What Do the Salafists Want? On Egypt, Sharia and Israel

by Christian Vachon

Translation: “The Salafi movement invites you to pray Eid prayer with us. First prize is a surprise. There will be space for females and gifts for children.”

Today is the second day of voting in Egypt for the People’s Assembly, which has 508 seats. All told, 24 days of polling will take place over the next few months. In January, elections will begin for Egypt’s upper house, the Shura Council, which has 264 seats. After that election concludes, voting will take place to choose a president.

Before the revolution, Islamic parties were banned from public office in Egypt. Now the Al-Nour party claims to have 300,000 active members, each of whom donates £10 (about $1.60) a month to maintain the party’s political and humanitarian outreach operations. Their Alexandria headquarters is an office suite on the second floor of a block concrete residential building. Inside, fresh candidate banners are strung along the walls of hastily decorated rooms with recently delivered black foam office chairs, still in their plastic wrapping.

Before the revolution, Nader Bakr was a project manager in the health care industry with a business and economics degree from the University of Alexandria. Now, at 28 he is the head spokesmen for the Nour party. His frequent appearances on Egyptian television have made him one of this election’s more recognizable faces.

In a country of abysmal dental care, Bakr’s set of unnaturally white and perfectly straight teeth are almost distracting. This same meticulous care is paid to each detail of his appearance; his trimmed black beard and crisp cream suit and silver cufflinks. It is a presentation which seems engineered to defy Western preconceptions of how a fundamentalist should appear.

The Awl: How would you define the term Salafi?

Bakr: The main concept behind Salafi is that there was a time when the Islamic societies were the best ones, all over the world.

The Awl: You mean the Uma?

Bakr: Yes. Salifism is an attempt to recover this best state of Islam itself.

The Awl: You are referencing a pan-Arab, Islamic kingdom. Is the model for the Uma the same today?

Bakr: No.

The Awl: So what would this look like today?

Bakr: Our strategy for Egypt and for Tunis and Libya is for a modern society — a modern country that has the newest scientific advances, but at the same time is conservative about its religion, instruction and duties. By conservative, we mean the keeping of the origins of Islam, not as extremism. It would be something like the European Union.

The Awl: What are the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi groups?

Bakr: They are both talking about the same point when it comes to Islam. They are both Muslims, they’re both Sunna. They both have the same overall strategy. The only difference between them and the Muslim Brothers is the tools through which to reach their goal in going back and keeping the origins of Islam.

The reason why before the revolution you never heard the term Salafi was because the old regime did not allow for democracy. This is why the Muslim Brothers — they were not a part of the old regime, but they were trying to be involved in politics. [The Muslim Brotherhood held 88 seats in the People’s Assembly elected in 2005, but only one seat in the Assembly elected in 2010, which was dissolved in February of this year.]

The Salafis felt they would be more of hypocrites if they got involved — and as only as decoration. They’d rather step back and not be involved because they see it as misleading. But the overall strategy is the same —

The Awl: Of spreading the Uma.

Bakr: Yes, restructuring the whole of society. We wanted to change, so the overall picture of Egypt at this time was not enabling us to change.

The Awl: With the control the National Democratic Party had over elections, it would not allow you to create change? [The NDP, founded by Anwar El Sadat in 1978, was dissolved in April of this year.]

Bakr: Corruption was everywhere. Corruption in the election process. Corruption in all the ministries.

The Awl: So now you are participating. The Muslim Brothers are also participating, but there are currently four Salafi parties in addition to the Muslim Brothers. How are they different?

Bakr: This is the first time we have had a real election, and this is why there are many Islamic parties running. The parties all have the same principle, which is the restoration of Islam. But priorities are different, and this is for the benefit of the public.

The Awl: When we look at the Middle East today, there are many different interpretations of Islamic societies. What is your vision of this correct interpretation of the proper Islamic society for Egypt?

Bakr: The official language of Egypt will be Arabic. Islamic Sharia is the main source for the Constitution — the main source of judgment and main source of law in Egypt. Also, the third point is to reserve all the rights for the minorities in Egypt, which are Christians. The fourth point is to preserve the origins of Egyptian culture; literature and art.

The Awl: When Americans see the Middle East, they see a wide range of interpretations of Islamic states — with Saudi Arabia on one end of an extreme and Turkey on the other. Where should Egypt fall?

Bakr: The Iranian regime we completely refuse. This regime is not an Islamic one. They have a king or ruler whose authority is not questioned. The ruler or king must be questioned — people must question him. Also, the Saudi model is not one that we would want to pick. We disagree with the absolute power that the king has. In terms of ethics, there is no current example of a nation that represents Islam in its purest form.

The Awl: How would foreign policy be guided in a Salafi government?

Bakr: Before we were following in Western footsteps, but not our own. We would like to have a connection with the West, but with our own independent identity. We will respect all international treaties. We would strengthen our relationships with Islamic countries, especially with those in Africa.

The Awl: Does this extend to the peace treaty with Israel?

Bakr: We will follow the treaty between Egypt and Israel, except when it comes to exporting natural gas. We will not follow these aspects of the treaty because this was an under-the-table deal made by the old regime.

When I say we will respect the treaty between us and Israel, that does not mean that we will not support Palestine, Lebanon and Syria if those countries were attacked by Israel. We will respect the treaty but on the other hand, we will respect the legal right of Palestine, the legal right of Lebanon and also of Syria.

The Awl: So in the event of a conflict between other Arab countries and Israel, Egypt would support the Arab countries.

Bakr: We will support those countries in an international, diplomatic way.

Christian Vachon lives in Cairo. He posts regularly to Twitter.