The emergence of the Salafists as a political force in Egypt was one of the major surprises of last year’s elections. While Muslim Brotherhood candidates won the presidency and a plurality of the votes for parliament, the Salafists came in second in the parliamentary elections and provided crucial support in Morsi’s runoff win against a secular candidate.
The Brotherhood and the Salafists both advocate Islamist governance. But the Brotherhood casts itself as a moderate force, while the Salafists are unabashedly orthodox. They preach a literal interpretation of Islam’s holy book, the Koran, and a lifestyle patterned after that of the prophet Mohammad and his seventh-century followers.
The substantial ideological differences have led to policy spats. When Morsi’s government raised taxes on beer and wine this year in order to discourage consumption, many Salafists recoiled, wondering why authorities were not banning the beverages.
Azza al-Garf, a member of the supreme committee of the Brotherhood’s political wing, said Morsi’s Salafist critics are living “in an alternative reality.” After 30 years of ruinous and irreligious rule under President Hosni Mubarak, she said, there is a limit to how much any Egyptian leader could expect to accomplish in just one year.
“We know that to reach our goals, we have to be gradual. I tell Islamists that without meeting people’s demands on security, health care, the economy and education, we can’t build a new system,” she said. “We can’t come to a country as exhausted as Egypt is and just declare sharia.”
Pressing for patience
Such arguments resonate with Salafists — to a point — and account for why Morsi has not lost their support entirely.
“After four years, he’ll have achieved a lot,” said Mohammed Suleiman, a 37-year-old perfume dealer who, like many Salafists, has a long beard and no mustache. “But you don’t harvest on the same day you spread the seeds.”
Suleiman spoke as he walked the Alexandria waterfront, a place that typifies Egypt’s cultural contrasts. In the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean, women wearing Western-style swimsuits bathe next to others donning the full Islamic hijab.
Suleiman said that he is confident that Islamists are winning the struggle for Egypt’s future direction and that implementation of what he considers true Islamic law is only a matter of time.
“The non-Islamist minority in Egypt is becoming smaller and smaller,” he said, citing last year’s election results.
Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political scientist, is less sure. The Islamists won less because of their ideology than because of their reputation for being free of corruption, he said. But after a year in which both the economy and public safety have deteriorated, “there’s a strong fear that they are not capable of ruling this country.”
With a court-ordered rerun of the parliamentary vote expected later this year, Nafaa said the Salafists may try to outflank the Brotherhood and position themselves as the true Islamist alternative. It is not clear, however, whether that will be a winning message.
“We don’t know that the Salafists have gained,” Nafaa said. “I have the impression that all the Islamists have lost a lot.”