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Egypt: The Founders

By Samer Shehata

The single most powerful and prolific Islamist movement was born in Egypt, the intellectual center of the Arab world. Formed in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was started as a social and religious club by a twenty-two-year-old schoolteacher, who recruited six members of the Suez Canal Company. It has since become the ideological grandfather of more than eighty-five other Islamist groups in dozens of countries well beyond the Arab world. Members or supporters of its many branches now number in the tens of millions.

More than any other group, the Muslim Brotherhood reflects the way Islamist politics have transformed Arab politics in the early twenty-first century. In the 2011–12 elections, the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, won 43 percent of the seats in parliament in the freest vote in Egypt’s 5,000-year history. All together, Islamist parties won about 70 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of parliament.

But the Brotherhood has also evolved significantly over the eight decades between its birth and its rise to power. The Brotherhood first tried to run for office in the 1940s but was repeatedly outlawed. It went through a militant phase in the 1950s and 1960s, when some of its members attempted to assassinate political leaders, including President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The regime undertook a massive crackdown against the organization, and thousands of its members were imprisoned and tortured. During this period, the Brotherhood’s chief ideologue justified violent jihad. Even after the Brotherhood renounced extremism in the late 1960s, its platform continued to be intolerant of Christians and women’s rights. It called for laws to comply with Sharia, or Islamic law. And it rejected Egypt’s peace accord with Israel. Under the cover of other parties, it began running candidates for office again in the mid-1980s. In 2005, it won eighty-eight seats in parliament.

The Brotherhood faced regular repression under three successive presidents—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, who tolerated some of the movement’s social welfare services but methodically curtailed political activities. Members and leaders of the Brotherhood were frequently detained and imprisoned, even after it became the largest opposition group in parliament in 2005.

The Egyptian uprising in 2011 caught the Islamists by surprise. But they quickly capitalized on it, mobilizing members and security for Tahrir Square. After Mubarak was forced to step down, the Brotherhood formed a new political party to run for office. After decades of repression, the Brotherhood has gone from being an embattled opposition to the most powerful bloc—holding 216 of 498 seats in a parliament charged with writing Egypt’s new constitution. The Brotherhood is now poised to play critical roles as Egypt attempts to make the transition to democracy.

The Beginning

Hassan al Banna founded the Society of Muslim Brothers in the provincial town of Ismailiyya during a tumultuous political period. The son of a cleric, Banna came of age as Egyptians pressed for an end to British occupation and Western cultural and economic encroachment, including Christian missionary activity. Banna believed that Egypt—and the Muslim world in general—were weak and blighted by corruption, social inequality, and foreign exploitation.

Ismailiyya was a microcosm of the challenge. Home to the Suez Canal Company and British military garrisons, the town was filled with luxurious homes for foreigners juxtaposed with poor living conditions for Egyptian workers. Western influence permeated education, language, law, social habits, and values.

Like other Islamic modernists, Banna believed that Muslim societies were weak because they had fallen out of touch with their faith. He held that the key to achieving national independence, progress, and development was an Islamic renewal that restored religion in everyday life and politics, including application of Sharia, or Islamic law.

The Brotherhood began in 1928 as a social welfare society devoted to Islamic revival and social reform. The society built mosques, schools for both boys and girls, youth centers, and Koranic schools. It undertook literacy campaigns. It engaged in many forms of charitable work. It also created small economic enterprises and artisan workshops.

Egypt’s first mass social and political movement experienced rapid growth. The Brotherhood had 50 branches nationwide by 1934, expanding to 300 branches with some 50,000 members by 1938. When Banna was assassinated in 1949, the Brotherhood had approximately 2,000 branches with an estimated 500,000 members, making it the largest organized force in the country. It also soon became the mother of all mass Sunni Islamist organizations in the Arab world.

The Brotherhood initially recruited members primarily from the lower-middle class and working class, including employees of the Suez Canal Company. Members also were artisans, laborers, merchants, and civil servants. A charismatic speaker and efficient organizer, Banna preached in villages across the country. The movement’s nonelitist character was an important source of its strength. The educated and professional middle classes eventually constituted the backbone of the movement and its leadership.

In the 1930s, the Brotherhood became increasingly involved in politics, taking strong positions on both domestic and regional affairs. It called for immediate evacuation of British forces from Egypt and raised awareness and funds for the 1936 general strike in Palestine. To support its causes, the movement published pamphlets, newsletters, and eventually a weekly newspaper that took up social, cultural, and religious issues. It held regular public meetings, rallies, and national conferences. Banna was a frequent speaker across the country.

