Several Salafi movements and parties, including the Nour Party and Hazemoun, took part in protests Tuesday to support President Mohamed Morsy amid growing polarization between Islamists and secularists.
Meanwhile, a sit-in of Salafi groups continues in front of the Egyptian Media Production City in 6th of October to pressure private satellite channels, which they say constantly criticize Morsy and slander icons of the Islamist current. Participants in the sit-in say satellite channels, which broadcast from Media Production City, are “burning the state.”
“We are now staging a sit-in in front of Gate 4, but we can escalate that peaceful protest because the private media is the chief impediment to the conclusion of the Islamist project, as it intentionally smears our image,” says Gamal Saber, coordinator for Hazemoun, the group of followers of former presidential candidate and renowned Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
The Salafis’ move is not unprecedented. Muslim Brotherhood members previously besieged Media Production City for hours in August for the same reason.
The pro-Morsy protests and sit-in reflect unity between different Salafi groups over their ambition to see a more Islamized Egypt. They also reflect a broad alignment between the Salafi movement and the Brotherhood, from which Morsy hails — an alignment that was put to good test in previous elections.
But this broad unison does not mask political discord within the ranks of the Salafi movement on the one hand and the Brotherhood on the other.
One point of discord can be seen in relation to the draft constitution, which is being put to a referendum this Saturday and which is largely a source of contention, with most Islamists approving it and secularists planning to either boycott or vote “no.”
But there is no unanimity in the Salafi movement’s ranks over the “yes” vote, which may be disconcerting for the Brotherhood, which relies on Salafi votes at election times.
Ahmed Zaghloul, an expert on Salafi movements, says the Salafi-Brotherhood relationship is complex.
“In general, the Salafi movement is an unmistakable Muslim Brotherhood ally when it comes to several issues that concern the Islamist project and particularly the constitution,” he says. “The Brotherhood regards them as an important voting bloc that has to be used, and that is why they deal with them as partners. Any divisions within Salafi circles could make the Brotherhood’s mission to mobilize ‘yes’ voters to the constitution more difficult.”
Salafis are divided on the constitution. The Nour Party and the Salafi Dawah — which together formed the second-biggest parliamentary bloc in the last parliamentary election, enabling both to contribute many members to the Constituent Assembly — will vote in favor of the constitution.
Other Salafi groups, such as the Salafi Front and some Salafi sheikhs who enjoy immense popularity as a result of their presence on religious satellite channels, are opposed to the constitution.
Despite their participation in pro-Morsy protests, the leaders of several Salafi groups — most importantly, the Hazemoun movement — have announced their rejection of the proposed constitution.
The Nour Party says the proposed draft sets the principles of Sharia as the source of legislation and makes Al-Azhar the entity to be consulted on legislation, a power that in the past was solely in the hands of the Supreme Constitutional Court. The party also says Article 219 clearly explains what is meant by the principles of Sharia and makes all Sunni schools of Islam a frame of reference in the legislative process.
Younes Makhyoun, Nour Party leader and Constituent Assembly member, recognizes that this draft doesn’t represent the end of their ambition for an Islamized Egypt, but says change has to be gradual.
“Everyone should be aware that we are still in a transitional period, and so replacing the principles of Sharia with its rulings in the new constitution would have been difficult from a political point of view,” he says.
The other faction believes that the proposed constitution will not be a proper base for the Islamist project.
They say the constitution should have more properly stipulated that Sharia is the main source of legislation, as opposed to just its principles, and that under Islamic rule, non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews should not be governed by their creeds with regards to personal affairs, which is allocated for in Article 3.
They also say the constitution should not have stated that people are the source of powers, and argue that instead it should have vested divine authority with that power. Ultimately, they argue that Article 219 is of no real value.
These factions previously staged a mass protest on 9 November to call for the implementation of Sharia and voice objection to the constitution.
“If we wanted an Islamist project, we should have not stated in the constitution that we’re going through a transitional period, for the current president belongs to the Islamist current, and the Parliament elected after the revolution also belonged to the Islamist current,” says Saber. “This was a favorable moment to have a constitution that establishes Sharia, with all of its rulings, [as the source of legislation] because this is simply the demand of the majority.”
Effect on the Brothers
Past events demonstrate that Salafi rifts do not serve the Brotherhood’s interests. Since the referendum on constitutional amendments in March 2011, observers have said the Salafi current tipped the balance in favor of the amendments, which were endorsed by a 77.5 percent majority.
This enabled the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to issue a constitutional declaration that led to the election of a parliament that picked the Constituent Assembly that wrote the controversial draft constitution.
“No” voters wanted to see a constitution drafted before an Islamist-controlled Parliament convened.
The Salafi vote has served the Brotherhood, whose party won the most seats in Parliament, with the Nour Party coming in second. Although a court ruling later dissolved Parliament, the Islamist majority managed to elect the assembly that went on to draft the constitution.
Today, the Brotherhood is trying to repeat that scenario. The Brotherhood announced Saturday the formation of the Islamist Coalition, which brings together its traditional allies: the Salafi Dawah and Nour Party on the one hand, and the Salafi Front and Hazemoun — both of which are opposed to the constitution — on the other.
The founder of the coalition says their goal is to offset the power of civil forces, which they say are seeking to devastate the country and challenge the president's legitimacy.
Khairat al-Shater, prominent Brotherhood leader and deputy supreme guide, held a press conference to call on people to vote in favor of the new constitution so that the process of building state institutions could begin and economic and security issues addressed. Zaghloul says Shater, who is close to Salafi ranks within the Brotherhood, is trying to woo that part of the Salafi current opposed to the constitution.
Zaghloul adds that the Nour Party and Salafi Dawah are the only political powers that the Brotherhood takes into account, given their large following. He says three Nour Party leaders are among the president’s aides and they were picked for their partisan affiliation.
However, a rift exists between Salafi leaders and their followers, who are increasingly estranged by what they deem as compromises by politicians.
“The problem is that Salafi sectors that supported Nour Party candidates in the previous parliamentary elections and consistently backed its political positions are not satisfied with the draft constitution, which the Brotherhood and Salafi Dawah very well know,” Zaghhoul says.
Makhyoun says the Brotherhood is negotiating with Salafis who oppose the constitution to dissuade them from voting against it. Projecting the success of those negotiations, Makhyoun says members of the Islamist current think they need to have a unified position on the constitution for it to pass the test of the vote.
Meanwhile, Zaghloul says, even if the Brotherhood succeeds in winning over the opposing Salafi camp, there will still be a broad sector of non-politicized Salafis who follow the Salafi approach and are influenced by the positions Salafi preachers express on satellite channels.
For instance, Mostafa al-Adawy, a preacher and TV presenter on the Salafi satellite channel Al-Nas, says Muslims who vote in favor of the constitution will be sinners because the constitution contains several articles that clearly violate the Quran and prophetic tradition.
Zaghloul concludes that if these apolitical Salafis vote against the constitution, the Islamist current will lose a considerable voting bloc.
This piece was translated from Arabic by Dina Zafer.