new leaders for being too timid in injecting Islamic thought into long-standing domestic and foreign policies. The time for more dramatic action, they say, is now.
“We are not fans of conflict, but the opportunity is here to take firm measures and bold strides,” said Saber, who sat in a dusty Cairo office beneath shelves filled with religious texts. “If a thief steals your monthly pay, would you not want his hand cut off?”
Salafists — whose name comes from the word “Salaf,” meaning ancestor or predecessor — share a common goal of fully implementing Islamic law. But they differ widely on what that means, and on how to get there.
In Egypt, after watching warily from the sidelines of the revolution, Salafists have embraced their role in the new democracy. They launched a dozen television channels and, in upcoming elections, could build on their 25 percent parliamentary minority, allowing them to pressure the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to appoint more Salafist cabinet ministers.
In Libya, private militias operating in the security vacuum are using firepower, or the threat of it, to advance ultraconservative Salafist agendas. One, Ansar al-Sharia, has been accused of involvement in the September attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
In Tunisia, many Salafists now proudly don robes and beards but eschew democratic participation, and a small but vocal minority has staged high-profile attacks on art shows, bars and other displays of what they deem un-Islamic behavior. Others say they are seeking to transform society by proselytizing about Islam and its incompatibility with democracy, undercutting an Islamist-led government that has explicitly rejected sharia law.
Salafist groups are also becoming significant players in Kuwait and Yemen, and they are even posing a challenge to Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip. The U.S. government views Hamas as a terrorist organization, but militant Salafists fault it as too moderate because of its de facto cease-fire with Israel.
Salafists are hardly unified in how they regard the United States: Militant jihadists openly express their hostility, while Emad Abdel Ghafour, chairman of Egypt’s main Salafist political organization, Nour, attended the Fourth of July party at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
On domestic matters, many have called for alcohol to be banned or sold only in Christian neighborhoods. Islamic banks that abstain from interest payments are another common demand, as is gender segregation and the curtailment of women’s and minority rights.
‘Do not be bait’
The most basic choice Salafists face is whether to work within or outside the new order.
Salafist influence in Libya is accentuated by the proliferation of weapons held by hundreds of independent militias that operate beyond the control of the new central government. While not all are religiously motivated, groups such as Ansar al-Sharia have used thinly veiled threats of force to advance their agendas.
“Sharia must be the only reference for the constitution,” said Hani al-Mansouri, a spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia. “We keep watch and we put pressure on the government.”
The group has gone underground since its barracks in Benghazi were overrun last month by Libyans demanding greater government control of the militias. But before it did, Ansar helped stage a number of pro-sharia protests, as well as a military parade in June that many residents described as intimidating.
Following attacks on U.S. missions in Benghazi, Tunis and Cairo last month, Libyan President Mohammed Magarief, a moderate Islamist, called for the immediate disbandment of militias not allied with the government. Along with leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, he condemned the anti-American violence. But the region’s governments have also been criticized for being soft on Salafists.
“They don’t want to set off a civil war,” said Fawzi Wanis al-Gaddafi, who heads Benghazi’s Supreme Security Committee, a loose federation of government-backed militias in the city.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi bowed to the popularity of right-wing sentiment in his address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, calling for limits to freedom of expression following the uproar over an anti-Islam video that appeared on YouTube.
In Tunisia, where secular dictators firmly enforced — concocted, some scholars say — a mild brand of Islam, the elected government has sought to bring Salafists into the fold. Led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the government has endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw blasphemy and has legalized a handful of Salafist parties, including one headed by a former militant who has now disavowed violence.
Few Salafists seem to have bought in. Instead, the most prominent Salafist organization is the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia, which analysts say is only loosely connected to its Libyan counterpart. Though it had been considered nonviolent, it was accused of instigating the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis last month, and Tunisian security forces have arrested dozens of its members. Authorities say they are pursuing its leader.
That leader, Saif Allah bin Hussein, has used the manhunt to depict a battle between Tunisia’s mostly Muslim population and the post-revolutionary government. During a campaign-style speech in a crowded mosque three days after the embassy attack, bin Hussein, a former fighter in Afghanistan, scorned what he called a “new dictatorship” that denigrates pure Muslim youth.
“God made the causes of this revolution, forced the tyrant to flee, and it is God who prepares what will happen soon. Trust him,” he told followers. “Do not be bait in the hands of these players.”
That rhetoric is resonating with many young people, including those who participated in the revolution.
“We will establish the Islamic dream, which is a caliphate state. We have a book to spread our ideas and a sword to defend the ideas,” said Bilel Chaouachi, a 26-year-old theology graduate student in Tunis, who said he lists Osama bin Laden among his spiritual leaders.
His studies, he said, led him to conclude that Muslim countries’ failures were due to their distance from Islam, and that “secularism and moderate Islam are not the real Islam.”
Leaving ‘a bubble’
Before the revolutions of the Arab Spring, Salafists like Chaouachi say they had little room to breathe. The repressive regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Moammar Gaddafi in Libya tightly regulated religious expression and routinely harassed and imprisoned those who appeared outwardly pious, especially men with long beards. That made it impossible to gauge the strength and popularity of Salafist ideology.
Mohamed Tolba, a Salafist activist in Egypt, said he was detained 22 times under Mubarak’s regime, and that police would harass him if he walked by the tourist hotels or museums, taunting him and speculating aloud that he was a troublemaker or a terrorist. “Before, for the Salafists, it was not our country. We lived in a bubble,” he said. “Now we are leaving it and getting involved in society.”
Egypt is slated to hold a new parliamentary election within months, and Salafists stand to gain in a country still reeling from the economic and security collapse that followed Mubarak’s downfall, and which the Brotherhood-led government has been slow to remedy.
How a larger Salafists presence in government would translate into law and practice remains unclear. Not all Salafists are pushing for dramatic action overnight.
“We know the whole society cannot apply sharia at once,” said Nader Bakkar, the media-savvy and ubiquitous spokesman for Nour, which is in the midst of an internal struggle over how quickly to push for change. “We are not here to judge people or make them do what they don’t want to do.”
Arab liberals and policymakers in Western capitals have watched the Salafists rise with a wary eye. An influential Salafist role complicates matters for Washington, which already struggles to understand the ideologies of newly empowered moderate Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Intelligence officials also worry that the line between Salafists who play by the rules and those who don’t is a gray one, particularly in Libya, where the security vacuum has been partly blamed for the rise in activity among armed extremist groups.
In Libya, the powerful Rafallah al-Sahati militia falls into such a gray area.
In the absence of a strong national security force, the group played a key role in securing last summer’s election of the National Congress. But the militia’s base was also among those raided by anti-militia protesters following the attack against the U.S. mission, and the central government acknowledged later that the group was too important and too powerful to dismantle.
The militia’s commander, Ismail Salabi, said the group exists only to contribute to the development of a secure Libya. But he said his fighters espouse specific views on what a secure, successful Libya would look like.
Choosing one’s leadership is “not against Islam,” he said.
But he explained that any vote that granted women the right to travel without the permission of male relatives would be. Where democracy ends and personal freedoms begin has a different definition for Salafists than it does for others, he said.
“We believe in the existence of other opinions that respect Islam,” he said. “We don’t respect any opinion that goes against Islam.”
Booth reported from Cairo, Brulliard reported from Tunis, and Hauslohner reported from Benghazi, Libya.