Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Revolutionary Salafi Islamists in Egypt: An Analysis and Guide

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Revolutionary Salafi Islamists in Egypt: An Analysis and Guide

Article excerpt

The overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in February 2011 unleashed Islamist forces there to the point that the Muslim Brotherhood took over the presidency, parliament, and writing of the new constitution within the next 18 months. While the Brotherhood was the strongest single force in Egypt, the number-two slot was held not by liberals, moderates, or secularists but by the even more radical Islamist groups called Salafists. Who are the Salafists and what is their strategy and ideology?

The principal question in Egypt regarding the Salafists was whether they could work together effectively enough to remain a strong political voice in the country with actual influence on the national level. A second issue was how their extra-parliamentary activity- possibly including violence-would help consolidate a Shari'a state and intimidate the political enemies of both the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. A third question is the degree to which Islamists and the Brotherhood can work together, even if the Islamists try to outflank the Brotherhood in terms of greater militancy. If the Salafists are in effect a lobby on the Brotherhood, they can simultaneously play the role as the shock troops for the Brotherhood regime, giving it the rationale for moving more quickly and toughly to impose Islamism on Egyptian society.

What seems to be not at all likely, however, despite the fact that this idea is at the center of U.S. and Western policy, is that the Brotherhood would repress the Salafists or pose a serious alternative in principle and not merely on the timing and tactical levels. It should be stressed at the outset that the Brotherhood is also actually a Salafi organization. Yet since the term has been used to define the disparate, even more radical Islamist groups in Egypt, it will be employed for that purpose in this article. Basically, too, the Brotherhood has the same ideology as the Salafists. The differences are in strategy and tactics.

Of course, since the goal is not merely to institute Shari'a rule but to take power in one's own hands, the Brotherhood and Salafists are competitors for control of Egypt. At times, the Salafists support the Brotherhood-which now also means supporting the government; at other times, they compete with the Brotherhood-as in elections-or criticize it for not going farther faster. The most important difference is that the Salafists are impatient. They want the Islamist program to be fulfilled much more quickly than the Brotherhood and are willing to take far greater risks, both domestically and internationally. If the Brotherhood is "pragmatic" or "cautious," that only signifies its willingness to go more slowly in order to better achieve the same goals.

A central idea in Obama administration policy has been to support the Brotherhood being in power in order to restrain the Salafists. This is a foolish concept based on a misunderstanding of the situation. First, the two groups have the same goal. Second, the Brotherhood does not want to repress the Salafists but rather to use them for its own purposes.

This is true for such matters as the use of violence against Christians, foreign embassies, moderate oppositionists, modernist social practices, women, and Israel. If Salafists act, the Brotherhood-and hence the government- can then claim to be innocent of responsibility for, say, an attack on the U.S. embassy by a mob. This would be the case even though it did not attempt-as a movement-to discourage the anti-American frenzy (On the contrary, it encouraged that sentiment.) or-as a government-to protect the embassy properly (On the contrary, its security forces were ordered to stand by and do nothing until the last moment when a repeat of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 became possible.).

What is taking place, then, is not "moderate Islamism" by the Brotherhood but deniability. In fact, the Salafists are incapable of taking power in Egypt, largely because their ranks are so badly divided and their strategies are so unrealistic. …

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