Salafi movements in the Arab world have for the most part refrained from political participation. Instead, they have typically focused on preaching their conservative religious ideas and engaging in social welfare activities aimed at changing society from below.
The Arab uprisings that broke out in 2011 changed that. Egypt’s Salafists decided to establish a number of parties after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. And after Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime fell in Tunisia, their Tunisian counterparts established Salafi parties as well.
The presence of Salafi parties in the political sphere in Egypt and Tunisia adds value to the process of democratic transition. Although these parties are conservative, they accept peaceful political action as a vehicle for change and reject the use of violence, which permits the integration of an important segment of society into the political process. Moreover, the presence of Salafi parties adds a measure of diversity to the Islamic political scene and makes it more difficult for any one Islamic party to claim to represent all Muslims.
But the past two years have been very politically challenging for Salafists in Egypt and Tunisia. The parties have declined in prominence in the political arena. This decline has come at a time of increasing popularity of Salafi-jihadi movements that refuse to recognize democratic mechanisms as a possible means of political change and instead seek to build an Islamic state through armed struggle.
If Salafi parties seek to be relevant as political actors and maintain a certain level of influence over the political process, they will need to regain the trust of the Islamic youth, find a healthy balance between their religious and political structures, and offer a comprehensive model of governance.
The Major Salafi Parties
Unlike other Arab countries that went through the Arab Spring, Egypt and Tunisia are the only cases that did not slide into large-scale violence, even if they took two different political paths. Comparing the trajectories of political Salafism in Tunisia and Egypt shows various similarities but also notable differences.
The Nour and Watan Parties are considered the most active Salafi parties on Egypt’s political scene, and the Reform Front Party is at the forefront of Tunisia’s. While Nour managed at the beginning of the transitional period to achieve significant political gains before its popularity declined, the Reform Front Party failed to achieve similar success in Tunisia.
The Nour Party was established on the initiative of the leading Salafi figure Emad Abdel Ghafour in the first months after the January 2011 fall of the Mubarak regime. Abdel Ghafour saw that the new political climate after Mubarak’s fall included new opportunities for change through political action, not just through religious and social activities as preached by the Salafist Dawa, a religious movement established in the 1970s with which Abdel Ghafour was affiliated. The Salafist Dawa had succeeded under Mubarak in building a network of supporters through its social welfare and religious activities; however, it had refrained from any political engagement.
Less than six months after its establishment, the Nour Party achieved noteworthy success in the first parliamentary election held in Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster. It won 121 seats, or 24 percent of the assembly, coming in second to the Freedom and Justice Party that was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.1
There was a sharp disagreement in Nour in September 2012 between two political visions of the party’s work. The first group, represented by Emad Abdel Ghafour, wanted Nour to focus on becoming a broadly based Salafi party, perhaps even the representative of the Islamic constituency as a whole. The second group, represented by Jalal al-Murra and Ashraf Tabet, believed the party should have a distinct popular base and a single religious authority, namely the Salafist Dawa in Alexandria.2
The crisis evolved into a campaign of mutual dismissals between the two wings before the Salafist Dawa sheikhs interfered to mediate between the groups. The conflict came to an end when Abdel Ghafour and other members left the party and established al-Watan Party in January 2013.
The two parties went down two different paths. The relationship between Nour and the Brotherhood deteriorated to the point that, in July 2013, Nour supported the military intervention against then president Mohamed Morsi, who was backed by the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Watan remained close to the Brotherhood and supported Morsi, joining the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy coalition that backed him. After it became clear that the alliance had no political future or strategy, Watan withdrew from the coalition but remained outside the new political process launched by the military intervention. Nour took part in the new political process, joining the committee that amended the constitution adopted under the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting the candidacy of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for the presidency. It is now competing in the parliamentary election that runs until early December 2015, though its popularity has decreased.
In Tunisia, the most active Salafi party is the Reform Front Party. It obtained a license to operate as a political party in March 2012 under the government led by Ennahdha, a religious movement established in 1981 by Islamic intellectuals motivated by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The transitional authority following the overthrow of Ben Ali had refused to grant the party a license, as some of its founders had been put on trial for their religious activities during Ben Ali’s tenure.
In terms of political performance, and unlike the Nour Party in 2011, the Reform Front Party failed to win any seats in the Constituent Assembly that had been tasked with drawing up the postrevolution constitution, in the election held in October 2011 during which its members ran as independent candidates, or in the parliamentary election held in October 2014. This was mainly due to the party’s lack of a social base upon which it could rely during the elections. Tunisia did not have a strong Salafi movement like the Salafist Dawa. Although Ben Ali’s regime allowed for some limited Salafi activities, the scope of such work did not evolve into religious and social networks. Ben Ali’s policy toward the Islamic movements prevented the formation of a social force. So while the Nour Party drew support from a web of relationships that it had formed before 2011, the Reform Front Party had to build networks of supporters from scratch after January 2011.3
Both the Nour and the Reform Front Parties prioritize the issues of identity and sharia. According to the Nour Party, Egyptian identity is Arabic Islamic by virtue of the doctrine and faith of the vast majority of Egypt’s people, and Islamic law should be the only source of legislation. The Reform Front Party’s platform emphasizes the need to establish an Islamic state that implements Islamic law, to subject all areas of life to sharia, and to make Islamic law the basic document of reference in drafting the Tunisian constitution.
