The real questions for Egypt
In an interview with Ezzat Ibrahim, John L. Esposito*, a leading American scholar of Islamic affairs, examines the aftermath of the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia
Al-Ahram, 29 December 2011 - 4 January 2012; Issue No. 1078
What was your reading of the results of the first rounds of the Egyptian parliamentary elections?
A couple of things, I think. As many expected, the Muslim Brotherhood did well, and this was the case for a variety of reasons. You don't have a strong multi-party system yet in Egypt, for example. I wrote earlier that in both the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, the Islamists could be expected to get around 40 per cent of the vote. However, what has surprised many people was the rise of the Salafis, which had been relatively politically invisible for many of us in terms of the political scene. I think that with the emergence of the Salafis, we have seen them emerging politically and there has been a sense that after all the years in which whenever one thought of the Islamist movement it was in terms of the ikhwan, the Brotherhood, now the Salafis have entered politics and the Nour Party has emerged and done relatively well in the elections.
I think that one of the questions that clearly will exist more for the Nour Party than for the ikhwan, because the latter has a much longer track record, is its platform on a number of issues, including the ultra-conservative rhetoric that has called for the imposition of Sharia Law, for example. The Nour Party has been trying to present a more accommodating platform on this. Some observers would say that there have been contradictions between the more recent positions that the Nour Party has taken up, which are accommodating, and what some of the individual candidates have actually been saying. I think the role of the Salafis in Egypt is to be contrasted with Tunisia, where you don't have this phenomenon at all.
The Salafist movement is a new phenomenon on the political scene. Is it an extension of the Wahabi school of thought or is it more deeply rooted?
Talking about the Salafis, even the word is difficult because the term Salafi has meant so many different things. The most basic meaning has to do with the early followers or companions of the Prophet. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you had the great Islamic reformer Mohamed Abdu, whose movement was also called Salafi. Recently, the term has tended to be applied to people who are what I would call ultra-conservative, and it gets used at times interchangeably with wahabi. I think that there is something in common with the Saudi Salafis and the Salafis in the Gulf, because the Salafi movement extends over many parts of the Muslim world, including many Gulf countries. The Wahabi movement is a Saudi phenomenon that supports the Salafis wherever it finds them. However, the Salafis in different countries reflect the realities of the countries they are in.
Yet, there are two important distinctions that I often make. Some Salafis tend to be non- political: they are very conservative, very much followers of orthodox Islam, but they are non- political. There were many such groups in Egypt under Mubarak of this sort that were invisible. Then there are other Salafis who are political, and there is a third kind whom I would call militant Salafis, and I think all these groups need to be distinguished from each other. The militant Salafis are the people who are sometimes called jihadists when they engage in violence.
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For background, see:
Divisions emerge between Islamists in Egypt - Miami Herald
Egyptian military gambles by raiding pro-democracy groups - Washington Post
Tribal loyalties sway votes in south Egypt - The National