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The Salafi Puzzle

December 14, 2011

One of the most interesting things about the elections  is the strong salafi showing. In the first round of voting, salafis are estimated to have taken 20-25 percent of the seats–far more than any poll taken prior to the election had anticipated.

As voters return to the polls this week for the run-off elections, they are expected to do well again.

The received wisdom–and I include myself here–has always been that part of the reason mainstream Muslims in Egypt respected salafis was their aloofness from politics. Ewan Stein says:

The source of much of the salafis’ appeal, and ideological power, is arguably their principled opposition to and detachment from the state and what they see as secular politics. The country’s salafi preachers and their followers seem, along with the leadership of the [Jama’a Islamiyya], to have accepted that state power is not worth fighting for. Neoliberalism, in addition to Egypt’s perceived subservience to foreign powers and relative freedom of expression for (the right kind of) Islamists has rendered such a struggle obsolete.

Now the salafis have some four political parties of their own. Clearly they are no longer detached from politics, and they’ve abandoned the position that state power isn’t worth fighting for now that there’s a chance that they might actually get control of some.

And many people are supporting them.

In spite of the apparent hypocrisy of voting for people who have until now claimed to wish no part in politics, aloofness from politics may still be a major reason people vote for the salafi candidates. I remember the 1998 elections in India in which almost everyone I spoke to said they voted for the BJP not because they accepted its religious premises but because they believed that religious people would be more honest in politics than the socialist liberal types who then dominated India.

Or it may be as simple as the fact that salafi networks are more elaborate and effective than those of the hastily assembled secular parties. The salafis have owned their own television channels for many years, including the popular Al-Nas TV (founded in 2006), and Al-Rahma TV (2007).

Stein, Ewan. 2011. An Uncivil Partnership: Egypt’s Jama’a Islamiyya and the state after the Jihad”  Third World Quarterly 863 – 881
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