When a coalition of brand-new, ultraconservative Islamist parties won a quarter of the vote in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, liberals were dismayed, and even the Muslim Brotherhood—the country’s well-known and long-established Islamist group—was disconcerted.
But in the village of Ghit al-Nasara, in the northeastern Nile Delta, no one was surprised.
The village on the outskirts of the port town of Damietta is the hometown of Sheikh Mohammed El Taweel, a well-known local Salafi preacher and a candidate for the new El Nour (The Light) party. This week—as El Taweel faced off with a Brotherhood candidate in a heated runoff—the town was plastered with his posters, showing a middle-aged man with an untrimmed beard and a gleaming white skullcap. Minibuses adorned with his face and packed full of voters looped the distance between the village’s main street and the nearby polling station.
“He’s a good man. He serves the community,” says Atef El Elfi. “He prays, he builds schools and mosques, he won a prize for memorizing the Quran.”
Asked about the Nour party’s political program, El Elfi smiled and shrugged: “I know him personally. I’m not concerned with his program. I don’t understand politics.”
Salafis are ultra-orthodox Islamists who say they want to live as much as possible as the Prophet Mohammed’s Companions (the Salafis) did. Men wear untrimmed beards and open sandals. Women don the niqab. Salafis advocate complete gender segregation and speak of Saudi Arabia as a model.
A coalition of secular parties won about 15 percent of the vote across Egypt, but in Ghit al-Nasara, as in much of the country, the competition has been between Islamist and Islamist.
And it has been more intense than many expected. In the local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, party members didn’t bother disguising their surprise and annoyance at the Salafis’ electoral success.
“We have have 80 years of experience,” said Yasser Daoud. “Their candidate has been in politics a few months.”
Freedom and Justice has emerged as the strongest party in postrevolutionary Egypt, capturing at least 40 percent of the vote. Disciplined, well-organized, and with a long history of opposition to the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was always expected to do well.
Yet some Egyptians are suspicious of the Brotherhood, calling it secretive, arrogant, and devoted to its own interests. The Salafis appear to have picked up the support of many pious, first-time voters.
“Imagine you are a 70-year-old woman in the countryside voting for the first time,” said Khaled al-Asily, the secretary-general of the moderate Al Wasat party in Damietta. “At the door of the polling station you meet a Nour party person who tells you, ‘God sees everything. Choose So-and-So and you’ll go to heaven!’”
The Brotherhood itself has long been accused of manipulating voters with religion. But while the Freedom and Justice party’s program is socially conservative and religiously based, its main focus is on economic development and political reform. Their new party supports “a civil state with an Islamic reference” and it abandoned the Brotherhood’s old motto—“Islam is the Solution”—in favor of less religiously loaded slogans like “Let’s Build Egypt Together.”
Now it’s the Brothers who complain that the Nour party is using religion to sway voters. “The simple people in the countryside are confused by a superficial, religious appearance,” says Daoud. “Whoever has this appearance they think is a religious authority and someone who can bring about change.”
Muslim Brothers also allege that their Salafi competitors benefited from the support of the disbanded former ruling party. “I’ve spent 20 years facing the National Democratic Party in elections and I know them all,” says Muslim Brother Taher El Ghobashy. “They are all supporting the Salafis now.”
Other Brothers, in their frustration and confusion over the Salafi gains, looked further afield, suggesting that “members of the former regime, some inside the military council, the Saudi and American intelligence services” all might be behind their fellow Islamists’ impressive organization.
But Salafis have been consolidating their influence in Egyptian society for decades. El Taweel established the local chapter of the Ansar El Sunnaa Salafi charity—in 1972. He has helped build 77 mosques in the area since then, all of them Salafi-controlled. Salafi charities rival the Brotherhood’s own benevolent network.
At the women’s polling station, female El Nour supporters—all wearing the niqab—listed the many Salafi-sponsored charitable activities: help for the sick and the poor; financial assistance to widows, divorcées, and young women in need of marriage trousseaus; and of course plenty of religious instruction.
“They taught us right from wrong,” one woman said.
Taking a page from the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral playbook, some of the women sat outside the polling station with a laptop with a database of voters, ready to answer questions.
“There is no difference between religion and politics. The Prophet was also the leader and founder of the Islamic state,” said Nour supporter Sawsan. Once the Salafis are in Parliament, “banks will become Islamic banks,” explained Doa. “There will be no interest. In schools the Quran will be a fundamental part of the curriculum. In all matters the government will apply Islamic law.”
It is their extensive network of mosques and charities that has given the Salafis such an electoral advantage, say their opponents. And while El Taweel and his supporters insist all their activities are funded “from our pockets,” many here allege the group is financed by religious conservatives in the Arab Gulf. According to an ongoing judicial investigation, Ansar El Sunna received about $50 million from benefactors in Kuwait and Qatar this year. Critics of the Salafi movement suggest this is just the tip of the iceberg.
And for years, the Mubarak regime gave Salafis “a green light to work in the mosques,” says El Ghobashy. While members of the Brotherhood were jailed for their political activism, he says, Salafis were allowed to operate because of their political quietism: they condemned demonstrations and formally forbid challenging rulers.
Salafis say they were also persecuted by the Mubarak regime but admit that they traded in political participation for religious influence. “If we’d entered politics, they would have prevented us from proselytizing and from preaching” says Taweel. “So we left politics aside, because there was no use.”
Most galling to many is that during the January 25 revolution, many Salafi sheikhs told their congregations not to participate and criticized the protests. “When we were in the street,” says al-Asily, “They were telling us, ‘What are you doing? This is forbidden.’”
Now, however, the ultra-orthodox Islamists say they need to participate in shaping the country’s future and in particular in writing its constitution. “Our goal in entering politics is to protect the Islamic identity of Egypt,” said Taweel, which he alleges is under attack from liberals and foreign forces.
Salafis have entered the political arena while withholding support for basic freedoms and democratic principles. One prominent Salafi sheikh said recently that democracy—the rule of men rather than God—is a sin. Another said that Egyptians novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz promoted prostitution and atheism. And yet another told a female reporter that women’s faces should be covered because they are “like their sexual organs.”
On the posters for the Nour party lists across the country, the single female candidate that must be included by law is represented by a blank square or a stylized flower.
But the Salafis insist that they are not extremists because their goal is to guide society to a correct application of Islam through persuasion, not force. “We will never tell someone they have to wear the hijab,” said Nour supporter Doa. “I will tell you the principle; if you agree, good. If you don’t, you’re free. But we won’t force people.”
“If our party is fanatic, we would not receive you here,” a Nour party member told this reporter. “You are a lady, you are not Muslim and you don’t wear a scarf on your hair. And we are willing to talk to you. This is a clue that our party is not fanatic.”
In this week’s runoff, the Freedom and Justice candidate finally beat El Taweel. In this case, the Brotherhood’s greater political experience and more moderate message seems to have won out. Yet that’s small consolation to the country’s marginalized revolutionary youth groups, secular and liberal parties, and the Coptic Christian minority.
With Islamists winning over 60 percent of seats in the Parliament so far, religion seems set to dominate and define Egypt’s new political environment.
“You have two parties in America?” said Eman al-Aly, a Freedom and Justice volunteer at a polling station in Damietta. “So do we. Freedom and Justice and Nour.”