The Salafi Dawa of Alexandria: The Politics of a Religious Movement

By Awad, Mokhtar | Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, August 2014 | Go to article overview

The Salafi Dawa of Alexandria: The Politics of a Religious Movement


Awad, Mokhtar, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology


FROM HIS CLUTTERED, RUNDOWN CLINIC IN ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT, THE 55-year-old pediatrician Sheikh Yassir Burhami holds court a few nights a week to manage the affairs of his three and a half decade old organization: Ad-Da'wa al-Salafiyya, or "the Salafi Dawa" for short. Patients with screaming babies often interrupt these late night meetings for a free diagnosis from Dr. Burhami. A block away the mosque he frequents is little more than part of the ground floor of an apartment building. But this ostensibly humble man and his at first unassuming infrastructure has perhaps been one of Egypt's shrewdest politicians in the country's ongoing political transition. Burha-mi's calculated pragmatism maneuvered his ultraorthodox organization, which has played a key role in instigating the polarization that still grips Egyptian society along ideological and sectarian lines, away from the line of fire unleashed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies. The Dawa may rely on Shura or deliberation among movement principals for its major decisions, but Burhami, who is officially the Dawa's vice-president, is in practice its true leader and policymaker.

The Dawa is Egypt's largest, most organized group of politicized Salafis. Its roots are in the 'ilmiyya, or scientific, school of Salafism, which is historically characterized by its insistence on a traditional and rigidly scriptural non-violent approach to proselytizing that also generally shuns organized political participation. Yet the Dawa was also born out of the student movements of the 1970s, and despite its historical eschewal political participation, it has also embraced organization for the purposes of spreading its message. It was this tradition of organized work and proselytization that facilitated the Dawa's foray into organized political work and its founding of a political party following the January 2011 revolution.

The Dawa's unexpected successes in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, when it won nearly a quarter of the seats, was only the first sign of the group's strength and aspiration to effect change in Egypt. Salafist ideology has not predetermined the Dawa's post-revolutionary political calculations. If it had, the Dawa would have likely come to the defense of the Muslim Brotherhood just as Egypt's other Salafis have done. Instead, the Dawa's prime motivation is the survival of its message and reason for existing, which is to guide Egypt to true Islam in a hostile environment of rival Islamists and godless secularists wishing to eradicate the messengers. The Dawa fears in particular its biggest competitor, the Muslim Brotherhood. Dawa Sheikhs believe the Brotherhood actively seeks to undermine them, that it is willing to engage Shiites, and most importantly, that the Brotherhood is not the true vanguard of Islam. The Dawa also holds a paranoid fear that secularists allied with the Coptic Church wish to eradicate Egypt's Islamic identity and Sharia law.

As a result of these existential fears and sense of holy mission, the Dawa does not settle for being second to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's Islamist landscape. So it has opportunistically struck a tactical and unholy alliance with the military and state institutions. The collaboration has insulated the Dawa from the worst of government attacks that the Muslim Brotherhood has faced while the Dawa bides its time in the certainty that its religious beliefs ultimately will prevail. In doing so, it sacrifices much of its credibility and in the process faces grave challenges from establishment institutions, such as al-Azhar and Ministry of Religious Endowments, that are actively seeking to degrade the Dawa's capacity to instruct the faithful.

Burhami is the mastermind of this strategy. He holds significant influence over the Dawa's other five founding Sheikhs.[double dagger] These scholars are largely disinterested in the Dawa's administration and, to avoid fitna, have no truck with Burhami's political exploits. …

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