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Rise of the Salafis

Sectarianism and the New Egypt

by RANNIE AMIRI

It was former Egyptian President Husni Mubarak who famously said during a 2006 interview with Al-Arabiya television, “Shiites are 65 percent of the Iraqis … most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in.”

Mubarak, worried over the influx of Iraqi Shia fleeing sectarian persecution in the aftermath of the 2003 war, co-opted scholars of Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University to counter the perceived threat. As the Egyptian daily Al-Musry Al-Yaum reported in its July 2008 headline, “Ministry of Interior Calls Scholars to Train State Security Investigation Officers on Combating the Shiite Ideology.”

Dr. Mohammed Abdel-Moneim al-Barri, professor of Islamic Culture, revealed that the Interior Ministry asked him and other scholars at Al-Azhar to lecture security officers on how to oppose the feared “spread” of Shiism. He was complicit with the designs of the regime, in effect, by instructing personnel at the notorious Mazra’a Tora prison where political detainees were jailed and tortured. Al-Barri was apparently ignorant of the landmark 1959 fatwa by Al-Azhar head Mahmoud Shaltoot which affirmed the Jaafari (Shia) school to be as religiously correct as any of the Sunni schools.

After the revolution deposed Mubarak, hopes were raised for a thaw in the chilly—if not ice-cold—relations between Egypt and Iran. The visit by newly-elected President Muhammad Mursi to Tehran in August 2012 as part of the Non-Aligned Movement summit was the first by an Egyptian leader since diplomatic relations were severed after the Islamic Revolution and Egypt’s recognition of Israel.

Unfortunately, Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood failed to capitalize on their election victory at home and have become increasingly estranged from the electorate. The clampdown on free speech, allowing Al-Azhar clerics to vet proposed laws, circumventing the judiciary and overly close relations between the Brotherhood and their Gulf patron, Qatar, are some of the many reasons.

Squandering golden opportunities for real and meaningful reform after decades of corruption caused any goodwill Mursi may have had to quickly fade. As a consequence, he has been forced to rely on an ever-narrowing base of support.

Witness the rise of the Salafis.

This is ironic, considering the contempt Salafis have for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar. It too is reflective of the posture held by their Gulf patron, Saudi Arabia, and the rivalry between the House of Saud (global sponsors of Salafi movements) and Qatar (global sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the exception of Syria). Capitalizing on their new-found standing and small-yet-growing numbers (capturing a surprising 25 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections) their influence is now unmistakable.

As Mubarak manipulated Al-Azhar for his purposes, the Salafis have been given the opportunity to do similarly. As the Washington Post reported in December 2012:

Al-Azhar leaders say they didn’t want the role [to pass judgment on the religious merits of national laws] but were pressured to accept it by adherents to a puritanical, Saudi-influenced school of Islam known as Salafism, whose clout has surged in Egypt’s newly democratic era. “The Salafis want to make Azhar a part of the political system, which we are against,” said Abdel Dayem-Nossair, an adviser to al-Azhar’s grand sheikh and a member of the assembly that wrote the new constitution. “We don’t like to put the law in terms of a religious dogma that says ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong.’”

Songs have been banned and media personalities threatened at their behest. Mursi’s overtures toward Iran, tepid as they may be, enraged Salafi parties who harbor visceral anti-Shia and anti-Iranian sentiment.

With diplomatic channels opening and ties warming, Iranians have expressed a desire to visit Egypt, a nation desperate for renewed revenue from the devastated tourism sector, the lifeblood of the economy. Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazou told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that Iranian tourists were indeed welcome—but only in certain sites and cities. They would be prohibited from visiting Cairo and its mosques however, and permitted only to travel to Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel and the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. A group of 50 Iranians made the first journey to these destinations.

These restrictions did not placate the Salafis, however. Vice president of the Salafi Dawah, Yasser al-Borhami, called for an outright ban on contact with Shia Muslims or Iranians. “The Salafi Dawah has decided to counter the Shia tide in Egypt,” he said.

The movement plans on holding seminars to educate Egyptians on the “danger of Shias” and has expressed their extreme displeasure with Mursi for ignoring their call to prevent any Shia or Iranian from setting foot on Egyptian soil.

Waleed Ismail, leader of the Coalition for the Defense of the Prophet’s Companions and Household remarked, “The Friday after next, we will protest outside the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] Guidance Bureau in Moqattam to send a message to President Mursi that we do not want Iranian tourism in Egypt, and that we shall never accept his rule so long as he seeks to … turn Egypt into another Syria or Iraq.”

Small protests have already erupted with the disturbing sectarian chants of “Egypt is Sunni,” and, “No Shiites in Egypt.”

The religious underpinnings of these beliefs are beyond the scope of this article. Of more significance are the implications they hold for the Muslim Brotherhood, who have acquiesced to demands of groups like the Nour Party and the Salafi Dawah.

Lamentably, the Brotherhood has adopted a similar tone. Essam El-Erian, vice chairman of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party echoed, “Egypt of Al-Azhar, Al-Awkaf [religious endowments], Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood and Sufis will preserve Sunni Egypt …” The Coptic Christian minority has also voiced alarm over recent developments affecting their community and the level of discourse.

Under intense pressure and despite an economy in shambles, Minister Zaazou announced this week the suspension of all incoming flights from Iran pending reconsideration of the tourist program.

Capitulating to the extremist, sectarian, bigoted policies of Salafist parties will only further alienate Mursi from the historically open, tolerant Egyptian people and inevitably herald his downfall.

This is the unfortunate state of the new Egypt.

Or … is it the old?

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator.