By Mona Alami
June 17, 2013
Egypt’s Salafists emerged as strong political players when the movement secured over 25 percent of Egypt’s parliamentary seats in 2012. Today Egypt’s Salafist community, which has significantly mellowed its discourse, faces several challenges including internal divisions and the rise of new jihadist groups in the Sinai and even in Cairo.
This loosely formed community constitutes traditional Salafists who do not necessary believe in jihad, Salafi jihadists who have put their Jihadi aspirations on hold while experimenting in national politics, and active jihadists who reject political engagement and are supporting acts of terrorism in the Sinai. Jihadists led the Salafi movement’s revolution against the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, while non-Jihadi Salafists took a philosophical stand against democracy, which they consider un-Islamic. “The Salafi jihadists were at the forefront of the revolution and of Tahrir Square,” says Sheikh Magdy Salem, a Salafi jihadist who fought in Afghanistan and was imprisoned under the Mubarak regime.
Salafi parliamentarian Nizar Ghourab also explains, it was only before the elections of 2011 that the traditional Salafists (those who do not believe in jihad) of the Al-Daawa al-Salafiyya, or the Salafist Call, joined the democratic foray by founding the organization’s political arm, the Al-Nour party. The Salafi voting bloc turned out to be significant and Salafi candidates enjoyed unexpected success in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Since then, however, the movement has faced numerous setbacks. Early this year, the head of the Al-Nour party, Imad Abdul-Ghafour, resigned to form his own Al-Watan party. While the split could damage the Salafists’ chances in upcoming elections, some observers believe it may be short-lived. But despite internal splintering, the main challenge facing the Salafi movement is the persistence of radical Jihadi groups who oppose the community’s newfound pragmatism. Many of Egypt’s Salafi jihadists were inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood’s success, from which they have learned to be more pragmatic and to favour political participation. Many have come to believe that the movement should abandon terrorism for now and work to peacefully establish an Islamic state.
“The Salafists understand that the country needs stability, which can only be guaranteed by political compromises. This can also be applied to the deal over the recent constitution, which is the best we can aim for now,” says Sheikh Salem.
However, not all Salafi jihadists opted for mainstream political engagement after the revolution. An example of this is the 26 members of the “Nasr City terrorist cell” who were referred to Egypt’s criminal court in February 2013. The terrorist group was plotting violent acts against the police and armed forces, foreign diplomatic missions, and Coptic churches. The suspects (including Mohammad Gamal, Tarek Abul Azm, and Karim Azzam) had been jailed under Mubarak, but were released during the revolution, only to be imprisoned again on accusations of buying weapons. The group is also believed to be linked to the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya.
Another cell was dismantled in May, with three of its members accused of having links to Al-Qaeda. They reportedly contacted Al-Qaeda in Algeria, and travelled to Iran and Pakistan for training. However, Sheikh Salem claims that “these accusations have been fabricated by intelligence services to sabotage the movement.”
Despite the scale and scope of these accusations, experts still believe that these cells remain on the fringe of the broader Salafi movement. “The uncovered cells were very small in size. Salafi jihadists who have refused to go mainstream have faced difficulties in recruiting new members. Most people feel their approach is not conducive to change,” says Sheikh Khaled Zafarani, a reformed Salafi jihadist. Still, these groups jeopardize the future of the Salafi movement. This is especially evident in the Sinai, where a network of Islamic extremists has been responsible for numerous acts of violence, including the June and July 2011 attacks on an Al-Arish police station, an attack on the Bank of Alexandria branch in northern Sinai, and an assault on a police station at the Israeli-Egyptian border in August 2012 that resulted in the killing of 15 Egyptian policemen.
Sinai jihadists are also believed to have coordinated operations with Gaza-based Salafi groups, creating a transnational network of Salafism jihadism that could prove detrimental to the legitimacy of the Salafi movement in Egypt and elsewhere.
The convoluted history of affiliations (political, tribal and so on) of the various groups further complicates the picture in Sinai. For Ghourab, the recent bout of terror heightens the enmity between the Egyptian state and the jihadists, which dates back to the Taba and Nuweiba bombings in 2004, which resulted in the arrests of thousands of people including women and children. “The sweeping crackdown, torture and humiliation of the local population had disastrous consequences,” he adds.
As jihadist attacks in the Sinai and elsewhere take a toll on the country’s stability, they also chip away at the popularity of the Salafi community – undoing much of what was gained during the 2012 elections. If left unattended, such violence will worsen in terms of intensity and scope and could spread to other regions. While solving the current crisis in the Sinai is a necessity for the Egyptian government, it may be an even bigger one for the Salafi movement. And this responsibility may fall entirely to mainstream Salafists. Attempting to pacify the Jihadi faction of the Salafi movement, through either dialogue or coercion, may prove a golden opportunity for the Salafi community to gain legitimacy and a more prominent role in national politics.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist covering business and political developments in the Middle East. She is currently focusing on Salafi groups in the region. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.