Salafists in Egypt by Mohamed Hamed Abdel-Wahab, Cairo: Al-Ansar Library, 2012. 544pp.
Mohamed Hamed Abdel-Wahab ends his book about Salafists in Egypt with a number of questions about the future of the movement after the 2011 revolution. Although the author is close to Salafists in thought, he still asks about their political programme and what it could bring to Egypt; whether Salafists will be satisfied to support existing Islamist currents or will try to enter the scene as an independent actor in political life, and how they will relate with leftwing and secular currents.
These questions are all based on the background that the followers of the Salafist current were against the revolution from the beginning, due to being inherently against any disobedience or revolt against given rulers. In addition, their political stances have traditionally been unclear despite the large number of Salafists in the post-revolution parliament.
The author starts by providing a historical snapshot of the Salafist Call, dating back to the first century of Hijra, when Ahmed Bin Hanbal played a role in establishing a school of thought aiming to refer back to the "salaf" (the first founders) and to depend solely on the Quran and the Sunna (deeds and words of the Prophet Mohammed), rejecting any further explanations or documentation. To this extent, Bin Hanbal refused any work related to writing books, preferring to be focused on collecting the sayings and history of Islam alone.
Since then, the Salafist Call sustained itself throughout the centuries, sometimes strengthening but most times weakening. This continues until the current Salafist movement, which dates back to the early 18th century when the army of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mohamed Ali, ruler of Egypt at the time, succeeded in beating the armies of the Wahabis in the Arabian Peninsula, destroying the first glimpse of these modern Salafists, at the time led by Abdullah Bin Seoud, prince of Najd, and his religious leader, Mohamed Bin Abdel-Wahab.
Among the hostages taken by the winning army back to Egypt were some from the house of Mohamed Bin Abdel-Wahab, and therefore his son continued his education at Al-Azhar Mosque to become a sheikh (master). Their role up to that point was merely education and writing.
The author pauses at the Reform Movement led by Gamal Eddin Al-Afghany and Sheikh Mohamed Abdo whose efforts succeeded in raising a new generation of Salafists, many of whom maintain strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and with efforts focused on Dawa (Call or preaching) through mosques and charity organisations.
The June 1967 defeat was a turning point, according to the book, for it wasn’t only a military defeat, but a defeat for Arab regimes and the Arab nationalist project. Soon after, political Islamist movements started spreading; Gamaa Islamiya, for example, spread in Egyptian universities in the 1970s.
The current Salafist Call was established by Gamaat Ansar Al-Sunna (Group of Sunna Defenders) during the 1950s, but its true rise happened during the 1970s through religious groups in universities and via summer camps for students.
The hard break dividing the Salafists from the other political Islamist currents happened after the 1976 military school incident when a number of students led a small failed coup which split Salafists from the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya (a violence-leaning current at the time, responsible for the terrorist attacks on tourists and secular Egyptian figures in the 1990s).
Between 1979 and 1980, the Scientific Salafists appeared in Alexandria at the same time that the violent current was being established, and a third current joined the Muslim Brotherhood (including Abdel-Monem Abul-Fotouh, the current presidential frontrunner).
The author divides current Salafists into four branches, such as traditional Salafists whose followers do not follow one organisation but follow sheikhs and become their disciples (with each sheikh an independent entity with his students, the most famous of whom was Osama Abdel-Azim, whose followers are claimed to be some 150,000 across Egypt). Most notable about this current is that it refuses to engage in politics and doesn’t take any public political stance.
Not very different in structure are the three other branches, each revolving around a sheikh and keen to avoid politics, rendering it religiously improper to go against the ruler, seeking to purify Islam from heresy, like visiting cemeteries or saints or coming too close to European civilisation and its presumed anti-Islamic thoughts.
Another common factor across all Salafist branches is their seeking of change through preaching on Fridays, through satellite TV channels, the internet or religious classes in mosques.
Following the revolution, the author writes, “The idea of getting into politics started chasing the imagination of the Salafist mind and kept them busy. We found some Salafist figures giving their political opinion on public affairs and starting to get more involved in the political game.”
The latest elections indicate the extent to which they spread in villages and towns, and especially following the chaos at the beginning of the revolution. It was easy to draw the crowd to their side. Maybe the most notable example is recent events following the disqualification of Salafist figure Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail from the presidential race — the protests, the sit-in, and finally the violence seen in the streets last week.
And so, from rejecting political work and rendering it prohibited by religion, to full engagement, including blocking roads and sit-ins, Salafists have almost turned 260 degrees. The gap between their original and present stances would seem unimaginable, but reflects the influence building up around Salafists in recent years, now surfacing in the political sphere.