Their preferred candidate, ultraconservative preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, was disqualified this month over the issue of his late mother’s nationality, leaving the voting bloc up for grabs and in disarray.
On Saturday, the largest Salafist political party, Nour, and its founding organization, Dawa Salafiya, backed the progressive Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The move could reunify the vote behind an unlikely figure. The progressive Islamist has a much looser interpretation of Islamic law compared with the Salafists. But he is not beholden to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most powerful Islamist group, and could be a key ally, analysts said.
“The decision could encourage other Salafi groups to back Aboul Fotouh and create a future alliance with him. We have to see,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Britain-based Durham University. He added that if other Salafist groups follow, it could consolidate the ultraconservative political movement.
Moderates, minorities worry
But Salafists still face significant challenges. The Nour party appears to be unraveling, with a number of members resigning in recent weeks, some even giving up on politics to return to preaching.
At the same time, many Salafists have said that they are boycotting the vote over Abu Ismail’s disqualification. The Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reforms, a panel of top, mostly Salafist scholars and clerics, backed the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, last week, making it unclear whether the Nour party’s decision would seal the rank-and-file Salafist vote for Aboul Fotouh.
“Salafists are now one of the new power centers in Egypt, and their decision will shape Egypt’s polity for years to come,” Anani said.
The puritanical Muslims’ potentially decisive role has made more moderate Egyptian Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians uneasy. Salafist leaders have advocated for expanding the application of Islamic law to sectors such as banking, which would, for instance, outlaw charging interest on loans.
Some have suggested that head scarves for women ought to be mandatory and that workplaces should be segregated.
In parliament, Salafist lawmakers were ridiculed for suggesting that English be banned from schools. Those calls have generated fear among liberal Egyptians, who worry that the country could become as conservative as Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, and boosted support in some quarters for two other presidential candidates: former foreign minister Amr Moussa and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.