Salafis forecast unified vote
BY SARAH EL SIRGANY
Cairo: In the parliamentary elections, they raked in over 7 million votes. But less than four months later, in the presidential election, they had no visible impact. Now, the ultraconservative Salafis are facing accusations of betrayal, naivete and internal division, undercutting their unexpectedly strong initial foray into politics.
Novices on the political arena, they competed in the parliamentary elections against the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, gaining 24 percent of the seats to the surprise of politicians and analysts. The decision of the Salafi Al-Nour Party to back former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh in the presidential race was a direct challenge to their more organized Islamist rival, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which fielded Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi had secured the backing of new religious institutions and the endorsement of some prominent Salafi sheikhs sitting on their boards. The Jurisprudence Association for Rights and Reform, the Scholars’ Shoura Council and Ahl El-Jamaa wal Sunna chose Morsi. Al-Nour and its mother organization, the Salafi Da’wa, went against the grain by endorsing Abol Fotoh.
But accusations of betrayal were quick to emerge when Abol Fotoh unexpectedly came in fourth place with 4 million votes. The Salafis had promised Abol Fotoh but reneged on election day, commentators argued.
The Building and Development Party, which like Al-Nour had gone against the decision of the three institutions, claimed that Salafis publicly endorsed Abol Fotoh but privately voted for Morsi. The party’s vice president, Hamdy Hassan, accused his own mother organization, Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, which renounced violence in the 1990s, of doing the same. He even urged the group, along with the Salafi Da’wa, to apologize to Abol Fotoh.
Yet in an article published in a local newspaper on May 29, Al-Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar wrote that such allegations were false. He blamed a “vicious campaign” aimed at portraying the party as a sellout that abandoned the “righteous path.” As a result, part of the party’s Salafi constituency was too disinterested in voting, while the other was divided between a commitment to their respective groups’ decisions and those who cast their vote independent of the group’s recommendation.
The explanation he gave betrayed political naiveté and leadership flaws rather than structured, premeditated decisions. While the Brotherhood picked up on this earlier in the race, promoting Morsi as the “Sharia candidate” to win over Salafi voters, Abol Fotoh failed to do so, instead advocating an inclusive, centrist platform.
Smiling confidently, Ahmed Morad, head of the Morsi campaign in Suez, dismissed the Salafi threat. It’s difficult to convince the Salafi base to vote against a man promoting Sharia, he argued, betting that the grassroots will go against their leadership.
In Islamist strongholds on election days, the competition between Salafis and the Brotherhood was palpable on the streets. Heated arguments abounded between men sporting trimmed beards and the Salafis, with their signature bushy beards. The kind of veil women wore was evidence of who controlled the district: the full face veil (niqab) for the Salafis and the long headscarves signified the MB. When the results were announced, Al-Nour was on the losing end.
The party failed the one test that could have unshackled it from the sidekick role it has been assigned as part of the Brotherhood-dominated Islamist bloc in parliament. In the process, it also revealed its weak leverage power within the Salafi bloc. While it remains the strongest political party representing a strict interpretation of Islam, its influence on the grassroots level is incomparable to the tight hierarchical network that has helped the Brotherhood survive 80 years of intermittent crackdowns.
Simultaneously, the religious institutions which came to life after the Jan. 25 uprising away from the state-controlled Al-Azhar and its historic roots, also remain without centralized command. Moreover, conflicting endorsements by preachers had a negative impact on the entire Salafi bloc. As Bakkar and other leaders of Salafi groups noted, many boycotted the first round.
Such apathy was not only the product of confusion and frustration with disagreeing scholars, but was also the result of setbacks they experienced at the start of the electoral process.
Initially, the Salafi bloc had its own candidate. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail’s popularity and strong following was reassuring to Salafis. But the lawyer/preacher, who adopted a populist and revolutionary rhetoric, was disqualified in April when the Presidential Election Committee found that his late mother held US citizenship in violation of candidacy laws.
A sit-in to protest his exclusion was subject to a deadly crackdown early May, but even before the blood was spilt, Abu Ismail was abandoned by many sheikhs and Salafi groups who insinuated he deliberately lied about his mother’s citizenship. Islamist TV channels which had given him a platform to attract more followers gradually turned against him.
Without a clear endorsement by their political/spiritual leader, Abu Ismail’s supporters were divided between Morsi, Abol Fotoh and boycotting.
“A lot of the youth didn’t participate because they were frustrated,” said Khaled Saied, spokesman of the Salafi Front. Some were disappointed by the disqualification and others held a grudge against those who abandoned their candidate.
Mahmoud Ahmed, an e-marketer from Qena, was going to boycott but cast his ballot in the eleventh hour on the second day of voting. He insists that he is not a Salafi, but leans towards that conservative stream. His vote was initially going to Abu Ismail.
Ahmed said he saw how the Copts in Nagaa Hamadi, where he lives, were mobilized to vote for Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander and the last Mubarak-era prime minister, which pushed him to vote for Abol Fotoh at 9:40 pm. Without a nationwide extension on voting hours, he would have missed that chance.
Battle for survival
In the runoff, this hesitation is almost non-existent among the ranks of the groups that campaigned for Abu Ismail. Gamal Saber, head of the Lazem Hazem group, said the decision is clear. “It’s a choice between a regime killing its people and another criticized for having [achieved] nothing yet,” he said.
A similar group, Hazemoon, which unlike Lazem Hazem didn’t announce endorsements in the first round, has launched a campaign against the remnants of the former regime — supporting Morsi and campaigning against Shafik.
Resentment for the Brotherhood and Al-Nour’s lack of support for Abu Ismail during his ordeal was set aside for the sake of a united Islamist front. Members of the different groups repeatedly stressed their unity against the former regime, with the nation’s best interest in mind without consideration for religious differences.
Despite some core disagreements in the belief system, the Salafis are united behind Morsi, according to Ahmed Serag, an IT specialist and member of the Salafi Front group.
Serag, an Abu Ismail supporter, also highlighted disagreements with the Brotherhood on the political level. He was surprised that the Salafi Front, which had repeatedly gone against both Al-Nour and the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party in supporting street action even when it conflicted with the Islamist political path, endorsed Morsi in the first round. The Front chose Morsi for his commitment to Sharia.
The Islamist TV channels are showcasing none of these disagreements and power struggles. Their regular viewers observe an emerging unified message in Morsi’s favor.
“It’s a battle of survival, of life or death,” said Khalil Al-Anani, scholar of Middle East Politics at School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. “They have no other choice but to fight till the last breath… to ensure that the Mubarak regime doesn’t come back to life.”
“Political pragmatism” in this case has triumphed over “intra-Islamic conflicts,” he explained. This conflict, which according to Al-Anani was revealed and has reached new heights over the past year, runs deep between the Salafis and the Brotherhood on the political front. Hence a unified stance could be a game changer.
“If the Salafi bloc threw its weight behind this election, it could tip the balance in the favor of any candidate it supports,” Saied said.
It’s not clear, however, if this would translate into another dismal performance or a rebirth of a political Salafi voice.
“I’m not convinced the Salafis can form a coherent political bloc,” said researcher Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. In the brief period when ex-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was in the race, before his disqualification, some of Abu Ismail’s supporters backed him, claimed El-Houdaiby, arguing that this showed a lack of unifying political discourse.
“Salafis reflect the diversity of Egyptians. They are part of the Egyptian population but with beards,” Serag joked.
El-Houdaiby believes that Salafis have little chance of reviving their parliamentary elections glory. The presidential election is a different game and the factors shaping Egyptians’ choice of president is different from what they look for in an MP, he said.
Despite setbacks, divisions within Salafi ranks and disagreements with other Islamist blocs, like the Sufis who are supporting Shafik, the Salafis who chose the political path are making progress.
According to Al-Anani, Al-Nour has already set itself apart from the Brotherhood in several occasions recently, defending its own political interests. It established itself as an entity that the Brotherhood needs, not vice versa, he explained.
For now, it’s campaigning for Morsi. –The Egypt Monocle