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Islamist factions jockey for power, vow religious rule

| Sunday, July 31, 2011

CAIRO -- If a new political force here has its way, public stonings, whippings and the lopping-off of hands will become the law in the Land of the Pharaohs.

It all would help return Egypt to "an Islamic state (of) the Middle Ages," in the words of one Salafist.

Even before President Hosni Mubarak fell from power on Feb. 11, many Western and Egyptian analysts worried that the world's most populous Arab nation -- and America's most crucial Arab ally of three decades -- might tumble into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, founded in 1928 as the world's first Islamist party, has long demanded religious rule in Egypt, inspiring similar movements across the Middle East.

Yet it isn't the only Islamist faction grasping for power -- or even the most radical. Several groups are arising, including at least one former terrorist organization.

Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya fought the Egyptian government in the 1980s and '90s until most of its members were killed or imprisoned. Its bloodiest attack, in 1997, slaughtered 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor, a major tourist attraction. Like the Brotherhood, it now has formed a political party to campaign in parliamentary elections set for this fall.

More troubling to outside observers, and to many Egyptians, are the Salafis.

Recognizable by their long beards and galabiyas, or ankle-length gowns, Salafis are widely accused of fomenting sectarian tension across Egypt.

Once devoted to proselytizing and known for shunning politics, Salafis have formed three political parties.

The word salaf means "ancestors" in Arabic, and Salafis try to emulate the first three generations of Muslim leaders dating to the seventh century. In many ways, they resemble the arch-fundamentalist Wahabis of Saudi Arabia.

They follow no centralized hierarchy; their religious philosophy can vary, as can their newfound political ideology. Yet, in interviews with the Tribune-Review, Salafis supporting different parties agreed on one thing: They want Egypt to be an Islamic state governed by Shariah, the Islamic legal system.

'We want an Islamic state'

As Egyptians revolted in January, Youssef Sidhom, a respected figure of the Coptic Christian minority, advised young Copts to join Cairo's Tahrir Square protests.

"It started out quite nobly, and we were confident at the time that Egypt (was) going through a historical transformation," recalls Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani, a weekly newspaper covering Christian issues here. "It didn't continue this way. Sorrowfully ... there emerged the new Salafi groups."

He blames Salafis for many "violent atrocities" against Copts. In one incident, a Salafist mob razed a Coptic church here and pledged to build a mosque in its place.

In the green southern city of Qena along the Nile River, Salafis have emerged as a political power -- or as thugs, their foes say. There three Salafis agree to meet two female journalists only if they cover their heads.

"We want an Islamic state like the one that was in the Middle Ages," says Dr. Mustafa Abdu, a bearded medical practitioner who stares at a tabletop to avoid eye contact.

His companion, Abdel Rahman Adly, wants Egypt to retake "its place in the world ... when Islam entered Egypt 14 centuries ago, when Muslims and Copts lived together peacefully."

Both support Nour, a Salafist party founded in Alexandria; Adly says it is allied with the Brotherhood "because they agree that the main source of legislation is Islam."

Veiling all women

Sheikh Mohammed Aly Farahat preaches in a Cairo mosque and on a local religious satellite channel owned by a Saudi businessman.

He concedes many Egyptians "don't want to implement the Islamic system in its entirety and fear it, although there is no justification for this fear."

Farahat, who also works as a financial manager in Egypt's health ministry, calls himself a "revolutionary fighting for a better future for everyone." His long gray-black beard is tinted with reddish-orange henna, and he wears a white knit cap and a light-blue gown.

He cheerfully claims the U.S. political system "is the closest system to Islam," then patiently explains his vision of a new Egypt.

Shariah has "minimal" sway over a nation's political, military and economic systems, Farahat says. Yet certain "constants in Islam ... money, soul, honor and mind," must be protected by using Islam's archaic penal code.

That includes 100 lashes for drinking alcohol, cutting off thieves' hands and stoning adulterers. Such punishments, he says, must apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Poor people who steal food would be exempt from losing a hand, Farahat says. For others, the public shame alone is a deterrent: "When you see someone's hand chopped off in a public square, the thief would get scared. ... When he goes to work or gets married or engaged, it's known that the right hand chopped off means that he's a thief. ... One has to think 100,000 times before stealing."

He also wants all women -- including Christians, foreigners and tourists -- to be veiled in public. A woman should show only "the face and the palms of her hands," he explains, and nothing "that details the shape of the body is allowed."

"If her body appears, she will tempt the young men."

'What are the bad things?'

Any attempt to impose such rules would cause enormous social and economic friction, other political activists insist.

Hala Helmy Botros, 47, a feisty Coptic blogger in Qena, says bluntly: "This would be a war."

Some believe the war is here. Bishoy Faruq, 27, a medical supplies salesman, sits with other young Coptic Christians in a riverfront cafe in Qena, discussing the Salafis' rise and the bloodshed and intimidation attributed to them.

"It's very scary, and we are getting hit every day, so we might as well fight," Faruq says. He also wonders: "Why don't the Salafis get arrested when they commit crimes?"

Mohab Al Qady, 27, a pharmacist and member of the centrist Ghad (Tomorrow) party, worries about Salafis controlling "the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice."

"What exactly are the 'bad things'?" he asks. "... (They) don't want girls walking around in the streets much."

In Luxor, an hour's drive from Qena, intense summer heat slows the normally bustling city. Surrounded by some of the world's finest ancient ruins, Luxor's people mostly work in tourism, which has been hit hard by this year's revolution.

In the Valley of the Nobles where ancient tombs hide in desert hills, only two shops are open. Ahmed Abdel Fattah owns one; its souvenirs, many crafted by him, collect dust.

Fattah considers himself a religious man but does not want religious men taking over.

"The people don't want the Brothers or the Salafis," he insists. "They are going to want you to cover up and wear a veil. They are going to impose the veil on tourists like Iran.

"That is not Islam. How can you impose that?"

'A voice in parliament'

At Friday's demonstration in downtown Cairo, attended by as many as 400,000 people, Salafis commanded one of two large stages. Still, their numbers are unclear.

Abdel Moneim Abu El Fattah, a presidential candidate and former Muslim Brotherhood leader, has speculated that Salafis outnumber the Brotherhood 20 to 1.

Others disagree.

"The Salafis still don't rival the Brothers, but they are going to have a voice in parliament," says Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York think tank that analyzes U.S. and international affairs.

Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian publisher and respected political analyst, said he believes the Brotherhood, the Salafis and other fundamentalists can win no more than 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections.

Leftist activist Ramy Shaath dismisses Salafis as a "gang of hooligans with very narrow minds who can be easily led ... protected by state security and funded by Saudi Arabia."

Farahat, the Salafist sheikh and government worker, concedes that Shaath's accusation has some truth to it: "Unfortunately, some (followers) did respond to the pressures of state security and used to pass on some information." He calls it "a human weakness."

He also admits "there may be assistance" from Saudis.

"In Islam, our sources are the same. All these so-called differences -- Wahabi, Salafi -- all this is meaningless. All are superficial titles."

Photo Galleries

Egyptian protest on July 29, 2011

Egyptian protest on July 29, 2011

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