Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

Egypt's Islamist Hard-Liners Embrace Democracy

Islamist groups in Egypt are joining the democracy bandwagon, even those with a violent past.

Just this week in Luxor, a militant Islamist group jailed for the massacre of Western tourists in 1997 returned to the site to talk about nonviolence, tolerance and political participation.

Two months after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, ultra-conservative Islamist groups known as Salafis have come out of the shadows. The hard-liners' embrace of democracy has alarmed some Egyptians.

Who are the Salafis? It's a question many Egyptians are asking these days. By religious definition, Salafis are ultra-conservative Muslims. During the Mubarak years, they were allowed to open mosques because they focused strictly on morality and stayed out of politics. But now, more than one Salafist group has declared a run for Egypt's first open election in September.

"It's a new variable that we hadn't accounted for before," says Dina Shehata, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. She says Salafism is an ideology, not a political movement.

"They are quite unknown," Shehata says. "We don't know how big they are, how many followers they have or their ability to mobilize voters."

What do Salafis stand for, and politically what do they want?

"They are the purists within the Islamic movement and also the most socially conservative," Shehata says. "They are not the most tolerant of the Islamic movements."

In a working-class quarter of Cairo, worshippers spill out onto the streets in front of a Salafi mosque. After prayers, neighborhood resident Maroof al Denty expresses the limits of his tolerance. Asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist social movement, Denty says they are too moderate for him.

"Muslim Brothers, they have mistakes," Denty says. They "shave their beards to get their goals," he says.

As for the popular uprising that unseated Egypt's president, many Salafist preachers supported Mubarak and condemned protesters for causing social strife.

But Denty didn't take part in any demonstrations. During the days of the revolution, Denty says, he "just make prayer." Others have taken the strict Salafist code even further, and that has raised alarms.

"Definitely there have been several incidents that have shocked people, incidents of violence, attacks against Christians," says Mideast analyst Michael Hanna. The most shocking: A man's ear was severed after he was accused of renting an apartment to a prostitute.

Salafists also destroyed shops that sell beer and torched religious shrines they consider sacrilegious in the breakdown of law and order after Mubarak stepped down.

"Behavior like that, the rule of law has to be imposed," says Hisham Kassem, a publisher and longtime member of Egypt's secular opposition. He says the Salafis are too extreme to have broad appeal.

"The Salafis are beginning to become very disturbing," Kassem says. "People are really beginning to get annoyed with a group of people who think they can go out on the street and impose their own law."

On Tawheed Street in Cairo, Salafi Imam Mahmoud al Gamel's mosque shares the quiet neighborhood with a Coptic Christian church and a private school. He says the violent incidents are overblown by the media and caused by angry young extremists who are not part of any Salafist group.

He says Salafis are organizing political parties — working at the grass roots across the country for the parliamentary elections in September. Then, for the first time, ultra-conservative Salafists will have to convince Egyptians to vote on their role in the country's future.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.