Should Egypt Fear the Rise of the Salafis?

Egypt's Salafis appear to be trying to create the caliphate via the ballot box

Parliamentary candidate Abo El-Maty of the Salafi party Al-Nour greets supporters outside a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Cairo / Reuters

Here on the streets of Cairo, I sense a new pride today among Egyptian Salafis. Reports of their electoral success in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections have injected them with confidence in their religious agenda and struck fear in the hearts of millions of Egyptians. Those who denied that Egypt had a problem with Muslim radicalism were sharply awoken from their sleep.

Now, while many in Egypt are terrified at the prospect of Salafis in parliament, left-leaning policymakers in Washington, DC, will be arguing that Salafis are harmless, pious, and orthodox Muslims. Wrong.

Most Salafis aim to emulate the "first century" of Islam, the first three generations of Muslims (as understood by Salafi literature published in Saudi Arabia). This emphasis on the "first century," and scriptural literalism--wearing long beards without mustaches, donning short robes, practicing social separatism, and mandating a "homemaker" role for women may--seems similar to the attitudes of Christian Amish communities in the United States. This spin is useful for several officials at the U.S. and British embassies in Riyadh--but betrays the reality of the threat posed by extreme Salafism.

First, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and every other major Islamist terrorist came directly from the Salafist or Wahhabi school of the thought. They are motivated by a Salafi creedal concept named hakimiyyah, the idea that God is ruler and sovereign over man, the ultimate source of government. Jihadis and al-Qaeda wish to create this hakimiyyah, or caliphate, by force in the form of violent jihad. Egypt's Salafis are trying to create the caliphate via the ballot box, while the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to tone down the "Islamic state" aspect, emphasizing the civil state. Almost all Salafis wish to adopt their understanding of sharia as state law, or tatbiq al-sharia about which I have written here and here and here. Some Salafis will moderate their views as they interact with the real world in pursuit of the "Islamic state," some will persist, others will become disenchanted and walk the path of jihad.

Second, while extreme Salafis advocate hakimiyyah, almost all Salafis believe and constantly remind each other of the need to be loyal only to Muslims, and to hate, be suspicious of, not work in alliance with, and ensure only minimal/necessary interaction with non-Muslims. This attitude is underpinned by the Salafi creedal belief in al-wala wa al-bara, broadly translated as fidelity to Muslims and hatred for non-Muslims. Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote extensively about al-wala wa al-bara and speaks about it often in his video messages.

Third, combined with dogged beliefs about the caliphate and the disavowal of non-Muslims comes the Salafi tendency to engage in takfeer, the excommunication of other Muslims. Once a Muslim has been labeled a kafir then Salafis may justify violence against the newly declared apostate. These are not abstract ideas. Takfeer was used to kill Anwar al-Sadat, and Salafi extremists have used takfeer to justify killings in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

The Democracy ReportAs Egypt's election results unfold in the coming weeks, it would be naive to write off the rise of Salafis as Egypt's Amish. The above three ideas of literalist sharia as state law (hakimiyyah), manifest hatred of non-Muslims (al-wala wa al-bara), and excommunicating Muslims (takfeer), when underwritten by jihad, leads to violent extremism. Without jihad, it is plain and simple non-violent extremism. Either way, the rise of Islamist radicalism in the short term in Egypt is now a fact. In due course, I will write about ways in which this can be countered within a human rights framework, and without depriving Salafis of their legitimate success at the ballot box. Democracy can be bitter.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.