Egypt’s Salafi Challenge

CAIRO – “We want democracy, but one constrained by God’s laws. Ruling without God’s laws is infidelity,” Yasser Burhami, the second leading figure in the Salafi Call Society (SCS) and its most charismatic leader, recently said. The unexpected rise of the Salafis in Egypt’s parliamentary election has fueled concern that the most populous Sunni Arab country could be on its way to becoming a fundamentalist theocracy akin to Shia Iran.

Known for its social ultra-conservatism, literal and strict interpretation of Islam, and potential exclusion of the ideological and religious “other,” the Salafi “Coalition for Egypt,” otherwise known as the Islamic Coalition, won a total of 34 seats in the parliament elected to draft Egypt’s new constitution. This is in addition to the 78 seats won by the Democratic Coalition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Of the 168 contested seats, Islamists have secured 112 or 66.6%. Although it is still early to determine the final outcome, which will be determined on January 11, the coming rounds are unlikely to veer from the early voting patterns. Governorates considered to be traditional strongholds of Islamists will be voting in the second round (like al-Sharqiya and Suez) and in the third round (like Matruh and Qalyubiyah).

Before the November elections, many people doubted that the decentralized, leaderless, politically inexperienced, and socially controversial Salafi groups could garner strong support in the elections. But they enter the elections with several parties, the most organized and politically savvy of them being al-Nour (The Light), which has formed a coalition with al-Asala (Originality) Party and the Islamic Group’s Construction and Development Party.