Egypt’s ultraconservative Salafists, long political exiles here, surged onto the stage after Hosni Mubarak was forced from the presidency last year, winning a surprise quarter of the seats in Parliament and broadening their support in remote provinces through efficient charity networks, a half-dozen satellite TV channels and huge town hall meetings across Egypt.
But after that rapid ascent, the Salafists find themselves adrift and divided just weeks before the first presidential election since Mubarak’s ouster.
This week, the country’s election commission disqualified both the candidates likely to get Salafist support, leaving Egypt’s most rigid Islamists largely disenfranchised and wondering what to do next.
“They accuse us of being extremists when, in reality, everybody is being listened to except us. We’re being isolated,” a cleric told a crowd of hundreds of Salafists who’d gathered outside the heavily guarded election commission headquarters to protest the banning of their candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail. “If we give up one Islamist candidate today, they’ll dare to attack another tomorrow! We have to be alert to their plans and conspiracies.”
Until the uprising that toppled Mubarak, Salafists assiduously had avoided involvement in the world of secular politics. But as the anti-Mubarak demonstrations unfolded, young Salafists, with their bushy beards or full facial veils, became conspicuous among other activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, despite the reluctance of their clerics to support the protests.
Then Salafists sent shock waves throughout Egypt a year ago with the announcement that they’d enter the political arena, an abrupt reversal of the faction’s longtime stance of boycotting elections to focus on religious outreach.
Now the Salafists are once again on the outside. Abu Ismail, who delivered fiery speeches criticizing U.S. policy in the Middle East, was barred from the race because his late mother was a naturalized American citizen. The law says a candidate must have two Egyptian parents. The other candidate who seemed to be drawing Salafist support, Khairat el Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned because a Mubarak-era conviction for funding the then-outlawed Brotherhood still carried a six-year ban on political life.
What the Salafists will do now is the subject of much guessing.
Mohamed Mursi, the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, is taking Shater’s place on the ballot, but analysts say he doesn’t enjoy the same cache with the Salafists as Shater.
The bulk of Salafists might turn to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who was, ironically, booted from the movement because he chose to run for the presidency _ at a time when the Brotherhood had pledged not to field a candidate. That’s what Khalil al Anani, an analyst of Islamist movements and a professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said he expects. The remainder of the vote most likely will go to the Brotherhood’s Mursi or Mohamed Selim Awwa, an independent Islamist candidate.
But the disaffection the Salafists feel at the outcome of what had been a year of growing influence also could create a powerful counter-movement that might threaten not just the military but the Brotherhood as well. For many Salafists, the Brotherhood is too pliant on religious doctrine.
“It’s a new and growing phenomenon that operates outside formal politics,” Anani said in an interview via email. “Without giving them a vent in formal politics, the consequences can be risky. They might turn radical and reject the whole political process, particularly if the military dominates it.”
Shadi Hamid, an analyst of Islamist movements and research director at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said he didn’t expect a violent reaction but he echoed the idea that Egypt’s turn of events risks some sort of Salafist backlash. .“You’re going to have a significant portion of voters who feel disenfranchised and excluded from the process,” he said.
For Abu Ismail supporters, there’s no ready alternative to their candidate, who represented a broadly appealing blend of conservative Islamism and revolutionary fervor.
In a statement Wednesday on its official Facebook page, the Nour Party, a group popular among Salafists that conspicuously had resisted endorsing Abu Ismail, posted a message of solidarity with his supporters.
Demonstrators outside the elections commission said they weren’t prepared to contemplate another candidate. Their focus, they said, is a civil disobedience campaign aimed at toppling the election commission and restoring Abu Ismail’s candidacy.
Salafist activists said mosques in the countryside would send protesters to a rally Friday in Tahrir Square.
“We want Americans to know that we, the Egyptian people, are the ones who will remain in the country, not the military council and not the interim government,” said Ahmed Magdi, 25, who’s an engineer.
In the port city of Alexandria, the Salafist nerve center, one voter celebrated the exclusion of Abu Ismail and Shater from the race, even though her own favorite also was eliminated under the commission’s ruling.
Jasmine el Zoghby, 30, an environmental engineer, said she’d planned to vote for former spy chief Omar Suleiman because “we need such a person to cleanse the country of the wolves that came after the revolution.”
Suleiman was disqualified for problems with the endorsement signatures required for his filing papers. Zoghby said she had alternative candidates in mind: She’s leaning toward the Mubarak-era politician Ahmed Shafiq. Most importantly, she said, she’s simply relieved that the Salafists’ star has begun to fall.
“They don’t understand anything about the economy or politics, so how can they run a country?” Zoghby said. “We all pray; we all fast. They’re just using Islam as a cover to attract the 30 million people living below the poverty line, the people nobody cared about before. They deserve to come out now and demand their rights, but not in this wrong way.”