The Challenges Facing Political Salafism in Egypt and Tunisia
There are many reasons for the decline of the Nour Party over the past two years and the failure of the Reform Front Party to achieve victories in the political sphere. Indeed, Salafists in Egypt and Tunisia face a number of challenges, such as the decline of the project of peaceful political Islam and the rise of Salafi jihadism, the problematic relationship between religious and political activism, and finally the lack of a political vision for the form of the state and the role of sharia.
Overcoming these issues will be key to regaining the Islamic constituency’s trust in the Salafi political parties and their political projects and will offer these parties new opportunities to coordinate with non-Islamic actors on specific shared themes.
The Increasing Prominence of Salafi Jihadism
While they adopt a conservative religious ideology, Salafi parties are typically peaceful. They accept democratic mechanisms as a means to achieve their aims. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the decline of this approach has impacted the viability of Salafi parties.
In Egypt, some of the problems Salafi parties face are rooted in the political failings of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which came to power in 2012, took a peaceful and gradual approach to governing. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Morsi, in the presidential election in June 2012 represented a victory for its peaceful tack over the Salafi-jihadi one. However, the ouster of Morsi by the military in July 2013 dealt a blow to the approach.
Some thought that the Brotherhood’s failure to effectively run state institutions in Egypt and then its exclusion from political life could be in the interest of the Nour Party, the Brotherhood’s main competitor in the Islamic political arena. But the Brotherhood’s failure was not a mere failure of a political organization. For large segments of the Islamic grass roots, the failure of the Brotherhood’s political project resulted in a loss of confidence in peaceful political action as a means for change.4 While some of them left politics altogether, others chose to join the Salafi-jihadi movement with the aim of building an Islamic state by force. The achievements of Islamic jihadi organizations like the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front in Syria in particular made force seem like a viable option.
The Nour Party only began to face major challenges from the Salafi-jihadi movement in the last couple of years. After it supported the military intervention against the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, some of its sympathizers began to criticize it for giving up on the Islamic project. This tension increased in October 2015 with the assassination of a Nour parliamentary candidate in North Sinai by Salafi-jihadi militants.
The Tunisian Reform Front Party faces a similar challenge. The Islamic political party Ennahdha led the Tunisian government after it won the country’s first election following the uprising in October 2011. However, it left power after it came second in the parliamentary election held in October 2014. Although it was not excluded from power by force, as was the case with the leading Islamic party in Egypt, segments of the Islamic youth see the experience of Ennahdha as a failure with respect to building an Islamic state.
Those young people close to Salafi jihadism are particularly disenchanted. They accuse Ennahdha of betraying the Islamic project after failing to refer to Islamic sharia as a source of legislation in the constitution. In addition, young Salafi jihadists are incensed that Ennahdha sought reconciliation with the symbols of the former regime by agreeing to participate in a coalition government with the Nidaa Tounes party, which includes, together with secularists, members known for being close to the old regime. Some Salafi-jihadi voices explicitly accused the Ennahdha movement of being a U.S. satellite, deviating from the path of the Islamic project and attempting to please Western countries, even at the expense of Islam and its provisions.
Salafi jihadism in Tunisia became a major challenge to Salafi parties with the 2011 establishment of the group Ansar al-Sharia, which the government declared a terrorist organization in August 2013. Until then, Ansar al-Sharia had achieved great popularity among Salafi youth through its work advocating for political change and its charity activities. According to Bilel Chaouachi, a prominent Salafi-jihadi figure, Ansar al-Sharia is a pioneer in attracting Islamic youth compared to other Islamic movements and parties. This is attributed to the fact that it does not engage in political action usually associated with the bargaining with former regime forces that is rejected by the revolting youth as well as to the radical discourse of change that it adopts.
To overcome this challenge, Salafi parties have to work with the radicalized groups in the Islamic movements to bring them back to peaceful political action. This requires two primary steps: they should work on rebuilding their image as legitimate and independent religious actors in the religious sphere, and they should put forward a political project that offers new paths for those youth to uphold sharia values through peaceful political action.
This issue is also linked to the need for Salafi parties to expand the scope of their dealings to other Islamic and even non-Islamic circles rather than restricting their dealings to other Salafists. While it is logical that the Salafi bloc remains the major basis for Salafi parties, the latter should communicate with other groups that could find in their platforms a reason to support them.
Problematic Relationships Between Religious and Political Activities
The major Salafi parties in Egypt and Tunisia need to find a suitable balance between their political roles and religious activities. The lack of clear boundaries between the religious and the political harm them both.
