Why Egyptian Salafists Support a ‘Liberal’

Thursday, 10 May 2012 06:26 PM

By Tawfik Hamid

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The recent move by some Salafi groups to support so-called ‘liberal’ Muslim Abdelmonem Aboelfotoh in his bid for the Egyptian presidency came as a surprise to many in the country, who expected such groups to throw their support behind a more traditional candidate such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursy.

salafists.jpg
Egyptian Salafists rally in downtown Cairo's Tahrir square in July of 2011.
(Getty Images)
It is fair to say that Aboelfotoh has many views that can make him appear to be a non-traditional Muslim, including statements to the effect that:
  • The stage of Islamic Caliphate has ended and there is no need to bring it back.
  • There should be no punishment for a Muslim if he converts to Christianity.
  • A Christian or woman should be allowed to serve as president of Egypt.
  • Any book, irrespective of its content, must be tolerated.
  • Sheiia is an acceptable sect in Islam.
  • Manufacturing alcohol should be permissible.
  • Tourism in its current form that allows women to dress as they wish is okay.
  • People — not Allah — must be the source for authority in the country.
  • Arabs should accept the existence of Israel (Note: this is likely to avoid a military confrontation with Israel as Aboelfotoh realizes that Israel has nuclear weapons).
  • People should not be forced to carry out religious edicts such as the five prayers or wearing the Hijab.
These features — if Aboelfotoh is genuine — make him more aligned with Al-Ghanooshi of Tunisia rather than with the traditional Muslim Brotherhood.

Some of Aboelfotoh’s statements however are worrisome. Asked recently if he would allow western banking systems in the country, Aboelfotoh responded that it would not be up to him as president, but rather fall under the purview of religious authorities.

Such an attitude is dangerous. Economic decisions that may affect the future of the country cannot be taken based on religious acceptance.

Additionally, Aboelfotoh has repeatedly said he does not wish to permit gas exports to Israel. This trend toward emotionally driven and religiously motivated economic decisions can be harmful.
Nevertheless, it is still surprising to see Salafi groups in Egypt backing someone such as Aboelfotoh.

Possible factors behind the Salafi support include:
  1. Aboelfotoh moved toward Salafists rather than the other way around. In other words, the liberal Elfutooh is becoming more Salafist rather than the Salafists becoming more liberal.
  2. This move is part of an apolitical deal between Aboelfotoh and the Salafist groups. Evidence includes the recent declaration by Abdulmeniin Al-Shahat — one of the leading Salafi scholars in the country — that some Salafi groups had a meeting with Aboelfotoh and that he promised to implement all of the Sharia Law — not just its principles. Moreover, he promised to fill the government cabinet with Muslim Brotherhood appointees if he came to power. In this political deal Aboelfotoh seems to make promises to conservative groups in exchange for their support in the election. Under such a scenario Aboelfotoh should not be considered liberal.
  3. The Salfi groups are trying to improve their image by affiliating with Aboelfotoh who has a very positive public image. Salafi groups have recently suffered a rapid deterioration of public support — partly because of their very bad performance in the Parliament, and partly because of lies by a Salfi member of Parliament. Affiliation with Aboelfotoh can be seen by Salafi groups as a required political step toward improving this deteriorating public image.
  4. Aboelfotoh —unlike the Muslim Brotherhood — is not competing with Salafi groups to raise funds from wealthy Islamic countries. If the president of the country is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is likely that wealthy Arab donors would give their donations to the MB rather than to Salafi groups. This possible shift in funding toward another group could be a factor that contributed to the recent decision of Salfi groups to support a liberal.
  5. Unlike Khairat Al-Shater, the original presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the new candidate of the MB and Mursy have virtually no charisma or public appeal at all. The Salfi groups could have realized that Mursy, according to several poll results, is likely to fail in the coming election. This can result in more opportunity for liberals such as Amr Moussa or Ahmed Shafik. Pragmatism in this case necessitates that Salafi groups do not put their money on a failing horse but instead give their full support to Aboelfotoh to guarantee that a pro-Islam president rather an anti-Islamist liberal comes to power. Aboelfotoh is certainly ideologically closer to Salfists than an anti-Islamist liberal.
The recent support of Salafi Islamic groups in Egypt for a so-called liberal Muslim does not necessarily mean that Salafists are changing their ideology.

Rather, this could be part of a well calculated tactical step that can ultimately provide more opportunity to help Islamists achieve their Islamic agenda.

Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam." Read more reports from Tawfik Hamid — Click Here Now.

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