Egypt's Salafis Emerge As Powerful And Controversial Political Force The ultra-conservative Muslims, whose influence has grown since the Arab Spring, aspire to a society ruled entirely by Islamic law. But to their critics, the Salafis are religious fanatics who are trying to drag the region back to 7th-century Arabia.
NPR logo

Egypt's Salafis Emerge As Powerful And Controversial Political Force

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Egypt's Salafis Emerge As Powerful And Controversial Political Force

Egypt's Salafis Emerge As Powerful And Controversial Political Force

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And it's such a busy time in Egypt. That's just one of the stories that Leila's bringing to us. This is one of several sources of turmoil in Egypt. Another one is religious conservatives. We're going to talk about them with Leila, all this week; and Leila, who have you been focusing on?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, I been focusing on ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafis who have really flourished since the so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago now. And we've been focusing on how they've been entering into society and much of the polarization that has happened as they become part of society. And we'll start with the most prominent Salafi political party here in Egypt, the Nour Party.

NADER BAKKAR: It is the pure Islam in which we take our religion from its pure origins.

FADEL: Nader Bakkar, a young engineer and spokesman for the Nour Party, explains what kind of a society he'd like to see in Egypt. He insists that Salafi ideology is not backward looking.

BAKKAR: It is not a thing that is in conflict with civilization, with modern societies. Not at all.

FADEL: Bakkar and other Salafis want to implement the strictest form of Islamic law.

BAKKAR: We are calling for pure ideology, pure ethics, regarding the day-to-day lifestyle. It is not something that is strange or different from the modern point of view, except regarding ethics and ideology.

FADEL: Prior to Egypt's revolt in 2011, Salafis were repressed. Pious men with unkempt beards were targeted by the secular and autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The movement went largely underground. But today, Salafis are out in the open and flourishing.

The Nour Party is the most successful of the Salafi political groups. In the first post-revolutionary elections last year, its candidates won around 25 percent of the seats in parliament, second only to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

But with politics comes compromise and competition. The Nour party once was basically the only show in town for Salafis. But now it is coming under fire from more rigid conservatives, who say Nour made too many concessions in the debate over Egypt's new constitution, limiting the role of Islamic law.

As a result, new Salafi parties are springing up, one of them was founded by a neighborhood leader in Cairo. His name is Sheikh Gamal Saber and he says his party gives Salafi voters another alternative.

SHEIKH GAMAL SABER: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: People pop in to Sheikh Gamal's office in the impoverished Shubra district, looking for help - food, blankets and medicine.

SABER: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SABER: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SABER: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: On this day, a few young women greet Sheikh Gamal from the doorway of his office. They are cold. He pulls blankets from the endless piles that are stacked to the ceiling in a storage room. He has provided charity like this for years and now he's hoping it will translate into votes.

SABER: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He and other Salafis are banding together behind a hard-line agenda that ultimately would ban alcohol, segregate the sexes and require women to wear the veil. How far would a Salafi-run Egypt go toward enforcing those ideals? Sheikh Gamal says let's get Islamic law first, and then we'll deal with its application.

SABER: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Critics say that Salafis are among the most polarizing element of Egyptian society, transforming every political debate into a referendum on religiosity.

A popular TV satirist, Bassem Youssef, has made it his mission to battle the Salafi influence. In one program last month, this liberal Muslim who's known for his humor, found nothing to joke about as he discussed the Salafi political agenda.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: (Through Translator) They don't look at us as Muslims and Christians, no. But as unbelievers, hypocrites, enemies of religion and enemies of the Lord. So we deserve to be humiliated and cursed.

FADEL: Salafis, Youssef says, are bullies who threaten those who don't share their rigid views.

Egypt expert Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Center, says the Salafi are a vocal minority nudging policy to favor the religious right.

SHADI HAMID: Salafis are fundamentally illiberal. And they are not willing to live and practice politics within the confines of liberal democracy. So, when Egyptian or Tunisian liberals say that certain fundamental rights should be non-negotiable, they should be guaranteed, Salafis don't want to hear that. For them that's a non-starter.

FADEL: The call for Islamic law has resonance in this deeply religious society, Hamid says. And the Salafis know how to reach the masses with populist language that appeals to the poor and disenfranchised. But many here worry that if the Salafis succeed they will change the nature of Egypt's society.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel here on MORNING EDITION. She's going to be talking about religious ultra conservatives in the Arab world all week long. And Leila, who do we hear from tomorrow?

FADEL: Tomorrow, I take you to Tunisia where it's a really different dynamic and Salafis have rejected the democratic process as a whole. And this puts the new moderate Islamist government in a difficult position.

INSKEEP: OK, we'll be listening for that. NPR's Leila Fadel, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.



Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.