Beyond their threat to Egypt’s stability, Jihadi groups in the Sinai jeopardize mainstream Salafis’ political future.
Egypt’s Salafis emerged as strong political players when the movement secured over 25% of Egypt’s parliamentary seats in the 2012. Today Egypt’s Salafi community, which has significantly mellowed its discourse, faces several challenges including internal divisions and the rise of new jihadi groups in the Sinai and even in Cairo. This loosely formed community constitutes traditional Salafis who do not necessary believe in Jihad, Salafi Jihadis who have put their Jihadi aspirations on hold while experimenting in national politics, and active Jihadis who reject political engagement and are supporting acts of terrorism in the Sinai.
Jihadis led the Salafi movement’s revolution against the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, while non-Jihadi Salafis took a philosophical stand against democracy, which they consider un-Islamic. “The Salafi Jihadis were at the forefront of the revolution and of Tahrir square,” says Sheikh Magdy Salem, a Salafi Jihadi who fought in Afghanistan and was imprisoned under the Mubarak regime. Salafi MP Nizar Ghourab also explains, it was only before the elections of 2011 that the traditional Salafis (those who do not believe in Jihad) of the al-Daawa al-Salafia ("the Salafi call") joined the democratic foray by founding the organization’s political arm, the al-Nour party. The Salafi voting bloc turned out to be significant and Salafi candidates enjoyed unexpected success in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Since then, however, the movement has faced numerous setbacks. Early this year, the head of the al-Nour Party, Imad Abdul Ghafour, resigned to form his own al-Watan party. While the split could damage Salafis' chances in upcoming elections, some observers believe it may be short lived. But despite internal splintering, the main challenge facing the Salafi movement is the persistence of radical Jihadi groups who oppose the community’s newfound pragmatism. Many of Egypt’s Salafi Jihadis were inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood’s success, from which they have learned to be more pragmatic and to favor political participation. Many have come to believe that the movement should abandon terrorism for now and work to peacefully establish an Islamic State. “The Salafis understand that the country needs stability, which can only be guaranteed by political compromises. This can also be applied to the deal over the recent constitution, which is the best we can aim for now,” says Sheikh Salem.
However, not all Salafi Jihadis opted for mainstream political engagement after the revolution. An example of this is the 26 members of the "Nasr City terrorist cell" who were referred to Egypt’s criminal court in February 2013. The terrorist group was plotting violent acts against the police and armed forces, foreign diplomatic missions, and Coptic churches. The suspects (including Mohamed Gamal, Tarek Abul Azm, and Karim Azzam) had been jailed under Mubarak, but were released during the revolution, only to be imprisoned again on accusations of buying weapons. The group is also believed to be linked to the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. Another cell was dismantled in May, with three of its members accused of having links to al-Qaeda. They reportedly contacted al-Qaeda in Algeria, and traveled to Iran and Pakistan for training. However, Sheikh Salem claims that “these accusations have been fabricated by intelligence services to sabotage the movement.”
Despite the scale and scope of these accusations, experts still believe that these cells remain on the fringe of the broader Salafi movement. “The uncovered cells were very small in size. Salafi Jihadis who have refused to go mainstream have faced difficulties in recruiting new members. Most people feel their approach is not conducive to change,” says Sheikh Khaled Zafarani, a reformed Salafi Jihadi. Still, these groups jeopardize the future of the Salafi movement. This is especially evident in the Sinai, where a network of Islamic extremists has been responsible for numerous acts of violence, including the June and July 2011 attacks on an el-Arish police station, an attack on the Bank of Alexandria branch in northern Sinai, and an assault on a police station at the Israeli-Egyptian border in August 2012 that resulted in the killing of 15 Egyptian policemen.
Sinai Jihadis are also believed to have coordinated operations with Gaza-based Salafi groups, creating a transnational network of Salafi Jihadism that could prove detrimental to the legitimacy of the Salafi movement in Egypt and elsewhere. The convoluted history of affiliations (political, tribal etc.) of the various groups further complicates the picture in Sinai. For Ghourab, the recent bout of terror heightens the enmity between the Egyptian state and the Jihadists, which dates back to the Taba and Nuweiba bombings in 2004 that resulted in the arrests of thousands of people including women and children. “The sweeping crackdown, torture and humiliation of the local population had disastrous consequences,” he adds.
As jihadi attacks in the Sinai and elsewhere take a toll on the country’s stability, they also chip away at the popularity of the Salafi community—undoing much of what was gained during the 2012 elections. If left unattended, such violence will worsen in terms of intensity and scope and could spread to other regions. While solving the current crisis in the Sinai is a necessity for the Egyptian government, it may be an even bigger one for the Salafi movement. And this responsibility may fall entirely to mainstream Salafis. Attempting to pacify the Jihadi faction of the Salafi movement, through either dialogue or coercion, may prove a golden opportunity for the Salafi community to gain legitimacy and a more prominent role in national politics.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist covering business and political developments in the Middle East. She is currently focusing on Salafi groups in the region.