The Brotherhood’s rapid growth and activities led to Banna’s first brief detention in 1941. In 1945, he was one of a handful of Brotherhood candidates who ran for parliament. They all lost in what was widely seen as a flawed poll.

Like other political parties, such as the Wafd, Nationalist, and Young Egypt parties, the Brotherhood established a small clandestine militia in the early 1940s. This era was a period of nationalist agitation, political instability, and occasional violence, including bombings and assassinations. A member of the Nationalist Party assassinated Prime Minister Ahmed Maher Pasha in 1945.

The Brotherhood’s militia, known as the “special apparatus,” was trained in the use of small arms. It was ostensibly charged with armed resistance against British occupying forces, but it was also involved in several domestic operations. Two members of the group assassinated a prominent judge in 1947 after he sentenced a Muslim Brother to prison for attacks against British soldiers. There are conflicting accounts of how much control Banna had over the militia and whether some actions were taken without his knowledge or orders.

The Brotherhood also supported the war effort in Palestine in 1948 by sending arms and volunteers to the front. In November 1948, the government discovered an arms cache at the home of a Brotherhood leader responsible for aiding the Palestine war effort. Other arrests led to the government’s discovery of the movement’s militia.

The Egyptian government moved quickly to dissolve the Brotherhood, confiscating its assets and arresting many members, although not Banna. In retaliation, a young Muslim Brother assassinated Prime Minister Al Nuqrashi Pasha on December 28, 1948. Banna denounced the assassination, but less than two months later Banna was assassinated by members of the Egyptian political police.

The Nasser Era

On July 23, 1952, a group of junior military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a coup to depose King Farouk. The Free Officers Movement promised national independence, social justice, development, and democracy. The Free Officers had previous contact with members of the Brotherhood, including Banna. Some Free Officers, notably a young officer named Anwar Sadat, were sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s ideas.

The Brotherhood initially welcomed the revolution, but the honeymoon was brief. The military junta had no interest in partners and did not return to the barracks, as promised. To consolidate its own power, the military began to eliminate rivals, dissolve political parties, and put former senior regime officials on trial. The military also outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested many of its leaders. The military and the Brotherhood then moved into open conflict.

In October 1954, a Brotherhood member attempted to assassinate Nasser during a visit to Alexandria. Over the next decade, thousands of Muslim Brothers were arrested; others went into exile. The crackdown continued until after Nasser’s death in 1970.

The 1960s were a particularly dark period for the movement. The Brotherhood was radicalized by Sayyid Qutb, a writer intensely critical of Western civilization, of Egypt under Nasser, and of authoritarian governments in Muslim countries. Qutb was arrested following the 1954 assassination attempt against Nasser and spent a decade in prison.

Qutb’s ideas later influenced extremist movements—from Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group (al Gamaa al Islamiyya) to al Qaeda—that justified violence for political ends. He was released from prison in 1964 but was soon rearrested for allegedly plotting an assassination attempt against Nasser. Qutb was tried and executed in 1966.

After intense internal debates, the Brotherhood moved away from Qutb’s ideas, renounced violence, and gave priority to religious propagation rather than to political power. The turning point was marked by the 1969 publication of Preachers, Not Judges by Hassan al Hodeiby, the general guide of the movement. Hodeiby rejected takfir, the idea of declaring Muslims infidels, and rejected violence as a method of political change.

The Sadat Era

The Brotherhood’s status shifted under Anwar Sadat, a former army officer who succeeded Nasser in 1970. Sadat released many of the movement’s leaders from prison and used the Brotherhood to counterbalance his Nasserist rivals. Although the movement was still legally outlawed, it was permitted to operate on university campuses. Islamists swept student elections between 1975 and 1979, until the government dissolved the student unions. The group was also allowed to propagate its message (dawa, or the call) and to reestablish many of its social welfare activities. Religious publications proliferated, and two newspapers associated with the movement began circulation in 1976.

Sadat was also less hostile, if not sympathetic, to some of the movement’s ideas. He called himself the “believer president” and employed Islamic rhetoric and symbols to bolster his legitimacy. He also introduced Sharia, or Islamic law, into the Egyptian constitution. Article 2 of the 1971 constitution declared that “the principles of the Sharia are a principal source of legislation.”(Previous constitutions had only stipulated that Islam was the state religion.) In 1980, Sadat amended the article to stipulate that Sharia was “the principal source of legislation.”

