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The Arab Spring

By the end of the 2000s, Salafism had spread across the Arab world, most notably to Egypt and Tunisia, expanding both the number of its adherents and its institutional scope, which now included social organizations engaged in charity, relief and community work. They stopped short of formal political groups, largely because of the autocratic regimes under which they lived, but they quietly developed the infrastructure for such groups. It was under these circumstances that the Salafists found themselves at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

The case of Egypt's Salafists is the most telling. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, they were caught unprepared when the popular agitation largely led by liberal youth groups broke out and began to consume decades-old secular autocratic regimes. While they eventually were able to overshadow the largely non-Islamist forces that played a key role in forcing the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak, they lacked the political machine that the Brotherhood had developed over the course of some 80 years. The result was the rise of various Salafist forces haphazardly trying to assert themselves in a post-authoritarian Egypt.

Several Egyptian Salafist groups applied for licenses to form political parties. Two prominent parties -- al-Nour and al-Asala -- emerged along with a host of individuals, such as Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who ran as an independent candidate for president. The two Salafist parties banded together with the newly formed political wing of the former jihadist group Gamaa al-Islamiya -- the Building and Development Party -- to form the Islamist Bloc. The alliance was able to garner more than a quarter of ballots cast in the parliamentary polls late last year, coming in second place behind the Brotherhood.

What was most important about these Salafists participating in mainstream politics is that they embraced the electoral process after decades of having denounced democracy as un-Islamic. In other words, they ultimately adopted the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they had hitherto vehemently rejected. This transformation has been more a rushed affair stemming from expediency rather than a natural ideological evolution.

There is an expectation that radical forces joining the political mainstream could, over time, lead to their de-radicalization. That may be true in the case of states with strong democratic systems, but in most Arab countries -- which are just now beginning their journey away from authoritarianism -- the Salafist embrace of electoral politics is likely to delay and perhaps even disrupt the democratization process and destabilize Egypt and by extension the region.

Much of this chaos will stem from the fact that the move to accept democratic politics has led to further fragmentation of the Salafist landscape. Many Salafists still are not comfortable with democracy, and those who have cautiously adopted it are divided into many factions. The result is that no one Salafist entity can speak for the bulk of the sect.

What Lies Ahead

Clearly, the Salafists are bereft of any tradition of civil dissent. That said, they have exhibited a strong sense of urgency to exercise their nascent freedom and engage in political activism. The outcome of this was the rioting that took place in reaction to the anti-Islamic film.