“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.