The 1970s generally witnessed increasing religiosity and conservatism across the Arab world. The 1973 Middle East war was a particularly important turning point. The war, an invasion designed by Sadat to take Israel by surprise, was fought using Islamic symbolism, not Arab nationalism. The Arabs lost militarily, but the war shook Israel, altered the status quo, and encouraged both countries to move toward peace negotiations.

But Sadat personally became increasingly unpopular in the late 1970s. His peace treaty with Israel, including his trip to Jerusalem, was contentious at home and isolated Egypt in the Arab world. Economic conditions deteriorated, resulting in the 1977 bread riots. Sadat’s rule gradually became more authoritarian. Radical Islamist movements—such as Takfir wa Hijra, which rejected the Brotherhood’s call for reform and instead promoted isolation and radical change through violence—emerged during this period. After Sadat’s crackdown on political opponents, members of Islamic Jihad assassinated the Egyptian leader on October 6, 1981, during a parade to commemorate the 1973 war.

The Mubarak Era

During Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, the Brotherhood began to participate in formal politics, including elections for parliament, professional syndicates or unions, student councils, and even faculty associations. The Brotherhood so successfully gained control of unions for doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and lawyers that the regime changed the election rules to block the Brothers from dominating those groups.

But the Brotherhood’s most strategic decision in the 1980s was to run for parliament even though it was still outlawed. It fielded candidates under cover of other opposition forces. For the 1984 election, the Brotherhood forged a coalition with the Wafd Party. The alliance took slightly more than 15 percent of the vote, or eight seats for the Brotherhood and forty-eight for the Wafd in a 448-person legislature. In the 1987 elections, the Brotherhood allied with the Labor and Ahrar parties. The alliance took 17 percent of the vote for fifty-six seats, thirty-six of which went to the Brothers.

Participating in the democratic process had a profound influence on the movement. It gained practical experience with campaigns, voter mobilization, media outreach, and parliamentary affairs—the processes of democracy. But the experience also deepened the movement’s interest in pluralism and forced it to articulate clearer positions and specific solutions to critical issues. Both required compromises.

The Brotherhood was not Egypt’s only Islamist movement, however. During the 1990s, radical Islamist cells increased their violent attacks against the Mubarak regime as well as the Coptic Christian minority and foreign tourists, particularly in Upper Egypt. The deadliest terrorist attack was carried out in Luxor, where more than sixty people—mostly foreign tourists—were killed in 1997. Although it had renounced violence, the Brotherhood often paid a price too. After the 1995 assassination attempt against Mubarak in Ethiopia, the regime cracked down on all Islamist groups. Hundreds of the Brotherhood’s members were imprisoned; some were tried in military courts and received long prison terms.

The Brotherhood persevered politically, however. It won seventeen seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections despite alleged electoral fraud. In 2005, it took an unprecedented eighty-eight seats in the People’s Assembly, the largest number any opposition group had ever won. Almost immediately, the Mubarak regime clamped down on the group by imprisoning the deputy guide and other leaders, sentencing them in military courts, and confiscating Brotherhood businesses. Over the next five years, the regime restricted political space generally. In the December 2010 elections, widely considered the most flawed in modern Egyptian history, the ruling party won more than 90 percent of parliamentary seats. When the extent of electoral fraud became apparent, the Brotherhood withdrew from the poll.

Less than two months later, on January 25, 2011, protests to demand sweeping political change erupted in Cairo. Both the regime and the Brotherhood were taken by surprise. Younger Brothers participated in the initial demonstrations, but as individuals. The movement’s leaders waited four days before calling on the faithful to join the protests—and only when the scale of the uprising became apparent.

But in the end, the Brotherhood’s numbers, organization, and discipline were critical in defending Tahrir Square and other protest sites from Mubarak’s security forces. Eighteen days after the uprising began, Mubarak was forced from power by peaceful civil disobedience.

The Uprising

The Muslim Brotherhood established a formal political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, in June 2011. The party’s top three leaders came directly from the group’s highest body, the Guidance Bureau. Mohammed Morsy was selected as the party’s new chief, Essam el Erian was chosen as vice president, and Mohammed Saad el Katatny became the secretary-general. (Katatny was subsequently elected speaker of parliament and resigned as secretary-general.) All three had previously been elected to parliament and were deeply involved in the Brotherhood’s political activities. Morsy is an American-educated engineering professor. Erian is a medical doctor and well-known Brotherhood spokesman. And Katatny is a German-educated microbiology professor. Rafiq Habib, a Christian intellectual, was named as a second vice president.

