On May 15, 2012, the Saban Center at Brookings hosted a policy forum with William McCants, a Middle East specialist at CNA; and Omar Ashour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, who joined via teleconference. The discussion addressed the political rise of Islamist groups throughout the Middle East, especially in Egypt, in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening, and built on McCants’s May 2012 Saban Center Middle East Memo, “The Lesser of Two Evils: The Salafi Turn to Party Politics in Egypt.”
The discussion began with a brief overview of Salafism, in which McCants described an outdated perception that Salafis are divided between two camps: those who avoid politics and those who pursue violent revolution. Political Salafism is more nuanced and complicated, McCants argued, as illustrated by Salafi political participation stretching back to Kuwait in the 1980s.
The Salafi experience in Kuwait was one in which Salafis saw how, through political participation, they could protect their interests and formulate law. Abd al-Rahman Abd al-Khaliq, an Egyptian who resettled in Kuwait and established the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, promoted Salafi political participation by arguing that while taking part in politics is certainly an evil, it would be an even greater evil to stay out of politics while one’s competitors are impeding on Salafi interests. This rationalization has been playing out throughout the Arab world in recent months.
In looking at Egypt, McCants noted that the Salafi Call, one of Egypt’s most organized Salafi groups, acted pragmatically by hedging its bets during the January 25 Revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. It largely stayed on the sidelines, only issuing some statements that the protests could harm security—this tactic was largely based on the calculation that the benign neglect of the Mubarak regime was not something to upend capriciously, and there was much to lose by supporting a revolution that could fail. Once Mubarak fell, though, the group was quick to take part in the post-revolution politics. The Salafi Call’s participation in politics actually goes back to 2010, when it began to move away from quietism by permitting followers to run for or support candidates in that year’s parliamentary elections. Still the general hesitation of Salafis to enter politics is based, in part, on the fact that participation often leads to compromise, which over time may alienate many members. McCants believes this—the need to compromise versus the desire to stay true to the movement’s conservative social views—will be a significant tension for Salafi political parties going forward. At this moment in Egypt, Salafis are acting as pragmatic as any other political group.
Omar Ashour picked up on that point. “Pragmatism,” he said, is the key word. He noted a Salafi concept: if one can win a competition, one should initiate it; if one cannot win, one should avoid it. The Salafi Call has dominated the Salafi scene in Egypt, Ashour said, because its administrative and organizational structure is highly developed: the group first established itself out of a student movement at the Alexandria Medical School in the 1970s. The Salafi Call transformed this structure, which is active in education and charity, into a political base. Cairo-based Salafi groups did not have this organization, and they only began to create it after the revolution.
Egypt’s Salafi groups are actually split about which candidate to support in the upcoming presidential election—a divide that is largely based on whether the group is a centralized organization or not. Ashour said that Salafi groups that have built organizations, such as the Salafi Call, its political party al-Nour, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) all support Aboul Fetouh in an effort to block a bigger group—the Muslim Brotherhood—from dominating Egyptian politics. Ashour warned not to underestimate the psychological impact that years of state repression have on Salafi groups such as al-Gamaa: these Salafis are concerned the Brotherhood will collude with Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to bury them. On the other hand, Salafi groups without a centralized organization tend to support the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi.
The speakers discussed the impact of the Salafi’s rise on Egypt’s foreign policy, on the region more generally, and on the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. McCants pointed out that the Nour Party, the largest Salafi party, which holds almost a quarter of Egypt’s People’s Assembly seats, has taken a neutral position toward the United States. Indeed, its leaders have gone out of their way to stress the desire for relations based on “mutual interest and mutual respect,” using the Obama administration’s own phraseology. Ashour noted that Salafis have been driven by domestic concerns, and they are trying to formulate their foreign policy priorities, which are generally limited to conflicts in the Muslim world such as Palestine, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Ashour said that most Salafis have an animosity towards Iran; one leader told him, “We have issues with Israel, but we have as many if not more issues with Iran.” Salafi rhetoric on these issues will be loud, but ideology is unlikely to influence political behavior.
One big question being considered in Washington is whether the rise of the Salafis will be a U.S. strategic threat. One participant suggested that their political gains may be unfortunate from a U.S. perspective, but the movement does not seem to be cohesive enough to threaten U.S. regional interests. McCants agreed with this point: Egypt’s Salafis have made clear their ability to be pragmatic and to understand national security issues. One threat could be if Salafi political clout creates a “conveyer belt” to support for terrorism; however, McCants does not think that will be the case. Ashour reminded the attendees that one of largest and most powerful Salafi countries is Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally.