December 1, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 767

Egypt's Islamic Camp, Once Suppressed By Regime, Now Taking Part in Shaping New Egypt – Part IV: For First Time in Egypt, Salafis Running in Elections

December 1, 2011 | By R. Green*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 767


For the first time in their history, Egypt's Salafi circles are preparing to run in the country's parliamentary elections, on their own lists. The Salafis have founded a number of parties: Al-Nour, Al-Asala, Al-Fadila, and Al-Bina Wal-Tanmiyya, which is associated with Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya.[1] Preliminary elections results give the Salafis about a quarter of Egyptians' votes, though official results for both the People's Assembly and the Shura Council will only be finalized in March 2012. The common goal of Salafi movements is to restore the early Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, and to make it the dominant factor in both private and public life. In Egypt, there are a number of Salafi organizations, the most prominent of which are:

  • Al-Gam'iyya Al-Shar'iyya (" The Shari'a Association"), established in Cairo in 1912 by Al-Azhar cleric Mahmoud Khattab Al-Subki with an aim to purge Islam of what it considered deviations and forbidden innovations in Islam. The movement's popularity in Egypt is thanks to its welfare enterprises and learning centers for the poor.
  • Gama'at Ansar Al-Sunna ("Association of Supporters of the Sunna"), established in Cairo in 1926 by Al-Azhar cleric Muhammad Hamed Al-Fiqi, who split from Al-Gam'iyya Al-Shar'iyya over theological issues. The group fought the Sufis' practice of grave worship and believes that Muslims' deviation from the pure Islam is one of the reasons for Islam's failure.
  • Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya ("The Salafi Preaching"), established in the 1970s in Alexandria under influence from Saudi Salafi circles. This group ran into conflicts with the Mubarak regime.
  • Al-Salafiyya Al-Harakiyya ("The Salafi Movement"), founded in Cairo in the 1970s, contemporaneously with Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya.
  • There are also smaller Salafi groups, among them radical Salafis who support global jihad. Some of the heads of these groups are currently in prison – including Muhammad Al-Zawahiri, brother of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri – while others were freed in the wake of the January 25 Revolution.

This report will focus on the Al-Nour party, which was established by Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya, one of the most popular Salafi streams in Egypt today. In the past, its leaders expressed negative views on democracy and elections, but in light of the new situation in the country they have chosen to run in the elections in an attempt to translate their popularity into political clout that will enable them to steer Egypt toward an Islamic state model. This decision sparked a debate in the Salafi community and rage among the radical Salafis, who utterly reject democracy, constitutional law, and parliamentary politics. In their defense, members of Al-Nour claimed that a balance could be achieved between democracy and religious ideology, and that democratic means could even be used in order to strengthen religion. The following report will review some of the main issues that are being debated among the Salafi circles in this context, and the claims put forth by Al-Nour to justify its participation in politics.

Al-Nour's logo

The Debate Among the Salafis Regarding Political Participation

For Egypt's Salafis, participation in the country's politics is not to be taken for granted. Until now, they have avoided doing so for religious, ideological, and practical reasons. As advocates of the implementation of Islamic shari'a law, the Salafis believe that government and legislation are the prerogative of Allah alone. Therefore, in their eyes, democracy is a form of heresy, since men do not have the authority to make their own laws or to decide whether to implement the laws of Islam. According to the Salafi worldview, even the process of electing a ruler is the prerogative of a small group of ahl al-hal wal 'aqd ("those with binding authority") and is not a matter for the general public to decide.

Sheikh Yasser Burhami, Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya leader and founder

The Salafis' entry into politics, then, required an explanation as to what had changed and why they had not done so previously. In the past, Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a leader and founder of Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya, listed three reasons for the Salafis' refusal to participate in politics:

"1. Legislation is the absolute prerogative of Allah, and is one of the most important hallmarks of [His] sovereignty and divinity...

"2. Allowing man-made laws contravenes the Islamic shari'a.

"3. Governing according to [laws] other than God's laws angers [God], and brings His enmity and punishment [upon the people]..."[2]

These principles, generally accepted in Salafi circles, are at the heart of the debate sparked by the entry of some Salafis into politics and their participation in the democratic game.

Radical Salafi Cleric: Participation in Elections Is a "Religious Crime"

The radical Salafis harshly denounced the decision of the more moderate groups to enter politics and play by the rules of democracy. The assault was led by a number of prominent leaders of the radical Salafi stream. Sheikh Ahmad 'Ashoush, a former Al-Jihad leader who was recently released from prison in the wake of the revolution, wrote an article titled "The Al-Nour Party – Between Islam and the European Jahiliyya," in which he listed the main arguments against political participation.[3] It should be noted that 'Ashoush was originally a member of Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya, which founded the Al-Nour party, and was close to its leaders.

Among the arguments presented by 'Ashoush in his article were the following:

  • Al-Nour's call to establish a modern and democratic state in Egypt is a deviation from the true Islam.
  • Agreeing to the legislation of man-made laws undermines the principle of Allah's exclusive authority in matters of legislation and government.
  • Accepting the principle of an independent judiciary means accepting laws permitting licentiousness, such as homosexuality, consumption of alcohol, and prostitution.
  • Accepting the principle of the rule of law (i.e., secular law) is a "religious crime."
  • Accepting the Egyptian constitution means accepting the separation of religion and state.

According to 'Ashoush, the party leaders heeded his criticism and changed a clause in their platform regarding the people's role in formulating the new constitution.

Radical Salafi Sheikh Ahmad Al-'Ashoush

Al-Nour's Response

A. Democracy Can Be Subjugated to the Shari'a

Having decided to enter the political arena, the Salafis had to accept the rules of the democratic game and find a way to reconcile them with their ideological and religious principles. Accordingly, the platform largely accepts the principles of democracy. For example, it states that "the party advocates establishing a modern state [founded] upon modern principles... which respects freedoms... and rights, honors the values of transparency and integrity... [and] is based upon the separation of the legislative, judiciary and executive powers."[4] However, the platform also speaks of the need to honor "the fundamental principles of the [Egyptian] nation and its basic regime," and, more explicitly, of "the need to realize democracy within the framework of the Islamic shari'a." It should be noted that the original phrasing spoke of "democracy with an Islamic source of authority." It was amended in response to criticism, such as that of 'Ashoush, that it implied a willingness to accept the rule of the people instead of subjugating democracy to the laws of Islam.

B. It Is Possible to Utilize the Democratic Mechanisms without Accepting the Democratic Ideal

At a Salafi convention in the Bani Suef province, Yasser Burhami was asked whether the Al-Nour party had deviated from the true path, as some radical Salafis claimed. In response, Burhami stated that democracy included two main components: the ideal of the rule of the people, and political mechanisms such as free elections. He clarified that the Salafis rejected out of hand the democratic ideal, but accepted its political mechanisms: "In essence, democracy [means] the rule of the people, who are the source of authority and legislation. However, the concept of democracy has developed, and [today] it encompasses both [this] idea and the [democratic] mechanisms. The idea [itself] we reject out of hand. [But] in the current balance of options, the democratic mechanism – i.e., the method of [holding] elections and of deciding all matters according to the will of the majority – seems to be the best option available, or the lesser evil."[5]

C. Each Society Creates Its Own Kind of Democracy

Al-Nour's official website posted an article titled "Toward Liberating the Concept of Democracy," by Dr. 'Abd Al-Fattah Madi, a professor of political science at Alexandria University, in which he explained that democracy was a broad and flexible concept that can be tailored to the particular character and culture of the Egyptian people. He added that since the religious streams were vastly popular among the public, democratic elections could serve them as a means of attaining power, following which they could shape the country according to their will. Madi stressed that democracy would not undermine the fundamental values of society, or the supremacy of Islam as a religion and ideology: "Democracy, as a form of government, has to do with the separation of powers... Contrary to what some believe, it is not a political belief or a school of thought... The democratic institutions are a means of implementing the sources of authority. They cannot be expected to violate the supreme sources of authority or the values of society..."[6]

Madi added that democracy was modular, and could be shaped by every society to suit its needs: "Democracy as a form of government is not like a portable computer that can be imported as a unit... It is not a patently Western product, as some believe... Though it was developed in the liberal Western countries, it has also proved successful... in Malaysia, India, Japan, and Latin America. Democracy is a human [invention] that many cultures had a hand in shaping. It has its roots in the philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, and in the Islamic culture..."[7]

D. The Political Chaos in Egypt Gives the Salafis an Edge

In a November 10, 2011 interview in Al-Ahram, Yasser Burhami addressed the issue of why the Salafis had not participated in Egypt's political life under the Mubarak regime, explaining that circumstances then were not favorable to the Salafis because there was only a pretense of democracy, and the elections were a mere show meant to lend the regime an appearance of legitimacy: "Before the revolution, the Salafis did not participate in the political process because the balance of power forced anyone who entered this realm to make concessions and because of the disgraceful forgery of the elections, with the opposition nothing but a means of sprucing up the dictatorial regime's image [as democratic]."

In a March 29, 2011 interview on Al-Khalijiyya TV, Burhami justified the Salafis' newfound political participation despite the difference between Islamic rule, which does not separate religion from state, and secular democratic rule. He explained that, under Islamic rule, laws are based on the Koran and the Sunna, and deviating from them is considered an act of rebellion, evil, and heresy. On the other hand, under democracy, it is the will of the people that must be respected, and the authorities may not deviate from it, even if this means allowing licentiousness, homosexuality, and the consumption of alcohol. Under secular democratic rule, all laws are open to change according to the will of the majority, whereas under Islamic rule, it is not up to the people to decide whether the laws of shari'a should be implemented.

Despite these statements against democracy, Burhami implied that Salafis may engage in politics as a means of advancing their goals and interests – providing that circumstances are favorable: "Our previous eschewal of participation in elections was not because religion has no place in politics or because politics have no place in religion. We believe that Islam is the decisive [authority] in all domains of life, including politics... After the revolution, great changes occurred... which allow us [to enjoy] those advantages of democracy which are in line with the shari'a... Today, there is a great deal of freedom, which prevents [anyone] from forcing concessions upon us. The day we are forced to give up the fundamental tenets of our faith, we will no longer be able to participate [in the political process]..."

