The Salafi star at the Pyramids

The popularity of the Salafi Sheikh Adel was surprising, particularly in the top tourist destination in Egypt, the pyramids. A planned two-hour visit ended up as a mission to uncover the legacy of this man. It started with a casual question about the winners of the latest parliamentary elections with one of the camel owners who constantly harass visitors, inviting them on an overpriced ride around the ancient monuments. I was told that many of those who make a living out from tourism in the pyramids area had voted for the Salafi Nour party and its candidate, Sheikh Adel, in the parliamentary elections. Wondering what made those who earn a living from tourism vote for a Salafi candidate led me to embark on a search for clues and possible answers.

Many link the rise of Salafism with two magic words: “the Gulf.” Indeed, many poor Egyptians have left their villages and rushed off toward alluring opportunities in the hot sun of Arabia.

What the Gulf (particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) offered was not just money. It was a whole package of strict ideology, broken family bonds and a magical world seen through satellite channels. The results were a society challenged and pushed outside its comfort zone, losing its tradition. Embracing political Islam as the long-term solution for the chronic problems was simply inevitable.

With its strict monochromic vision (halal versus haram), Salafism’s literalism is an appealing choice to these communities of Egyptian expats in the Gulf for many reasons.

For one, the monochromatic vision of Salafism provides clarity. Once social distress as a result of the struggle for livelihood becomes the norm, clarity provides comfort, guidance and most importantly a way of life that is easy despite its many restrictions. One of the main tragedies of modern Egypt is the inability of many to distinguish between freedom and decadence, thinking that coercion is the answer to all of society’s ills; hence the appeal of Salafism.

Additionally, the more marginalized and neglected the community, the more it finds Salafism appealing. Those who live far away from the trendy Cairo suburbs won’t miss their swimming pools or golf courses. Most of the haram (forbidden) lifestyle simply does not exist in their daily life.

Islamic charity — foundational in Salafis’ work in the community — has a major impact in winning hearts and minds. Individuals like Sheikh Adel and his crude efforts to channel money from rich families to help the poor have earned him respect and admiration. I heard endless stories: the single mother he sponsored, the weddings he paid for and many others.

In fact, I felt a genuine and palpable love and respect for Sheikh Adel. One is highly unlikely to be praised after death without valid reasons. In a tragic twist of fate, Sheikh Adel passed away one week after his electoral success leaving many shocked and even distressed, pondering how they would cope without his much needed support.

The story of this fragile community is the story of Salafism in Egypt. Its victory was a direct consequence of the unconvincing performance of most ‘moderate’ Islamic scholars, perceived by many as government stooges, who failed to deliver a convincing case to the Egyptian public regarding the validity of the liberal tenants within Islam, and was compounded by their propensity to face up to radical scholars with their literal, context-free Sharia interpretation. In Egypt, public debate between scholars is virtually non-existent, and that in itself help radicalism to flourish.

Some predict a softer stance from Salafis once they engage in politics, highly unlikely in the near future. It took the Muslim Brotherhood more than 80 years to reach its current position, yet it is unclear how “moderate” it would be. The various shades of non-Salafi Islamists may have shown some pragmatic or semi-pragmatic views: they can advocate gradual implementation of Sharia, they even can show some flexibility in the writing of the Egyptian constitution. However, none of them has managed to produce a solid, complete non-literalist Islamic project.

The extraordinary events unfolding in Egypt may benefit Salafis — despite their divisions — far more than any other Islamist groups. They are the black horse in the current poisonous political arena. The recent disqualification of their presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may fuel more sympathy and support for their cause, plus their puritan views would continue to earn them credibility. Nonetheless, they are still politically novices, and would almost certainly struggle to reconcile their monochromatic views with the tricky nature of Egyptian politics. Can they survive as politicians? Will they resort to violence if they fail to achieve their goals? Only the future will tell.

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