Egypt Independent

The Salafi movement: Competing visions (Part 1)

The Salafi Nour Party was hit by a spate of crises with organizational divisions leading to conflicts over the party’s presidency and the composition of its supreme authority. There are currently two camps competing for legitimacy and trading accusations over political violations and breaches of the bylaws governing internal elections.

The tension escalated particularly after it was proven that some Nour Party leaders and members of the Salafi Dawah contacted Ahmed Shafiq, the former presidential candidate, before the runoffs in defiance of the party’s decision to support Mohamed Morsy.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg: some have described the current standoff as a conflict between the politicians and the sheikhs within the Salafi Dawah movement. But even that is not a very accurate description of the ongoing struggle.

In my opinion, the rifts rocking the Nour Party reflect differences over Salafi political engagement following the 25 January revolution and the subsequent organizational and intellectual transformations that accompanied the politicization of the Salafi current.

The speed with which Salafis entered the political sphere has hampered their engagement in necessary intellectual and organizational reviews. They need to do this to disentangle the problematic relationship between preaching and partisan activity and, more importantly, to present a distinct Islamic model for political participation. The formulation of such a model should have been the primary concern for the Islamist movement whose legitimacy is chiefly based on its emphasis on ethics, social capital and the ability to bring about the aspired cultural change.

Politicizing Salafism

If the major challenge facing the Muslim Brotherhood is the distribution of gains and political positions among its members in a way that safeguards the group's coherence and organizational structure while preserving the group's virtuous facade, the Salafi movement faces the challenge of presenting a distinct Islamist model for political engagement.

This model should uphold the abstract nature of the Islamic idea (so not reduce it merely to concrete groups and institutions) and present a politically and electorally competent model that is able to adapt to a changing reality and accommodate the fluidity inside the Salafi current. At the same time, it must retain the unique orthodox Salafi approach. So far, the Salafi movement in Egypt does not seem to be able to achieve this, which may open the door to the rise of other Salafi parties with a greater ability to overcome these challenges.

In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood — originally a closed group that took on the form of a political party long before having an officially recognized one after the 25 January revolution — Salafi activity in Egypt took the form of a loose current rather than an organized group. For Salafis, there was a diversity of activities, orientations, initiatives and frames of reference whose members acted independently in different areas of preaching, charity, social and cultural work.

Before the revolution, there were several Salafi players on the scene, such as the Salafi Dawah, with is broad activities in Alexandria and the Delta, Salafi associations, such as Ansar al-Sunna, and finally a form of Salafism that revolves around particular scholars and preachers.

When the idea of engaging politics was raised following the revolution, there were differences on the nature of the Salafi party to be formed and how it could manage its relationship with the Salafi current in all its diversity. As time passed, two visions crystallized. The first vision advocated the idea that the success of the Nour Party depends on its ability to expand horizontally to embrace all the orientations and groups of the Salafi current. This would necessitate the establishment of a democratic party that allows for organizational and political mobility for all.

In the second vision, it is believed that the Nour Party should have a distinct intellectual identity to preserve its uniqueness, which necessitates filtering members according to loyalty to the party's founding approach, which is that of the Salafi Dawah in Alexandria. The party would have a vertical structure with a clear hierarchy and an elitist decision-making mechanism, with only trusted and loyal leaders passing down decisions, in a fashion similar to the Brotherhood.

Competing views

Each of these two visions has supporting evidence. Proponents of the first vision believe that an open Salafi party is necessary given the plurality within the Salafi current and the fast-paced transformations taking place within it in the wake of the revolution. These changes have produced loosely-organized activities and groups, many of which are not loyal to old frames of reference, such as supporters of former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the Salafi Front.

The 2011 parliamentary elections have demonstrated that the success of the Nour Party was only achievable through the mobilization of Salafi bases across the country and not only members of the Salafi Dawah.

Around a quarter of the support for the Nour Party during the elections came from a fixed base of supporters, while the remaining support came from voters who may swing to support another Salafi party.

In addition, proponents of this vision believe that the idea of a closed group no longer suits post-revolution developments on the political scene. Nor can it be reconciled, they say, with the Salafi approach. For instance, Salafis have reservations over the idea of pledging allegiance to a group and so they believe there needs to be institutional, administrative and political separation between the party and the institution of Salafi Dawah.

Proponents of the second vision — that of of a strong party — believe their position is validated from the point of view of Sharia. They think it will be better able to achieve the interests of the Salafi current. If the success of the Nour Party in the elections was the result of the mobilization of diverse Salafi groups, they say, the burden of establishing the party was primarily carried by members of the Salafi Dawah.

The board of trustees of the Salafi Dawah, with its prominent sheikhs, has called on Salafis to engage in political work after the revolution, providing jurisprudential evidence to buttress their calls for political participation. They also carried out field activities like holding rallies and conferences across the country before the parliamentary elections.

Furthermore, before the revolution, the Salafi Dawah was the strongest Salafi faction despite suppression by security. With its organization, sheikhs and frames of reference, the Salafi Dawah formed the solid core of the Nour Party making it logical for it to continue playing that role. Proponents of this vision also believe it achieves Salafi interests, for despite the criticism Salafis level at the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood's strong organizational structure is its most important electoral and political asset.

The differences between the two visions grew starker with the passing of time and developments on the political scene, including the elections and relations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Proponents of the first vision flocked around Emad Abdel Ghafour, the party head. This group includes young members who became active in the political sphere after the revolution such as Mohamed Nour, Yousry Hammad and some leading figures from the party's supreme authority such as Bassam al-Zaraqa.

Most of those who belong to this group are residents of Alexandria who have been influenced by the Salafi Dawah. However, they were dissatisfied with the intervention of some sheikhs from the board of trustees of the Salafi Dawah in the policies of the party in a way which violated the rules of institutional work and the party's decision-making mechanisms.

Nour Party disagreements were clear when the party decided to support Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh in the presidential elections. But it was the lead-up to the party’s internal elections that turned the disagreements into open conflict. The elections were scheduled to be held in September 2012, but party members started complaining about attempts by party leaders who subscribe to the second vision to oust members with opposing views. They allegedly tried to direct votes in order to restructure the party to fill the key middle and bottom positions with members who adopt their vision.

This has led the secretaries in several governorates, notably Gharbiya and Giza, to resign. Furthermore, the performance of the party's Membership Committee came under fire after it limited nominations for the elections to several thousand members while the party's total membership stands at almost 200,000. There was also talk about the need to rebuild the party in a more democratic way since leadership positions are seized by residents of Alexandria.

The party chief decided to stop the election to examine these issues, but the party's supreme authority — most of whose members subscribe to the second vision — did not accept the decision and decided to carry on with the elections, which were held in several governorates. The party's decision-making process has been marred by the dispute, as increasing numbers in both camps submitted their resignations.

Some are also saying that the two camps differ on whether or not to form an alliance with the Brotherhood in the upcoming elections. While proponents of the first vision do not mind allying with the Brotherhood, those of the second prefer to compete independently.

Attempts by members from the board of trustees of the Salafi Dawah to achieve reconciliation could help mitigate the conflict. But this may help only in temporarily defusing the problems, since the disagreements are neither personal nor a struggle over leadership, but rather a difference in visions. The conflict will only be conclusively resolved when problems concerning the Salafi model for political work are solved in a way that preserves the pillars of the Salafi approach as well as accommodating the fast developments among the Salafi public.

Ashraf El-Sherif teaches political science at the American University in Cairo.

This article was originally published on Jadaliyya and was translated by Dina Zafer. This is the first of a two-part article. The second part will be published Friday.