Egypt's ultraconservatives planting seeds in vote

For Egypt's most conservative Islamists, the country's first competitive presidential election has been a test of their political savvy as they try to plant the seeds for turning the country into an Islamic state.

The Salafis, known for their no-compromise, literal interpretation of the faith, are political newcomers. They long concentrated on preaching and many of them shunned involvement in politics, believing it would require sinful concessions. Some of their clerics even said Western-style democracy itself is dangerous since it could override God's rule and laws.

But in the landmark presidential vote, the first round of which was held Wednesday and Thursday, Egypt's Salafis tested the waters of electoral maneuvering as they tried to choose which of two main Islamist candidates to back. They experienced fissures and struggled to coalesce, but are still having a strong impact.

During the voting, Sheik Abdel-Khaliq Saleh — clearly distinguishable as a Salafi by his long, moustache-less beard — stood preaching in his usual spot, next to a cart that sells watermelons on the corner of the street in one of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria's poorest neighborhoods.

He had one simple message for his followers: Vote for Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.

More On This...

It's an odd marriage for Salafis. Abolfotoh is a moderate Islamist who has touted an inclusive platform that brought support from some liberals, leftists and minority Christians. In the past he has embraced positions diametrically opposed to Salafis, like saying a Christian could be president or that books touting atheism need not be censored.

But several major Salafi organizations backed him in the race, convinced that while he likely won't implement Islamic law right now, he will give Salafis room to preach.

Sheik Saleh said he is no rush to build an Islamic state. The Salafis right now are in the stage of "daawa," or "spreading the word," encouraging people to turn to Shariah, the Islamic way of life.

"It took the Prophet Muhammad 23 years to spread Islam to the people," he said. "The important thing is to plant the seed first."

Not all Salafis agree. Some came out for Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who has been forthright in saying he will implement Islamic Shariah law and is backed by the Brotherhood's powerful and experienced electoral organization. After polls closed Thursday night, the Brotherhood claimed Morsi was the top vote-getter, putting him in a second round of voting next month, though final results were not expected until Tuesday.

Sheik Abol-Yazid Gouda said he rejects the pragmatism cited by other Salafis for backing Abolfotoh. Salafis, he said, cannot compromise and nothing should come before Shariah.

"We don't shave our beards just to get a job in government," he said. Morsi "is more Islamist," he added, speaking in an apartment that serves as a Salafi-run madrasa, or school, for teaching the Quran in the Abu Suleiman district of Alexandria.

Salafis have been actively laying the groundwork since the 1970s, when they first began mobilizing in their base of Alexandria. Salafi-run mosques offer Quran lessons, a place to pray and guidance for residents in some of Egypt's poorest neighborhoods. They operate more than 200 mosques in the Alexandria slums of Abu Suleiman and Seyouf alone, Sheik Saleh said.

Salafis believe their top duty is "daawa" and they have succeeded in winning over several million followers over past decades. They would have spread the message even further, they say, if not for three decades of government oppression, arrests, torture and harassment under Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in an uprising last year.

Unlike the Brotherhood, Egypt's most organized political force in existence for 80 years, Salafis have historically been more concerned with religious outreach, not politics.

Their vision of Islam is more hard-line and puritanical than most members of the Brotherhood, which groups a wider spectrum. Salafi women, for example, almost universally wear the "niqab," a black robe and veil that covers the entire body, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Generally, Brotherhood women, in contrast, wear simply a scarf over their hair.

The Salafis acknowledge that their vision of a state, which includes banning the sale of alcohol, segregating the sexes and closing down beaches where women wear bikinis, will not likely come about at the hands of Abolfotoh.

But Yasser Bourhami, an influential cleric from the Dawa Salafia, Egypt's main Salafi organization, has said Abolfotoh pledged to the group that, if elected, he would allow Salafis a free rein to preach in mosques and religious schools.

The Salafis got their first taste of politics in parliamentary elections late last year, in which their main party, Al-Nour, snapped up a quarter of the seats. The showing, which surprised many Egyptians, made them the second largest faction after the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood's power has worried some Salafis. Salafis abandoned a brief alliance with the group during the parliament election campaign, saying the group was too domineering, and it left a taste among some that a Brotherhood president would try to control the ultraconservatives.

Sheik Gouda, the Brotherhood supporter, suggested the backing of Abolfotoh was a cynical, pragmatic political move against the Brotherhood.

"They did not choose Abolfotoh out of love for him, but as a jab to the Brotherhood," he said.

But others say support of Abolfotoh reflected the need for parity in politics.

"The Brotherhood made gains in parliament and we want there to be a balance," Ahmed Kamel, the Alexandria head of the Gamaa Islamiya, once an armed militant group that has forsworn violence. "Who will hold them accountable if they win the presidency and have parliament?"

Kamel said he spent 14 years in prison under Mubarak, until he was 36 years old, for his activities with the Gamaa. During that time, he said he saw hundreds of the group's members tortured and some dying in prison.

"We learned patience in jail," he said, acknowledging that while Abolfotoh is not the most Islamist of the two candidates, he may at least provide Salafis an opportunity to practice their faith.

Mohammed Sarhan, who manages the main Salafi website in Egypt, Ana Salafi, says the most important thing in the coming years is freedom to preach so that their message is more widely understood and accepted.

"We are always in a state of daawa," he said. "We know Shariah will not be put in place in four years."