Egypt’s Other Extremists
While the Muslim Brotherhood gets all the ink, the Salafists go on a rampage.
May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By PAUL MARSHALL
Judging the likely trajectory of post-Mubarak Egypt requires assessing the depth of public support for Islamism, and usually this has meant assessing the strength and intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Brotherhood remains central, however, the country is also facing a frequently violent upsurge of Salafist versions of Islam.
Protesters in Qena gather to oppose the seating of a Christian governor, April 22
The groups can overlap, but the Brotherhood tends to stress an Islamic state and political organization, and its members have no prescribed mode of dress, apart from modesty: In this sense they are a modern movement. The Salafists are often distinguishable by full beards for men and full face covering for women, and they stress emulating the piety and practice of the first three generations of Muslims (Salaf means “predecessor” or “forefather”).
Strongly influenced by Wahhabi teachings, the Salafists have tended to follow local sheikhs rather than have a countrywide organization, and under Mubarak they were usually quiescent or else inclined to a violent extremism that led to rapid and severe repression by the regime’s efficient security apparatus. But many Salafists are now trying to take advantage of the widespread chaos in Egypt in order to impose their repressive version of Islam on their neighbors and ultimately on the country.
One Salafist target is Egypt’s Christians, the Copts, the largest non-Muslim minority in the Middle East. On March 20, in Qena, Salafists, including an off-duty policeman, accused a Copt named Ayman Mitri of renting an apartment to a prostitute, cut off one of his ears, mutilated his other ear, and slashed his neck. The attackers then informed the police that they had carried out the punishment required by Islamic law. As was usual under Mubarak, the police refrained from pressing charges and called for a “reconciliation” meeting between the religious communities.
Also as under Mubarak, the authorities’ refusal to punish attacks on Christians has led to more attacks. On March 23, Salafists surrounded St. George’s church in Beni Ahmad and successfully demanded that a church expansion approved by the government be stopped. On March 27, they blockaded St. Mary’s church in Giza, saying it did not have a permit. After yet another “reconciliation” meeting between Copts and Muslims, services at the church were forbidden until it acquired a new permit.
On March 28, Salafists attacked a liquor store in Kasr El-Bassil owned by a Copt, destroyed other stores, and demanded that coffee shops be closed. One villager was killed and eight others injured. On April 5, hundreds occupied St. John the Beloved church in Kamadeer, stopping repairs after heavy rain, and told Copts that they were not allowed to pray there any more. After yet another “reconciliation,” Copts were told to build a church 200 meters away, one without a dome, cross, bell, or any other external feature marking it as a church.
Beginning on April 15, over 10,000 demonstrators, mostly Salafists, protested in the southern province of Qena against the appointment of a new governor, Emad Mikhail, who is a Christian (the previous governor, Magdy Ayoub, was also Christian). Protesters blocked main roads, stopped buses to separate men and women passengers, and disrupted the main rail route in Upper Egypt for eight days. There were threats to bar Mikhail from the province and even to kill him.
Some protesters were concerned simply that the new governor, like so many others appointed throughout the country in recent years, had no experience and was being rewarded for previous service to the regime. But Salafist concerns soon dominated, with one speaker complaining, “A Copt won’t implement Islamic law,” and demonstrators chanting, “We will never be ruled by a Christian governor” and “Mikhail is an infidel pig.”
There were also declarations that Qena was an “Islamic Emirate.” Tensions ran so high that local Christians stayed inside and couldn’t celebrate Palm Sunday. The armed forces refused to intervene, and, although Egypt’s cabinet initially rejected calls for the governor’s resignation, on April 25, Prime Minister Essam Sheraf surrendered and said he would “freeze” the appointment for three months.