Salafis in Damietta

I spent a few days in the northern port city of Damietta earlier this week, for the run-offs. Damietta being the country's most-Islamist district (I think 90% of the votes went to Islamist parties), the main competition there was between Salafis and Muslim Brothers. I wrote a piece about inter-Islamist dynamics and the emergence of the ultra-conservative Salafis for The Daily Beast. 

Damietta is a pleasant, calm, friendly town and it was a strange, fascinating, enervating experience to sit for hours in various party offices there with 1) Muslim Brothers disparaging Salafis as politically unqualified "preachers" and cooperators with the former regime now manipulating simple people through religion 2) Salafis disparaging Muslim Brothers as arrogant, sneaky and self-interested and insisting that they themselves are not extremists because (despite the fact that they can't bring themselves to print a niqabed woman's face on a poster and that they don't support democracy "if by that you mean rule of the people") they plan on gradually, "gently" persuading all of Egypt to become Saudi Arabia, without the use of physical force. 

It's really easy to get freaked out by Salafis. There is something truly disturbing about the fact that these religious fundamentalists have entered electoral politics while withholding their support for basic democratic principles and human rights. I think it was probably a mistake to legalize these extremist parties (and a contradiction with Egyptian law, which forbids parties based on religion); it was also a mistake to hold elections before writing the constitution and establishing the framework of the future state and the rules of the game. 

That said, Salafis have a real presence in society (they are much better implanted in mosques than the Muslim Brotherhood) and their ideology needs to be understood and confronted. Their rising to the surface of society, as it were, seems like a natural post-revolution process. And one encouraging sign is that most Salafis lost their run-offs (to Muslim Brothers). In think the negative media attention to some of their most ridiculous and odious statements may have had an impact on public opinion. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.