The platform of the party states that it is committed to equality for all Egyptians; pluralism; social justice; human rights; and the freedoms of expression, belief, and worship. It advocates a “civil state” with an Islamic reference, language the Brotherhood has developed to signal that it does not advocate theocratic government. It is committed to popular sovereignty and to the Sharia as the main source of legislation. The party believes that Egypt needs comprehensive reform to overcome decades of authoritarianism, corruption, and mismanagement.

But the uprising also exposed differences within the Brotherhood. After Mubarak’s ouster, the movement faced several internal fissures. Younger members, many of whom participated in the uprising, left the movement to establish the new Egyptian Current Party. They had objected to the undemocratic manner in which Freedom and Justice Party leaders were chosen. They differed with the leadership on the role of religion in politics, its rigidity on other issues, and the specific relationship between the movement and its new party. They also resented the marginalization of younger members within the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, for example, expelled Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a charismatic, liberal, and popular figure, in June 2011 after he announced his intention to run for president. The movement had earlier pledged not to run a presidential candidate to allay fears that it would try to dominate Egyptian politics.

Guaranteeing space in the new political era also forced compromises. During the first year after Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood’s relations with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were cautious, pragmatic, and at times uncritical and supportive. Unlike the Tahrir protesters who demanded the immediate transfer of power to civilian authority, the Brotherhood initially accepted the military’s political timeline and transition plan, which it calculated would benefit its own interests.

The Brotherhood did not press the military council to fulfill the uprising’s specific democratic aspirations. The Brotherhood was reluctant to criticize SCAF’s management of the country or the security forces’ use of violence against civilian protesters, which resulted in nearly one hundred deaths and thousands of injuries. It also offered only mild criticism of SCAF’s decision to try more than 10,000 civilians in military courts. The Brothers even supported the generals’ characterization of protesters as troublemakers.

On the issue of a new constitution, the Brotherhood had long advocated a parliamentary system of government, especially after decades of unrestrained presidential power. But the Brotherhood now began to propose a balanced presidential-parliamentary system, a popular idea among other political groups as well. And it stipulated separation of executive, legislative, and judicial authority. It also objected to a SCAF proposal that would have ensured significant powers for the military and effectively placed the generals above civilian control.

The Muslim Brotherhood is generally a conservative and risk-averse organization. Former Deputy Guide Mohammed Habib reflected, “Revolution is not in the Brotherhood lexicon.” But the Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian politics changed significantly after the 2011 uprising. From an embattled opposition force, the Brotherhood emerged as the largest elected force in Egypt, and its statements and actions reflect this new reality.

Key Positions


The Brothers have long accepted the basic principles and institutions of democracy, such as a multiparty parliament, the separation of powers, and judicial independence. The group’s founder ran for parliament in the 1940s. Since the 1980s, the Brotherhood has consistently participated in legislative and other elections, when permitted, despite significant government repression. But the Brothers are not liberal democrats, and some of their views on women, personal freedoms, and minority rights (including the right to run for president) reflect the limits of their liberalism.

Women’s Rights

The Brothers accept many rights for women, including the right to work, get an education, and hold public office. But Egypt is socially conservative on gender, sexuality, and social issues, so the Brothers reflect a widely held patriarchal concept of gender that views women as primarily responsible for the family and home.

The Brother’s 2007 draft political party platform drew sharp criticism for stipulating that women and Coptic Christians should not be eligible for the presidency. In the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brothers now say that the party would not nominate a female presidential candidate but would not advocate prohibiting women or Copts from holding the office.

The Muslim Sisters, the female branch of the movement, has played a visible role in election campaigns and social services, but the Sisters’ role is not equal to that of their male counterparts. Women are not members of either the Guidance Bureau or Shura Council, the Brothers’ governing bodies. The Brotherhood nominated a single female candidate in the 2000 and 2005 elections. After the Mubarak regime instituted a sixty-four-seat quota system for women, the Brothers fielded more female candidates in the 2010 elections. But the ruling military dropped the quota in 2011. (All of Egypt’s political parties historically fielded few women as candidates, a practice that continued in democratic elections in 2011 and 2012.) In 2012, the Freedom and Justice Party had the largest number of women in parliament—four.


The Brotherhood and its political party claim to support citizenship rights for all Egyptians, regardless of gender or religion. But Copts and liberals are skeptical that the movement believes in equal political rights for religious minorities. The group’s 2007 draft manifesto said that Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, should not be eligible for the presidency. This position was removed from the 2011 party platform.

The United States and the West

The Brothers support relations between the United States and Egypt based on mutual respect and interest. But the movement decries American support for Israel and Arab authoritarian regimes (such as Mubarak’s) as well as U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The first contacts between the Brothers and U.S. Embassy officials were in the late 1980s, but they ended at the request of the Mubarak regime in the early 1990s. After the 2011–12 election, top U.S. State Department officials flew to Cairo to initiate new contacts with Freedom and Justice Party leaders.


The Brotherhood’s long-standing position was that the Camp David Treaty should be put to a national referendum. Like the majority of Egyptians, the group is intensely critical of Israel and supports Palestinian rights, including the right to resist occupation. The movement also gave birth to Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement that won the 2006 Palestinian elections, governs Gaza, and justifies violence against Israeli military and civilian targets.

The Brotherhood’s current position on Israel reflects its attempt to maneuver between its long-standing ideology and political realities. After Mubarak was ousted, the Brotherhood said that it would honor Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but like other Egyptian parties, it suggested that the treaty might have to be modified. The Brothers are unlikely to call for abrogating the agreement while at the same time supporting Hamas and the Palestinians in neighboring Gaza.

The Future

As the dominant power in parliament, the Brotherhood’s challenges are daunting. One of the toughest may be negotiating with SCAF, the military panel that assumed control after pressing Mubarak to resign in 2011. The generals pledged to hand over power after the writing of a new constitution and election of a president by mid-2012.

But Egypt has been ruled by military officers since the 1952 revolution, with the armed forces accumulating a large stake in the economy and virtual veto power over key legislative and foreign policy issues. Whatever happens on paper, the real transition of power may take years. And other political actors have been suspicious that the Muslim Brothers will make a deal with the military in the name of their mutual political interests—and at the expense of Egyptian democracy.

The Freedom and Justice Party will also have to negotiate with other parties, both liberal and Islamist, as well as the revolutionary forces of Tahrir Square—some of whom are skeptical about the Brotherhood’s commitment to a truly democratic Egypt. The Islamist parties are also not necessarily natural allies on a range of issues.

Egypt’s failing economy will be a particularly urgent issue for the Freedom and Justice Party. Even before the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s woes were staggering: high unemployment, perennial budget deficits, crumbling health and educational institutions, and 40 percent of the population living at or close to poverty.

A year later, Egypt was reeling from the costs of political change. After the uprising, tourism, the stock market, and foreign investments all plummeted. Foreign reserves dwindled, and Egypt’s credit rating was downgraded. Strikes and labor protests proliferated, while the global economic crisis prevented the world from offering more assistance. Yet public expectations have never been higher, with Egyptians expecting an end to corruption, more jobs, the redistribution of wealth, and more social service benefits—almost none of which the Islamists could quickly provide. How the Freedom and Justice Party and others in parliament tackle these important issues will largely determine the country’s future.

Samer Shehata, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, is a former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities–American Research Center in Egypt, and the Carnegie Foundation. He is the author of Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt (2009) and the editor of the forthcoming Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change (2012).

Egypt: The New Puritans

By Khalil al Anani

Salafism is a new force in Egyptian electoral politics. The rise of ultraconservative ideologues has been particularly striking because Salafis had previously renounced participating in politics altogether. In Egypt, the Salafis emerged from the political backwater to win the second largest vote in the 2011–12 elections for parliament. They are now poised to play a pivotal role during Egypt’s political transition.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis historically have been a loose coalition of groups and individual sheikhs who espoused strict interpretations of Islam and called for implementation of Sharia law. To them, the ideal Islamic society emulates the first three generations after the founding of the faith in the seventh century. They generally hold conservative and often illiberal views on gender relations, minority rights, and personal freedoms.

Yet political Salafism is also a heterogeneous phenomenon encompassing different groups with socioreligious views ranging from the far right to the left. Some sheikhs would like to re-create God’s rule on earth. Others more modestly want to implement traditional mores and forms of justice. The sheikhs also differ in terms of the time frame and context for implementing Sharia. Some want to begin moving soon; others are committed to gradually implementing the Sharia, even if it takes decades or centuries. The various sheikhs are often stronger locally than nationally, another contrast to the Brotherhood.

