Salafis: Why the surprise?

This is a guest post by Nathan Field.

One of the major themes I’ve noticed in the media after the Salafi al-Nour party won 25% of the votes in the first round of Egyptian elections was a surprise (or as in this week’s In Translation – anger). Yet their success shouldn’t be considered a surprise. Here are four points to ponder:

(1) Most popular T.V. stations to 25% of the votes isn’t a huge jump:

In 2008 Ahmed Hamam and I talked to dozens of Egyptian Salafis, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and various journalists and academics for a study on Salafi Satellite TV Stations in Egypt, published in Arab Media and Society in April 2009.

While precise Nielsen-style statistics don’t exist in Egypt, the general consensus was that Salafi-oriented TV stations such as Al-Nass and Al-Rahma, featuring charismatic preachers like Mohamed Hassan, were drawing higher ratings than any other TV stations in Egypt. So the evidence of the popularity of Salafism has been clear for years.

(2) Salafis were never against politics in theory:

Critics have accused Salafis of hypocrisy for entering electoral politics post-Revolution. An accusation that assumes Salafis were somehow “quietist” or against participation in politics on principle. This is not true; their discourse has always been “political” and entering electoral politics is a logical post-Mubarak step.

The basic Salafi worldview is that society is broken and needs to be reformed (that’s a very political statement). However, the acceptable means for achieving that reform are dictated by the situation in the society they are operating in. During the Mubarak era, Salafis judged that they couldn’t achieve meaningful reform by trying to get involved in politics, so they focused on preaching, i.e. teaching Egytians how to be better Muslims. However, post-February 2011, the equation changed and as the political process opened up, they saw an opportunity to achieve change by working within the system, and without having to compromise on their values. In fact, if they didn’t enter the political game, they would probably have lost support.

(3) Don’t underestimate the “hustle” factor:

Read this excellent article by David Kirkpatrick to understand why Salafis will continue to be a major force in Egyptian politics.  In Egypt, the gaps between the different social classes are huge, culturally as much as economically and the fact is, there is often a condacscneing tendency towards the lower elements of society by those on the upper half.  And that doesn’t work in the political  favor of some of the Liberal Activist groups.

Egyptian liberals would be wise to study the example John Kennedy set when he won his first seat in Congress in 1952.  Despite being from one of the richest and most powerful families in America, John Kennedy went door-to-door in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Boston and simply listened to what average people had to say.   He figured out what they thought important and learned how to communicate effectively to people from all walks of society.  Eventually (but not at first) he became as persuasive addressing a room full of factory workers as he was a group of university professors. 

Stumping for votes is an essential ingredient of success in competitive democratic elections  but so far the liberals have been at a serious self-inflicted disadvantage. They either focus on the biggest picture of issues (such as the constitution) that don’t resonate with most average people, or they aren’t disposed to wander through the slums asking poor people about their needs. 

Bottom line:  if they don’t get better on this front, they won’t be competitive in future elections.  No one is entitled to votes on the basis of their ideas alone! The Salafis are significantly out-hustling the competition and that largely explains their success so far." 

(4) Don’t blame Saudi Arabia – they are a genuine grassroots Egyptian movement:

Critics of Salafism like to argue that they are a “Saudi import,” usually as an attempt to discredit them. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was asked this question at a recent conference in Washington DC and gave what I think is the best answer: there is not likely official, meaningful support from Saudi or other governments in the Gulf for the Salafis, especially for their post-February political activities. The Saudis are not in the business of encouraging other Islamist alternatives so its hard to see what they would gain. However, if the Salafis are receiving external funding from the Gulf, it would likely be from private individuals or institutions in the context of zakat.

Nathan Field is the Co-Founder of Industry Arabic.