The Nour Party in Egypt is facing a crisis relating to the relationship between the religious movement and the political party. The religious movement has been trying to impose its vision on the political party by interfering in its internal affairs.
The crisis between the religious and the political began when then Nour spokesman Mohammad Yusri Salameh praised a novelist who is considered by some Salafi figures to have offended religion. Salameh also attempted to work with non-Salafi political and revolutionary forces and as a result incurred the displeasure of the Salafist Dawa, which referred him to an investigative committee with which it was affiliated rather than to one affiliated with Nour. Salameh disapproved of that move and resigned from his position as party spokesman. In addition, some members of the party, including the president of the party himself, tried to establish clear rules to govern the relationship between the religious movement and the party, but they failed and decided to leave Nour instead.
Tunisia’s Salafi parties are facing the same challenge, albeit from a different perspective. Unlike the case of Nour, in which the religious movement is interfering in the affairs of the political party, the members of the Reform Front Party are still trying to decide what their relationship with the religious sphere should be and to what extent the party or its members could have a religious role.
It might be difficult to imagine a complete separation between the religious and the political. But the lack of clear boundaries undermines them both. The involvement of political figures in the religious sphere renders their religious discourse and activities less credible, while the interference of religious figures in political activities makes political actions appear to be manipulated.
It is necessary to create some kind of differentiation between the religious and political spheres while admitting that it is impossible to establish a complete separation between them.5 The decisive point in this regard should be the institutional differentiation between the two entities and their activities. In the end, this will help these parties to enforce their images as independent political actors that are not manipulated by religious figures and at the same time that do not interfere in the religious sphere to achieve political gains.
The Lack of a Political Vision for the State
Salafi parties’ decision to engage in political action came as a response to the opportunities provided by the new political climate following the Arab Spring, but their political action has remained at the level of accepting mechanisms. They have not moved to the level of presenting a comprehensive political platform with a vision of the Salafi approach to the form of the state and the state’s relationship with sharia.
This is attributed in part to the hasty engagement of those parties in political action without having taken enough time to reflect on the formulation of a political project. Their direct participation in successive elections also did not give them time to reflect on this project. Added to this is Salafi parties’ narrow vision of the concept of the state, which they often confuse with the concept of a political regime, whereas the modern state form goes beyond this.
Political scientist Alfred Stepan offers a vision that might help Salafi parties resolve the problematic relationship between religion and the state. He uses the term “polity,” which according to him involves three different arenas: the state, political society, and civil society.6
Attempts to build a political platform will require both Nour and Reform Front to go beyond their general political programs to make an intellectual effort to outline a vision of the form and nature of the role of sharia on each of these levels. Reducing the state to the form of political power prompted Salafi parties, along with other Islamic parties, to concentrate their efforts on the issue of sharia implementation from above. The polity, in contrast, opens up new horizons for reflection on the relationship between sharia and each of those levels.
Under this framework, the question shifts from the issue of whether to implement sharia to what provisions of sharia can be implemented and at what level. Nour and Reform Front must decide which provisions the state must adopt, which provisions they could embrace in their platforms, and which provisions can be left to civil society institutions to work on their dissemination through their religious and social activities.
In light of the failure of Arab political elites to provide an alternative model for peaceful political change following the Arab uprisings, many of the angry youth who have taken to the streets to peacefully demand a transformation may not find many options to pursue the change they desire. Jihadism, however, is emerging as an alternative model to alter the forms of power in Arab states.
In this context, Arab political elites, and particularly the Islamic political movements, will have to reconsider their political positions if they want to formulate political platforms capable of restoring the confidence of the segments of the population leaning toward jihadism in peaceful political action.
Salafi political parties in Tunisia and Egypt must fundamentally review the challenges they have faced over the past five years to find solutions to these challenges if they hope to survive as political actors. In particular, they should focus on providing more effective mechanisms to communicate with their grass roots in and out of the Islamic movement, distinguishing between political action and religious activities, and finally formulating a comprehensive political project that reconsiders the relationship between the state and sharia.
1 Gamal Essam el-Din, “Egypt’s Post-Mubarak Legislative Life Begins Amid Tension and Divisions,” Ahram Online, January 23, 2012, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/33/100/32384/Elections-/News/Egypts-postMubarak-legislative-life-begins-amid-te.aspx.
2 For more information on the struggle in the Nour Party, see Ashraf el-Sherif, “Egypt’s Salafists at a Crossroads,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/29/egypt-s-salafists-at-crossroads/i7y8.
3 Author interview with Mohamed Khouja, the former president of the Reform Front Party, Tunis, March 4, 2015.
4 Author telephone interview with Mohammad Nour, the spokesperson of al-Watan Party, July 8, 2015.
5 Author interview with Nader Bakkar, the Nour Party chairman’s assistant for media affairs, Cairo, January 11, 2015.
6 Alfred Stepan, Rethinking Military Politics: Brazil and the Southern Cone (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 3–12.