As in other Egyptian movements, the Salafis have a generational divide. The older generation tends to be more puritanical, while the younger generation is more willing to reach beyond its own circle. The sheikhs considered the act of suicide by the Tunisian street vendor, which sparked the Arab uprisings, to be forbidden, or haram. The older generation of Salafis also did not support the 2011 uprising, whereas many in the younger generation turned out at Tahrir Square and other protest sites. One group of young Salafis launched the Costa Salafis, named after a popular coffee chain and complete with a page on Facebook.

The Salafis developed a large support base by providing grassroots social services, including welfare, medicines, and food for the needy. Although many Salafis are middle-class professionals, they are also religious populists who play to the lower-class resentment against Egyptian elites. Ironically, Salafis made inroads in Egyptian society partly because the government tolerated their social activities as a counterweight to the more political Muslim Brotherhood. Salafis are often (although not always, as younger members insist) distinguishable by their untrimmed beards and prayer marks on their foreheads, symbols of the practice of their faith.

In Egypt, the chief Salafi political actor is the Salafi Call, or al Dawa al Salafiyya. Its political arm, the Nour Party, was formed only in mid-2011, after the Egyptian uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But within six months, the Nour Party won 25 percent of the vote in the first free and fair election, or 125 of 498 seats in the lower house of parliament. Together with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists captured about 70 percent of the vote.

The Beginning

Salafism in Egypt originated when university students broke away from the Islamic Group, or al Gamaa al Islamiyya, an umbrella network of Islamist factions that emerged in the 1970s to counter leftists and Nasserists (sometimes with the encouragement of President Anwar Sadat’s government). By the mid-1970s, the breakaway factions ranged from radical and violent Islamists to conservative but peaceful groups. The students at Alexandria University created their own movement, the Salafi Call, or al Dawa al Salafiyya, in the late 1970s.

The Salafi Call was created largely because of political and ideological differences with other Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to dominate the Egyptian Islamist scene in the 1970s. The Call’s chief founder was Sheikh Mohammed Ismail al Moqadim, a surgeon who received his religious education in Saudi Arabia. He was influenced by Saudi Salafi thinkers such as Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Baz and Sheikh Mohammed ibn Saleh al Othaimin, who were religious leaders of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s own brand of Salafism. Saudi Arabia was created by the merger of Wahhabi clerics and the al Saud family.

In Egypt, the movement’s epicenter was Alexandria, where Salafism sought to enhance its presence among university students. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Call did not have a formal organizational structure. It relied primarily on preaching—known as the call to Islam, or dawa—and student outreach in leaflets, Islamic camps, and lectures in the city’s mosques. The major Salafi leaders included Sheikh Yasser Burhami, Sheikh Ahmed Farid, Sayyed Abdel Azim, and Mohamed Abdel Fattah.

In 1986, followers founded the Al Furqan Institute for Preparing Preachers, a school for religious education. Al Furqan became the main venue for the Salafi movement. Through the institute, the movement directed Salafi activities across the country through social, youth, and district committees in the 1980s and 1990s. The movement disseminated the Salafi ideology through a growing religious education network, and it published a monthly magazine, al Dawa. In 1994, as the movement’s influence grew, the government closed the institute, dissolved its executive council, and banned its monthly magazine.

From Piety to Politics

Yet the Salafi Call eschewed politics. Classical Salafism has a long tradition of quietism. Many Salafis believe that political participation is heresy that corrupts Muslims and therefore should be avoided. Moreover, many traditional Salafi scholars prohibit rebellion or revolution against the ruler even if he is unjust or corrupt, as long as he is a Muslim.

In more practical terms, the movement also shunned Egyptian politics because the government provided no political space for any Islamists to participate. Despite their quietism, many Salafi leaders were arrested during President Hosni Mubarak’s last decade in power. The movement even remained silent when one of its members, Sayyed Bilal, was arrested and tortured to death in January 2011, a month before Mubarak was toppled. When popular protests erupted against Mubarak, Sheikh Burhami’s faction criticized the protesters and called on Salafis to abstain from participating.

After the revolution, however, Salafi leaders became heavily involved in politics. The movement spawned three new political parties: al Nour (Light), al Asala (Authenticity), and al Fadila (Virtue). The three parties formed a coalition—the Islamic Alliance—to field candidates in Egypt’s first fully democratic election in 2011–12.

