Inside Egypt’s Salafis

Lauren Bohn writes:

“All Americans think I’m a terrorist,” 34-year-old Salafi political organizer Mohammed Tolba exhales with his trademark belly laugh. He grips his gearshift and accelerates to 115 miles per hour down a winding overpass in Cairo. “But I only terrorize the highways.” Since the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Tolba has constantly been on the go. “The media says we all wear galabeyas (long Islamic dress), put our women in niqabs (a face veil), and will cut off people’s hands,” Tolba says, dramatically feigning a yawn. “We’re the new boogey-man, but people need to know we’re normal — that we drink lattes and laugh.”

To this end, the silver-tongued IT consultant shuttles regularly from the modish offices of popular television personality Bassem Youssef (he’s starring in a segment on the “Egyptian Jon Stewart’s” highly anticipated new show) to the considerably less shiny quarters of Cairo’s foremost Salafist centers. He’s been conducting leadership and media-training workshops for Salafis. “These guys don’t know how to talk to the public,” says Tolba, rubbing his eyes in exhaustion. “Once they open their mouths and face a camera, man, they ruin everything.”

The same might be said for their debut on Egypt’s main stage last Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Salafis joined other Islamist groups in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Droves of people from governorates across Egypt got off buses near Tahrir Square, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, we don’t want secular.” One Salafi, Hisham al-Ashry, beamed with pride as he walked back from the square to his tailor shop downtown. “Today is a turning point, we finally showed our strength.” Meanwhile, “the liberals and the leftists are freaking out. God protect the nation and revolution,” noted popular blogger Zeinobia.

Who are the faces and voices of an oft-deemed bearded and veiled monolith that packed the square? And what exactly do they want?

“Salafi” has become something of a catchall name for any Muslim with a long beard, but Salafism is not a singular ideology or movement with one leader. As Stéphane Lacroix, a French scholar of Islamist movements, explains, it’s more a “label for a way of thinking” guided by a strict interpretation of religious text. Salafis aspire to emulate the ways of the first three generations of Islam. Many Salafis have cultivated a distinctive appearance and code of personal behavior, including untrimmed beards for men and the niqab for women.

The Salafi culture has been growing in Egypt for decades, but until the revolution had little formal political presence. “Satellite salafism” hit Egypt in 2003, with around 10 Salafi-themed TV channels broadcasting from Egypt on Nilesat. The intensely popular Al-Nas, Arabic for the People, began broadcasting in 2006. Its programming focuses on issues of social justice and sermons by prominent Salafi preachers, like Mohammed Yaqoub and Mohammed Hassan, whose tapes and books are common fixtures among street vendors throughout Cairo. Nobody knows exactly how many Salafis there now are in Egypt, but Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a presidential candidate formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently estimated their number at around 20 times the number of Muslim Brotherhood members (unofficial reports estimate Muslim Brotherhood membership between 400,000 to 700,000 members).

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