If you had asked any secular Egyptian about the Salafist movement two months ago, they would likely have told you that they know next to nothing about it. When former president Hosni Mubarak was still in charge it was banned, its members barred from worshipping in the country's mosques. Egyptian Salafists maintained a very low profile foreswearing any political ambitions. Bearded and dressed as though they had just stepped out of the 7th century, their women shrouded in black except for their eyes, the zealots were sometimes seen on the city streets strolling in pairs but rarely in large numbers. But that was before the revolution.
In recent weeks, Egyptians have become alarmed by the rise of an ultra-religious, anti-Western Salafist group the Jama'a Al Islamiya that makes the Muslim Brotherhood look like a free-thinking, tolerant organisation by comparison. The Jama'a Al Islamiya made world headlines in 1997 when it was said to be implicated in the massacre of 58 western tourists visiting the Hapshepsut temple in Luxor and is believed to have conspired in the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat. However, in 2003, with thousands of its members behind bars, the group publicly renounced violence and shunned the spotlight.
Salafists look down upon members of the Brotherhood as insufficiently devout and for watering down their beliefs to suit a political agenda. According to newspaper reports, they enjoy a substantial following outside urban areas and have been busy since Mubarak's ouster destroying shops selling alcohol and defacing Sufi shrines. Their foremost goal is to transform Egypt into an Islamic state run on Sharia law and the world into an Islamic caliphate.
The Salafist movement may have been critical of the Brotherhood for politicising religion in the past, but armed with new freedoms, they have now expressed an interest in founding political parties — an aim that brings a shudder to most educated, city-dwelling Egyptians. The problem is that 47 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, almost 30 per cent is illiterate and 20 per cent subsist below the poverty line. The less informed and those in dire need are the ones targeted by both the Brotherhood and the Salafists.
The dismantling of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) by a judge on Saturday elicited cheers from those in the courtroom, but such jubilation could turn out to be hollow as long as the newly-legitimised Brotherhood and Salafists are waiting in the wings. The Salafist message may hold appeal for the unsophisticated but the leadership disseminates it with such sophisticated tools as their own television channels broadcasting on NileSat. Prior to the referendum on changes to the constitution, around 5,000 followers of the movement blocked the road to the pyramids to protest any change to Article 2 stating Islam is the religion of Egypt and Islamic law is the source of legislation. Others organised conferences in towns around the country to condemn any move that would undermine Egypt's Islamic identity. Salafist clerics and their loyal congregations have also converged on mosques whose doors were once closed to them.
For most ordinary Egyptians, the Salafist phoenix has come as a surprise, but a US diplomatic cable written by the US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey in April 2009, released by Wikileaks, shows that the Americans had serious reservations all along. "Salafis are increasingly visible among Egypt's lower and middle classes, in universities and on city streets," Scobey writes. "Some of our contacts characterise their rising appeal as a ‘major societal shift' and assert that Salafi preachers have more influence with Egyptians than the Muslim Brotherhood…"
She says college professors have complained that many female students will no longer shake their hands and academics "wring their own hands over what they see as a Salafi wave of intolerance that is chipping away at our traditional Egyptian identity." She also warns that the Salafists' "extreme interpretation of Islam creates an environment where susceptibility to radicalism and jihadi ideas is heightened." Just how far Egyptian Salafists are prepared to go to fulfil their ambitions is unknown, but judging by the actions of Salafist groups in Gaza and Jordan last week, Scobey's analysis could prove correct.
On Friday, radical Salafists of Tawheed and Jihad group executed an Italian activist with the International Solidarity Movement Vittorio Arrigoni, a man who had spent years battling on behalf of the Palestinian cause and who arrived in the Gaza Strip on one of the boats that sailed to break the Israeli blockade. Like their Egyptian co-ideologues, the group behind Arrigoni's murder view Hamas as too liberal.
On the same day in Jordan, anti-government Salafists, wielding home-made swords and knives, took to the streets to demand the release of 200 prisoners jailed for terrorist activities and engaged in violent clashes with law enforcement resulting in 83 injured policemen.
It's evident that at the very least the Salafist movement has become emboldened and empowered by the Arab Spring. Whether it will succeed in popularising and expanding its influence within Egypt and throughout the Mena region is yet to be seen.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.