The ideology of all three parties is uncompromising. They advocate rigid application of the Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence), which they believe entails gender segregation, strict Islamic dress for women, and social restrictions such as outlawing alcohol. Abdel Moneim al Shahat, a controversial senior Nour Party official, outraged Egyptians when he dubbed democracy as “forbidden” (haram) and “blasphemy” (kufr). He described the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz as “atheist literature” that promoted “prostitution and drugs.” Another hardline Salafi leader urged Egyptians not to vote for liberal, secular, or non-Muslim candidates in the elections.

Salafis are socially conservative partly to preserve Egypt’s Islamic identity in the face of Westernization and secularism. As a result, they argued that a new constitution should emphasize the role of Sharia in public and political life as well as in private belief. During the new parliament’s inaugural session in January 2012, many Salafi members insisted on adding a religious reference to the official oath; they swore to uphold the constitution as long as it did not contradict the Sharia.


Since the 2011 uprising, Salafis have sought to inject themselves and their ideas into the center of political debates. They were surprisingly well organized in their first elections despite total political inexperience. They tapped into deeply rooted social networks to encourage support for their candidates. They also built alliances and coalitions with different political forces.

Before the parliamentary elections, the Nour and Asala parties joined the Democratic Alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and including the liberal Wafd Party. But the two Salafi parties withdrew from the alliance on the eve of elections after what they perceived as attempts by the Brotherhood to marginalize Salafi candidates. The two Islamist parties then formed an alliance with the Building and Development Party, the political arm of the Islamic Group (al Gamaa al Islamiyya). (Many leaders of the Islamic Group, which had advocated violence against the regime, were imprisoned in the 1980s and 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, the group had formally renounced violence, and many of its members were released. In 2011, the group fielded candidates for parliament through the Building and Development Party.)

The Salafis did well in elections for several reasons. Islamist ideologies do resonate with pious Egyptians, but the Salafis had also delivered social services to the needy for several decades. Loose-knit but entrenched networks had built up around these services among the lower class and lower-middle class, which suffered under Mubarak’s economic reforms. The Salafis achieved sweeping victories in some rural constituencies and on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Salafis’ hands-on approach was more effective than that of the social networks, based on the twenty-first-century technology used by liberal and secular activists. “They didn’t come to our streets, didn’t live in our villages, didn’t walk in our hamlets, didn’t wear our clothes, didn’t eat our bread, didn’t drink our polluted water, didn’t live in the sewage we live in, and didn’t experience the life of misery and hardship of the people,” explained Salafi leader Sheikh Shaaban Darwish. In addition, said Nour Party spokesman Mohammed Nour, “Other parties are talking to themselves on Twitter, but we are actually on the streets. We have other things to do than protest in Tahrir.”

Rival Islamists

Islamist groups won 70 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, but the fiercest battles during the first parliamentary elections were actually between different types of Islamists—not between secular candidates and Islamist candidates. The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will not necessarily work together toward a common Islamist political or social agenda in parliament. And the divergence between the two groups—on a range of issues, including interpretation of the Sharia, gender relations, and views on democracy—represents only a segment of a wider Islamist political spectrum.

The Salafis view the Brotherhood as insufficiently Islamist and too compromising. The Brothers, in turn, view Salafi positions as naïve, overly rigid, insufficiently centrist, and inappropriate in a modern Egyptian context. The Brothers have shown during sporadic participation in past parliaments that their primary focus is on politics and not on religious or cultural issues. After the 2011–12 vote, a Freedom and Justice Party leader said its priorities would be “economic reform and reducing poverty … not (fighting) bikinis and booze.”

As the Salafis began scoring well in the phased elections, Nour Party chief Emad Abdel Ghaffour vowed that the party’s new members of parliament would not play second fiddle to the Brotherhood. “We hate being followers,” Ghaffour told Reuters. “They always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision.… There might be a consensus but … we will remain independent.… They always speak of it with reproach.” He warned that the Brotherhood might try to “marginalize” Nour’s politicians and portray them as “the troublemaking bloc. The experiences of other parties who have allied with them in the past are bitter.”

The Nour Party has demonstrated occasional pragmatism in its political outlook. After the 2011–12 election, its leaders reached out to liberal forces in parliament to counter the strength of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Although Salafis favor Islamic rule, the Nour Party’s platform called for establishing a “modern state that respects citizenship and coexistence between all people.” The party stressed the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. And it emphasized social justice as well as the people’s right to elect their leaders and to hold them accountable.

