Egypt´s ultraconservatives planting seeds in vote (AP) Associated Press) By AYA BATRAWY ALEXANDRIA, Egypt 05/25/12 6:30 am ET)
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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – For Egypt´s most conservative Islamists, the
country´s first competitive presidential election has been a test of
their political savvy as they try to plant the seeds for turning the
country into an Islamic state.
The Salafis, known for their no-compromise, literal interpretation of
the faith, are political newcomers. They long concentrated on
preaching and many of them shunned involvement in politics, believing
it would require sinful concessions. Some of their clerics even said
Western-style democracy itself is dangerous since it could override
God´s rule and laws.
But in the landmark presidential vote, the first round of which was
held Wednesday and Thursday, Egypt´s Salafis tested the waters of
electoral maneuvering as they tried to choose which of two main
Islamist candidates to back. They experienced fissures and struggled
to coalesce, but are still having a strong impact.
During the voting, Sheik Abdel-Khaliq Saleh — clearly distinguishable
as a Salafi by his long, moustache-less beard — stood preaching in
his usual spot, next to a cart that sells watermelons on the corner
of the street in one of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria´s
He had one simple message for his followers: Vote for Abdel-Moneim
It´s an odd marriage for Salafis. Abolfotoh is a moderate Islamist
who has touted an inclusive platform that brought support from some
liberals, leftists and minority Christians. In the past he has
embraced positions diametrically opposed to Salafis, like saying a
Christian could be president or that books touting atheism need not
But several major Salafi organizations backed him in the race,
convinced that while he likely won´t implement Islamic law right now,
he will give Salafis room to preach.
Sheik Saleh said he is no rush to build an Islamic state. The Salafis
right now are in the stage of "daawa," or "spreading the word,"
encouraging people to turn to Shariah, the Islamic way of life.
"It took the Prophet Muhammad 23 years to spread Islam to the
people," he said. "The important thing is to plant the seed first."
Not all Salafis agree. Some came out for Mohammed Morsi, the
candidate of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who has been
forthright in saying he will implement Islamic Shariah law and is
backed by the Brotherhood´s powerful and experienced electoral
organization. After polls closed Thursday night, the Brotherhood
claimed Morsi was the top vote-getter, putting him in a second round
of voting next month, though final results were not expected until
Sheik Abol-Yazid Gouda said he rejects the pragmatism cited by other
Salafis for backing Abolfotoh. Salafis, he said, cannot compromise
and nothing should come before Shariah.
"We don´t shave our beards just to get a job in government," he said.
Morsi "is more Islamist," he added, speaking in an apartment that
serves as a Salafi-run madrasa, or school, for teaching the Quran in
the Abu Suleiman district of Alexandria.
Salafis have been actively laying the groundwork since the 1970s,
when they first began mobilizing in their base of Alexandria. Salafi-
run mosques offer Quran lessons, a place to pray and guidance for
residents in some of Egypt´s poorest neighborhoods. They operate more
than 200 mosques in the Alexandria slums of Abu Suleiman and Seyouf
alone, Sheik Saleh said.
Salafis believe their top duty is "daawa" and they have succeeded in
winning over several million followers over past decades. They would
have spread the message even further, they say, if not for three
decades of government oppression, arrests, torture and harassment
under Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in an uprising last year.
Unlike the Brotherhood, Egypt´s most organized political force in
existence for 80 years, Salafis have historically been more concerned
with religious outreach, not politics.
Their vision of Islam is more hard-line and puritanical than most
members of the Brotherhood, which groups a wider spectrum. Salafi
women, for example, almost universally wear the "niqab," a black robe
and veil that covers the entire body, leaving only a slit for the
eyes. Generally, Brotherhood women, in contrast, wear simply a scarf
over their hair.
The Salafis acknowledge that their vision of a state, which includes
banning the sale of alcohol, segregating the sexes and closing down
beaches where women wear bikinis, will not likely come about at the
hands of Abolfotoh.
But Yasser Bourhami, an influential cleric from the Dawa Salafia,
Egypt´s main Salafi organization, has said Abolfotoh pledged to the
group that, if elected, he would allow Salafis a free rein to preach
in mosques and religious schools.
The Salafis got their first taste of politics in parliamentary
elections late last year, in which their main party, Al-Nour, snapped
up a quarter of the seats. The showing, which surprised many
Egyptians, made them the second largest faction after the
The Brotherhood´s power has worried some Salafis. Salafis abandoned a
brief alliance with the group during the parliament election
campaign, saying the group was too domineering, and it left a taste
among some that a Brotherhood president would try to control the
Sheik Gouda, the Brotherhood supporter, suggested the backing of
Abolfotoh was a cynical, pragmatic political move against the
"They did not choose Abolfotoh out of love for him, but as a jab to
the Brotherhood," he said.
But others say support of Abolfotoh reflected the need for parity in
"The Brotherhood made gains in parliament and we want there to be a
balance," Ahmed Kamel, the Alexandria head of the Gamaa Islamiya,
once an armed militant group that has forsworn violence. "Who will
hold them accountable if they win the presidency and have
Kamel said he spent 14 years in prison under Mubarak, until he was 36
years old, for his activities with the Gamaa. During that time, he
said he saw hundreds of the group´s members tortured and some dying
"We learned patience in jail," he said, acknowledging that while
Abolfotoh is not the most Islamist of the two candidates, he may at
least provide Salafis an opportunity to practice their faith.
Mohammed Sarhan, who manages the main Salafi website in Egypt, Ana
Salafi, says the most important thing in the coming years is freedom
to preach so that their message is more widely understood and
"We are always in a state of daawa," he said. "We know Shariah will
not be put in place in four years." (© 2012 The Associated Press
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