It must also be noted that Burhami was in the past and still is opposed to issuing accusations of heresy (takfir) against those who take part in the political process or against the heads of the regime, even if they do not implement the shari'a. In this he differs from the Salafi-jihadis who espouse the ideology of Al-Qaeda.[8]

The Salafis' Position on Minorities and Women

The Status of the Copts

The Salafis declare openly that they want Egypt to be defined as an Islamic country, though they are careful to stress that Copts will be allowed to follow their own religious laws in matters of personal status. The article on "culture and identity" in Al-Nour's platform states: "There is a broad popular consensus among all sectors of Egyptian [society] regarding establishing Islam as the state religion, Arabic as the official language, and the principles of Islamic shari'a as the primary source of legislation. This guarantees freedom of religion to the Copts and their right to be judged according to their [own] religious laws in matters of personal [status]. In all other domains of life, [and in all matters of] general order and norms, state law [which is based on the shari'a] is inviolable and applies to all citizens."[9]

Riots between Salafis and Copts in Cairo, May 2011

This position has generated some apprehension among the minorities in Egypt, especially among the Copts. In an attempt to alleviate their concerns, Al-Nour head 'Imad 'Abd Al-Ghafour said: "The Copts are [our] partners in the homeland, and have rights and duties equal [to those of the Muslims]. I hope we will be allowed to visit their churches [in order to] to reassure them and acquaint them with the true nature of the Salafi stream and of our political platform, which is based on the absence of any religious discrimination among citizens. Even if there are Salafi leaders who proclaim Copts to be heretics, this does not mean that [the Copts] must be subjected to any religious or [legal] sanctions. According to Islam, an unbeliever must give an account of himself to Allah alone."[10]

Women in Parliament

Though the Salafis generally reject the presence of women in the public domain, Al-Nour has attempted to express a more flexible position. A paragraph in the "Frequently Asked Questions" page of its website states: "Our attitude towards women is one of utmost appreciation and respect. Their contribution is crucial in countless domains, as long as it is in line with the laws of the shari'a, which protects their honor against all manner of violation... The Islamic tradition, on which we rely in all other matters [as well], clearly indicates that women in the time of the Prophet used to participate in raids in order to fulfill their diverse duties, from [taking part in] the fighting to tending the wounded."[11]

Egyptian law requires all parties to secure places for women on their candidate lists. This presents a problem for the Salafi parties because Salafi clerics have ruled against women serving in parliament, based on a hadith that says, "A people that appoints a woman to lead it will never succeed." In order to sanction the presence of women on Al-Nour's list, Burhami issued a new fatwa which allows women to run for parliament and serve in it on the grounds that failing to include women would keep the Salafis from running in the elections at all, and this, in turn, would mean leaving the political arena to the secularists.[12]

A poster of Al-Nour candidates, with a rose rather than a photo depicting a woman candidate

Al-Nour's attitude towards women sparked an uproar several times during the elections campaign. One incident involved campaign posters promoting female candidates which bore pictures of flowers or of the candidates' husbands instead of portraits of the candidates themselves. 'Iman 'Abd Al-Ghafour said in response, "This [was] a private initiative by a local party committee, and those responsible have been punished." He admitted, however, that "some of the women [candidates] were included [in the list] thanks to their qualifications, but others [were included] in order to satisfy the requirement for having a certain percentage of women on the list."[13]

A women's rally in support of Al-Nour, with all male speakers

Another storm broke out when, during a live interview, one of the party spokesmen, 'Abd Al-Mun'im Al-Shahat, demanded that the interviewer cover her head with a hijab.[14] The party was also criticized for holding a special rally for women in which all the speakers were men. Sheikh Burhami stated at this rally that the inclusion of women on the party's list was a necessary evil. He explained: "The presence of women in parliament is forbidden, because it means letting them rule over men. However, we were forced to agree to it, because refusing would have meant abandoning the [political] arena to destructive elements... The evil of letting women [serve in] parliament is less damaging than leaving the arena to those who wish to change Article Two of the constitution and the identity of the [Egyptian] nation. Women are not allowed to hold the reins of power... but we [are willing to] forgo this principle for the sake of the [common] good."[15]

Further embarrassment was caused when one of the party's female candidates, Muna Sallah, said in an interview that women "are mentally and religiously flawed, and [therefore] must not [occupy positions] of power, because they are ruled by their emotions." She hurried to explain, however, that serving in parliament was a position of limited power, and therefore open to women.[16]

*R. Green is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] The Islamist movement Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, which during the 1990s was involved in terrorist activities aimed at toppling the Egyptian regime and establishing an Islamic rule in its stead, renounced violence in 1997.

[6] Compare this to the slogan coined by Salafi-jihadi ideologue Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, "Democracy Is a Religion," which implies that believing in democracy is heresy.

[10] (Egypt), November 15, 2011.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 8, 2011.

[13] Bawbat Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 15, 2011.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2011.

[15] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 15, 2011.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 17, 2011.

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