Egypt's Islamist Hard-Liners Embrace Democracy Islamist groups in Egypt are joining the democracy bandwagon — even those with a violent past. Two months after the overthrow of Egypt's president, ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafis have come out of the shadows and plan to participate in September's elections.
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Egypt's Islamist Hard-Liners Embrace Democracy

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Egypt's Islamist Hard-Liners Embrace Democracy

Egypt's Islamist Hard-Liners Embrace Democracy

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Libya's neighbor, Egypt, Islamist groups are joining the democracy bandwagon, even those groups with a violent pasts. This includes a group that carried out a notorious massacre of Western tourists in the 1990s. They're now talking tolerance and political participation.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Two months after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak ultra-conservative groups known as Salafis have come out of the shadows and into the political arena. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Cairo the hardliner's embrace of democracy is alarming Egyptians.

(Soundbite of call to prayer in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS: Who are the Salafis? It's a question many Egyptians are asking these days. By religious definition, Salfisim isn't violent. Salifis are simply ultra-conservative Muslims. During the Mubarak years they were allowed to open mosques because they focused strictly on morality and they stayed out of politics. But now, more than one Salafist group has declared a run for the Egypt's first open election in September.

Ms. DINA SHEHATA (Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): Its a new variable that we hadnt accounted for before.

AMOS: Dina Shehata with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies says Salfism is an ideology, not a political movement.

Ms. SHEHATA: They are quite unknown, we dont know how big they are, how many followers they have, their ability to mobilize voters.

AMOS: And do you even know what they stand for or politically what they want?

Ms. SHEHATA: They are the purists within the Islamic movement and also the most socially conservative. They are not the most tolerant of the Islamic movements.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

AMOS: In this working class quarter of Cairo, worshippers spill out onto the streets in front of this Salafi mosque. After prayers, neighborhood resident Maroof al Denty expresses the limits of his tolerance. Ask about the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist social movement, and Denty says, too moderate for him.

Mr. MAROOF AL DENTY: Muslim Brothers they have some mistakes.

AMOS: They have mistakes?

Mr. DENTY: Everybody has mistakes.

AMOS: What are their mistakes?

Mr. DENTY: Like shave their beards to get at their goals(ph).

AMOS: As for the popular uprising that unseated Egypt's president, Denty didn't take part in any demonstrations.

Mr. DENTY: No, I never.

AMOS: What did you do during the days of the revolution? Did you just stay home?

Mr. DENTY: Just make prayer(ph).

AMOS: Others have taken the strict Salafist code much further and that's raised alarms, says analyst Michael Hanna.

Mr. MICHAEL HANNA (Analyst): I think definitely there have been several incidences that have shocked people, incidents of violence, attacks against Christians.

AMOS: The most shocking incident, severing the ear of a man accused of renting an apartment to a prostitute. Salafists have also destroyed shops that sell beer, and torched religious shrines they consider sacrilegious in the breakdown of law and order after Mubarak stepped down.

Mr. HISHAM KASSEM (Publisher): Behavior like that - the rule of law has to be imposed.

AMOS: Hisham Kassem, a publisher and long time member of Egypt's secular opposition, says the Salafis are too extreme to have broad appeal.

Mr. KASSEM: People are really beginning to get annoyed with those group of people who think they can go out there on the street and impose their own law.

AMOS: On Tawheed Street in Cairo, Salafi Imam Mahmoud al Gamel's mosque shares this quiet neighborhood with a Coptic Christian Church and a private school.

He says the violent incidents are overblown by the media and caused by angry young extremists not part of any Salafist group.

Imam MAHMOUD AL GAMEL: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Yes, he says, Salafists are organizing political parties, working at the grass roots across the country for the parliamentary elections in September.

Then, for the first time, ultra-conservative Salafists will have to convince Egyptians to vote on their role in the country's future.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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