Key Positions


Until the 2011 uprising, the majority of Salafis rejected democracy as a Western construct that was anathema to Islam. Most Egyptian Salafis also rejected the idea of participation in any formal politics. Salafi leaders criticized the mass protests against the Mubarak regime and argued that opposition to a Muslim ruler contravened Islam. But some Salafis did participate in the protests.

The quantum shift in the willingness of Salafis to participate in formal politics does not mean that most accept the principle of democracy. Some say that democracy is a “tool” or an “instrument” that can be used to implement Sharia. Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a leader in the Salafist Call, explained, “We want democracy, but one constrained by God’s laws. Ruling without God’s laws is infidelity.”

Women’s Rights

Most Salafis believe that the most important role for women is in the family, as wives and mothers. Many Salafis object to the idea of women in leadership roles, and some claim that women should minimize their activities in the public sphere. The 2011–12 elections mandated that all political parties include at least one woman on their party-list ticket. The Nour Party’s female candidates always appeared at the bottom of the ticket. Their faces never appeared on campaign material, and they were instead depicted by a flower or a party symbol.

Some Salafis also call for the separation of boys and girls in educational institutions after the primary level. Although several prominent Salafi leaders have said that they would not force women to wear the veil or the niqab, the full-face veil, some Salafis have suggested imposing restrictions on dress in public.


The Nour Party and other Salafi parties hold decidedly illiberal views about religious minorities and personal freedoms. They do not subscribe to the principle of full and equal citizenship for all Egyptians, regardless of religion. Several Salafi leaders have said that they oppose full political rights for non-Muslims.

The Salafis draw a distinction between private and political practice. The Nour Party contends that Sharia ensures Christians the right to practice their beliefs, including the right to handle personal status and family affairs according to Christian traditions. But the party has stated that non-Muslims cannot hold the presidency. On the subject of Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population, Sheikh Burhami went further. He specifically said, “Copts do not have the right to run for political office in Egypt.”

The Salafis take a tough position on Sufi Muslims, a tolerant mystical form of Islam. Burhami has accused them of heresy and of being supported by the United States. He has been even tougher on the Bahai. Burhami said that he opposes allowing the tiny Egyptian Bahai community to hold religious services in Egypt or to list their religion on national identification cards.

The United States and the West

The views of Salafi parties toward the United States are still not clearly defined, however. Although most Salafis are hostile toward Western civilization generally, the Nour Party claims to advocate relations with foreign states based on respect and peaceful coexistence. But Salafis have demanded the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in New York after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Many Salafis are outspoken against what they view as U.S. meddling in Egypt’s domestic affairs on issues of religious freedom.


The Nour Party has shown some pragmatism in its position on Israel. Its platform does not specifically address the party’s stance on Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state, although in an interview with Israeli Army radio, a Nour Party spokesman said that the party would respect Egypt’s international commitments and would not abrogate the Camp David Treaty. But like the Brotherhood, the Salafis are sympathetic to Palestinian issues and to Hamas.

The Future

Egyptian Salafism has evolved from a movement that rejected democracy into a major political force, but it is still immature politically. Public opinion polls indicate that the majority of Egyptians support Sharia as the main source of legislation, which was already enshrined in Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution. The more contentious issue will be how strictly that provision is implemented or supervised. The Salafis are likely to have a hard time navigating alliances to achieve the movement’s political or economic goals because of concerns among both secular parties and the Brotherhood about the ultraconservative Salafi agenda.

The Salafis’ economic strategies are somewhat naïve. One of Nour’s proposals is to increase medical tourism so that Egypt is a regional center for health care in both Africa and the Arab world. Given the state of Egyptian health care, that proposal would not be a quick fix for the country’s profound economic woes.

Yet despite their conservatism and inexperience, the Salafis have demonstrated their adaptability to Egypt’s new political environment and their success in amassing popular support—more so than any secular or liberal party. The Salafis’ influence will depend on how Nour and other newly established parties work in parliament—and learn to compromise to win majority support in a democracy.

Khalil al Anani is a scholar of Middle East politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in Britain. His books include Elections and Transition in the Middle East in the Post-revolutionary Era (forthcoming), Religion and Politics in Egypt After Mubarak (2011), Hamas: From Opposition to Power (2009), and The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Gerontocracy Fighting against Time (2008).

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The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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