The Weekly Standard

Egypt's Other Extremists

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

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.

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.

Salafists are also attacking other Muslims. On March 30, one killed a Muslim colleague for not praying at the requisite time. They also target Sufi mosques and shrines, because Salafists regard veneration of saints as heretical. Since Mubarak stepped down, dozens of shrines on the outskirts of Cairo have been burned or have simply disappeared, and there have been attacks throughout Alexandria and in Beheira and Monufiya. In turn, leaders of Sufi orders have threatened to attack those destroying shrines, especially the shrines belonging to the prophet’s family. Sheikh Gaber Kasem al-Kholy, the highest-ranking Sufi in Alexandria, declared in early April, “I don’t underestimate people’s fears concerning Salafists. Of course, Coptic Christians are a main target for those extremists, but we need to speak out about the suffering of the Sufi people.”

Egypt’s small Shiite community is another target. Shiite leader Mohamed al-Derini has denounced the attacks, and some Shiites believe that the Saudis also bear responsibility for the violence. During the demonstrations in Qena, some demonstrators waved Saudi flags. It is also rumored that the Saudis fund the Salafists, and this, coming on top of the Saudis’ support for Mubarak and their condemnations of Shiites, Sufis, and shrines, has increased tensions. On April 9, Shiites protested at the Saudi embassy in Cairo and waved banners denouncing Saudi fatwas that condemn Shiites and permit the demolition of shrines, as well as the kingdom’s rejection of calls to prosecute ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. One banner read: “You defended Mubarak, pushed Salafis to sow sedition, and pressed for not trying the tyrant.”

Some Salafists joined the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and others have said they will enter politics—in many cases by supporting the Brotherhood. Often the two groups have been opposed to one another, with the Salafists accusing the Brotherhood of compromise, but in the March 19 constitutional referendum, Salafi clerics urged their followers to support the Brotherhood in campaigning for a “yes” vote.

Perhaps thinking that these more extreme Islamist currents make it appear relatively moderate, the Brother-hood condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden. Already before that, it had become more outspoken about its own desire for an Islamic state.

On April 14, at a forum in Cairo, the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, Mahmoud Ezzat, said his group wanted to establish an Islamic state when they achieved sufficient support through their Freedom and Justice party. At the same forum, another Brotherhood leader, Saad al-Husseiny, stated that they aimed to apply Islamic law and establish Islamic rule. On April 22, a senior spokesman, Sobhi Saleh, said the Brotherhood wished to apply “Islamic legislation.”

There is some ambiguity in these remarks, and, after an outcry from other parties, one leading Brotherhood figure, Hamdi Hassan, said the statements were nothing new and that reaction had been inflamed by inaccurate press reports. Ezzat filed a complaint with the attorney general, accusing the media of twisting his remarks.

These newer statements about Islam and law by senior leaders of the Brotherhood have alarmed democracy activists and many others. In response, the Coptic Orthodox Church suspended its dialogue with the Brotherhood and dropped its plans to invite the group’s leaders to attend Easter celebrations. The state-run daily Rose Al-Youssef, meanwhile, under the headline “A state of terror follows Salafi threats,” reported Salafists’ warnings that they will attack women who do not wear the full face covering called the niqab, while schools have had high absence rates and have sometimes closed because of fears of sectarian violence. The combination of these Islamist currents poses a growing threat to a free Egypt.

On April 28, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for the first time recommended to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Egypt be labeled a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC).” This designation refers, as commission chair Leonard Leo noted, to “the world’s worst religious freedom violators and human rights abusers.” He added,

Severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government [of Egypt] have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. Since President Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice.