The impact of Arab uprising on Islamism and counterterrorism

31 - Jan - 2012

Since the March 19 referendum Islamists have grown more confident of their superiority over the rest of the political parties as well as the revolutionary activists and youth groups. This is why their preferred road map has always been parliament elections followed by writing of the constitution and ending with presidential elections; this has been their strategy since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. We can say the same about the Tunis revolution, but the revolutionary activists there were more organized and the Tunisian Islamists are more civilized, they “more open to reform and compromise than the Muslim Brotherhood, as seen in their acceptance of the Tunisian Republican Covenant. Included in this covenant are the basic principles of the expected Tunisian Constitution as well as an acceptance of the Electoral Act, which provides for equal representation for men and women “(Nasira, Jamestown, Dec. 2011).
But in both cases, we can see that Arab Uprising has provided an excellent opportunity for Islamists in North Africa, although not all their groups were part of the revolution mainstreams, to reap the revolutionary fruits while the other stayed behind without any strategy.
There is not just one Salafi movement in Egypt or in the Arab world. The political Salafi movement which is known in Saudi Arabia as Al-Sorouriya (Sorourism) is no doubt the main candidate playing a major role in Arab Spring countries. The Salafi movement is well-established in Egypt, unlike Tunisia, where it is represented best by the Al-Nour Party, the most active and main player amongst Egyptian Salafi parties.
I will try to give an explanation of the Salafi rise and its challenges in post-revolution Egypt.
The surprising rise of the Salafis caused a shock to their Islamic and secular opponents who did not foresee the rise of this phenomenon several years ago. After the massive uprising, that led to the fall of President Mubarak, Salafi parties have demonstrated a wide and effective presence. In the post-revolution Egyptian scene their power was demonstrated firstly in the case of the referendum on the constitutional amendments on March 19. One prominent Salafi figure, Mohammed Hussein Yaqob, controversially described the referendum as “The Battle of Ballot Boxes.”
It was also shown in their participation in mass demonstrations in which they put forward their political goals and views, revealing a clear Islamist strategy. In contrast to the revolutionary youth and civil groups, who were relatively weak in their political paths, namely the referendum battle, the general elections and struggle for State power.

Islamists’ Strategies:

On July 1 2011, a young man asked Sheikh Yasser Borhami, the most prominent cleric of the Salafi Call (Da’wah) in Alexandria, for a Fatwa (Islamic ruling) saying: “I’m a supporter of a presidential candidate who is known for his Islamic tendency. Should I spare no effort in supporting him, since I’m a volunteer in his presidential campaign? Or is this attitude not recommended for some more important reason?” The cleric Borhami replied: “After praising Allah and His Prophet, I think that the presidential elections are a premature issue, since the pressing issue now with the Liberals is what should come first: The Constitution or the elections? If we succeed and the elections come first, the next issue would be the General Elections (for the parliament), followed by Drafting the Constitution, which is an extremely serious matter.”
The Salafis’ goals, strategies and instruments were absolutely clear, whereas the so-called revolutionary youth coalitions by late June were split into 150 coalitions, according to George Isaac in an article for Al-Ahram on June 27, 2011. “They have been scattered and have disappeared,” he wrote. Arguments and disputes emerged among the youth and protesting groups without being controlled by a specific leader or organization.
The Salafis have had vision, power and a social base, as well as media forums that helped them to achieve their goals.
The following strategies can be observed in their speeches and practices:
1. Pre-emptive attack: Salafis did not take much time to justify their decision to participate in the political process. They gave a practical justification which does not deny, and yet ignores their initial theories against political engagement in the past. Their justification refers to the tyranny of Mubarak's regime before the revolution. They say that the revolution provided them with the opportunity to participate and consult with the people’s views. They started to attack and defame their liberal and secular opponents. This was the first time that Salafi ideological speech left the hidden corners of the mosque and moved into satellite TV channels and public media to attack everything related to the West. The civic groups which did not have deep knowledge of the Salafis got caught up in constantly having to defend themselves.
2. Second point is the Muslim identity politics of the Salafi trend. After the downfall of Mubarak’s regime in February 2011, Salafis were the first to claim that the revolution is of an Islamic nature, and they warned against any prejudice to the Islamic and Arab identity of Egypt, or to Article 2 of the Constitution.
3. At the beginning, the Salafis’ political attitude was far from clear. On April 2, 2011, Abdul Moneim Al-Shahat, Spokesman of the Salafi Call group, stated that they will neither form a political party nor abandon their title: “The Salafi Call.” Grassroot pressure and internal debate pushed through a change of attitude. Islamic youth started a Facebook site in late February under the title: ”Let’s urge Salafis to take part in the political process.” The cleric Ahmed Farid stated, on April 15, that the Salafi Call group intends to form a party and submit its application on October 15 of the same year. The approval on June 13 came with a significantly unexpected acceleration. Perhaps this was driven by other political Islamists (but not the Muslim Brotherhood) who failed to join the Muslim Brotherhood’s party or to form their own party, and thought of exploiting the Salafi Call’s fans and gain their support.
4. Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood (also called Ikhwan) recognized the post-revolution development of the political track, and how it moved from the overthrow of Mubarak to the political power struggle that started with the referendum on March 19, 2011. This was not recognized by the revolutionary youth and many civic groups who kept themselves in an ongoing revolution stage.

Strategic Massive Demonstrations:

Whereas Islamist massive demonstrations were strategic and decisive, other massive demonstrations were often random and emotional, especially those of the revolutionary youth ... This can be explained as follows:
The first Salafi participation, as a group, in massive demonstrations was on July 9, in the so-called Friday for the “Rescue of the Revolution”. The sit-in protestors in Tahrir Square, including those injured during the revolution as well as some revolutionary youth coalitions, were forced out of Tahrir Square before this massive demonstration. This demonstration focused on refusing secularism or any attempts to change the Roadmap set up by the referendum of March. They also refused having the elections before drafting the Constitution, refused making the Supra Constitutional Principles a binding document. The strategy and objectives of their parade of power was well-calculated and designed to dominate the Parliament, and then draft the Constitution.
On November 18 once again all Islamists participated in Friday’s demonstration, protesting against Al-Selmi’s document. Various Islamist groups participated in the demonstration rejecting the civic nature of the State and confirming that they have to dominate the parliament and tighten their grip on the Constituent Assembly of the Constitution.
The Islamic parties ─ focused on the elections ─ did not participate in various other Friday mass demonstrations in which the participants demanded the formation of a national rescue government and a presidential representative council. Also demonstrations of anger about violent military suppression of demonstrations did not involve prominent Islamist parties. Their objectives were clear for them, namely to seize legitimacy via the Parliament and then via the Constitution. That’s why the programs of both the Salafis and Ikhwan were pushing ahead for a parliamentary regime in Egypt.
An exception was Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abou Ismail who did not have the approval of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and is still trying his best with the Salafis. A dispute arose between him and various groups staying in Tahrir Square after he was overlooked for a post in the Civilian Presidential Council.

The Salafi challenge to Ikhwan and others:

After the Salafi success in putting an end to any guarantee for the civil nature of the country, and insisting on applying their Salafi vision of the Islamic law (Sharia) comprising distinction of minorities, women and the overt stand towards freedoms, there is no doubt that the civil powers face a major challenge.
The Salafis represent a social and political challenge for all, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent group for all political Islamic movements in the region. It is also a challenge for the Salafi jihadist trend which never knew the politics of electoral boxes.
While the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance office made a decision on February 21, 2011 to set up a political party representing their group after the revolution, they reached the quorum for its formation on the second of April, the same date on which the Salafis expressed their wish to form a party. The Salafi sheikhs hesitated at first to adopt it. Yet the surprise was that it was approved after reaching the quorum, on June 12, 2011 only six days after approving the Muslim Brotherhood “Freedom and Justice Party.” It is noteworthy that the Salafis took much less time (i.e. two months) than the Ikhwan required to form their party.

Salafi equivalence and Ikhwani feeling of superiority:

The greatest surprise that shocked the Ikhwan (or Muslim Brotherhood) and others was the advance of the Salafi block lists, in which the Salafi Al-Nour party represents more than 90 percent. The Salafis were a real challenge, even in Ikhwan’s strongholds, in spite of the inflexibility apparent in their leaders’ speeches.
In spite of the calming attempts and coordination between the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) from one side and the Salafi block from the other, the relation was not free of severe polarization that was clearly evident in the complaints and mutual clashes between their supporters during the election process.
Salafi parties reacted defiantly to a perceived sense of superiority from the Ikhwan. This became evident after the Salafi withdrawal from the democratic coalition led by the FJP. The Salafis also firmly rejected the criticism regarding a lack of political experience and finally retreated from the possibility of coordination with the Ikhwan in case they won parliamentary elections.
This was confirmed by the chairman of Al-Nour party in a recent speech on December 19, stressing his certainty and confidence that the Salafi popularity is doppelganger of the Ikhwan and that the Salafis are closer to the people through social work and services they provide.
We need not forget that the Salafis dominate the largest number of religious satellite channels in Egypt and the whole region. They also comprise a number of Salafi preachers and jurists who became widely popular in the Egyptian street, long before the outbreak of the protests. In contrast, the poor Ikhwani satellite performance is evident, in spite of releasing their own channel after the revolution, as well as their long political history.

The “Jurisprudence of Opportunity” and the Ikhwan challenge

The Salafis have theoretically shifted to the so-called “Fiqh (Jurisprudence) of the Opportunity.”
The Salafi participation in the political life, party formation, and democratic practice were not based on a brave revision of their views nor a change in their opposing stances towards democracy and citizenship. Rather, it is the doctrine of opportunity, however, that accepts people’s choices.
This is contradictory to Ikhwan who developed their theory and practice to accept what they do in the political field.
It was clear in the Salafi refusal of coalitions with other groups and civil parties, or including Christians in their lists.
That their lists included no less than 60 women was a matter of it pragmatically abiding by the electoral law. They still regard democracy as something forbidden and the civil nature of the state kufr (non-believers), although the elections are a clear evidence of democracy and civility.
The doctrine of opportunity accounts for the contradiction between Salafi theory and its new post-revolutionary practice.
The Egyptian Salafi transformation has precedents in the Gulf region where the ideology evolved into political movements in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (As-Sorourya).
It may seem that Salafis ─ mainly as a group calling for Allah ─ are more stringent with respect to internal relations and freedoms.
However, they seem more flexible and less stringent than Ikhwan ─ a group dedicated primarily to the restoration of the Islamic state ─ in respect to the relationship with the outside world and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This became clear by the Salafis approving the two-state solution proposed by Al-Nour Party leader and the possibility of accepting the Camp David agreement and sitting down with Israelis.
The Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood together represent a challenge to jihadism, which are:
1. Salafis political and intellectual development, after contesting the democratic experiment, represents a challenge and an embarrassment to Salafi jihadism that considers the only way to Islamic rule to be a violent clash with the close enemy or collision with the far enemy as well ...
2. It is no longer possible for the Ikhwan to monopolize the Islamic political scene after Salafis appearance.
3. The most important challenge that will continue to face the Salafis themselves is the review of their previous views and attitudes towards politics, democracy, civil state and citizenship, without alienating themselves too much from their doctrine purist followers.

Connotations in the Salafi program:

On June 12, 2011, the Egyptian Parties Affairs Committee approved the establishment of the Salafi Al-Nour party, as the first Salafi party in Egypt.
Al-Nour party was the fastest one to be established. It did not take more than a month between the announcement and the completion of its procedures (i.e. getting 5,000 power of attorneys from all provinces) until it was approved.
In the same context, all Islamic and civil groups stress their role in the January 25 although it was led by young people who were not ideologically affiliated.

Inconsistencies in practice and discourse:

There is a structural contrast between the political discourse practices and ideological foundations of many Islamists.
While they talk about achieving equality among the Egyptians and welcoming the participation of non-Muslims in their parties, their standpoint seems weak and lenient towards sectarian tensions for example.
In case of freedoms and basic rights such as freedom of expression, opinion, belief and worship, there are now cases of a religious nature filed against writers including the sarcastic writer Ahmed Ragab and caricature artist Mustafa Hussein. A similar case also was recently filed against the businessman Naguib Sawiris, for posting on his Twitter account a caricature deemed insulting to Islam.
While Salafis in particular accuse a number of mass media professionals and civil forces, in a tough and confrontational un-democratic language, they justify their insistence not to postpone the vote on the constitution because they stick to democracy.

Connotations on the Salafi Party program:

Among more than 10,200 words representing the political program of the Salafi Al-Nour party, the words “non-Muslims” or “citizenship” are never mentioned, while the word “civilization” was mentioned while talking about military and civil industries!
Human rights were referred to only when talking about the right to health care, while democracy made two appearances, conditioned always with Islamic reference.
The program emphasizes that “all components of the political process must be disciplined by the controls of Islamic law, since achieving democracy can only be reached under Islamic law, as well as releasing freedoms while maintaining the fundamentals of the nation and public order.”
The Salafi party program insists on the Islamization of education and politics.

Al-Qaeda and people’s revolutions:

After the murder of al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, on May 2, 2011, al-Qaeda started to exploit the Arab revolutions as a means to threaten the West, warning it that would face an uprising nation and that al-Qaeda is filled with joy at the people’s revolutions.
It became clear from the beginning with the publication of Abu Munzir al-Shanqeeti in support of people’s demonstrations in his letter “The Reports on the Legality of Demonstrations” and then confirmed by the
four related conversations of Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
It is then confirmed by Zawahiri’s obituary for Bin Laden and also Bin Laden’s last letter, which was broadcast after his death.
There are also letters of some of al-Qaeda leaders and symbols on the revolutions of their countries, such as what Anwar al-Awlaki directed to the Yemeni revolution, as well as Atiat Allah al-Libbi’s calls to the Libyan revolutionaries, the demands for the establishment of an Islamic regime on the ruins of the fallen ones.
They all warned explicitly against the ‘take over’ of the revolution and the establishment of a civic state similar to these previous regimes, as the West wants it to be, according to the Al-Qaeda vision.
In their interpretation the United States and the West have let down its allies of Arab rulers, like Mubarak and Ben Ali, because of their inability to support them due to the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions that have brought on a fatigue.
Al-Qaeda recognized that the popular revolutions succeeded in overthrowing the regimes. Something it failed to achieve, neither during the nationalist jihad phase (the near enemy) nor during the globalized jihad and al-Qaeda phase (the far enemy).
In reality al-Qaeda did not succeed in overthrowing the rule of any regime, even Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s regime, where its central leadership was located. Bin Laden described him as “Abu Rughal”, the guide of Abraha Al-Ashram on the way to destroy Al-Kaaba.
While the revolutions disown al-Qaeda, it insists that it has paved the way for them through exhausting the regimes and the West together. It sees itself entitled to reap the fruits and participate in the post-revolutions era.
The last of al-Qaeda publications expressing this vision and detailing it was ─what Abdullah al-Adm wrote and he seems to be close to the high command of al-Qaeda ─ entitled “Revolution of peoples and the end of compulsory ruling” published by Fajr Al Ealam Center.
Abdullah is characterized as having a strategic vision for al-Qaeda in its dealing with public revolutions and giving them a religious interpretation common to various Islamic movements, especially those that aim to restore the Islamic State (Caliphate).
Al-Adm states in his paper that the revolutions and the overthrow of these regimes mark the end of an era of authoritarian rule.
Al-Adm thinks that these revolutions hasten the dream of the return of the caliphate, but the matter will need some time; it will be realized soon, not 50 years as Abu Musab Al-Suri perceived. Al-Adm believes that God has hastened these public revolutions to the militants "”Al Mujahideen” to pity their weakness.
The Muslims have woken up and will be satisfied only with the Islamic law in the last path. It is a glimmer of hope that seems to be quite bright, however, it seems faded for the oppressed militants, says Al-Adm.
By these revolutions, Al-Adm perceived seven important connotations for al-Qaeda’s path, namely:
First: The end of tyranny that predominates.
Second: Breaking the barrier of fear which is restricting Muslims.
Third: People’s restoration of pride and dignity by which they get ready for “coming battles”.
Fourth: People’s movement shattered the western policy and influence in the region and left it impotent before these challenges which never came to mind.
Fifth: These revolutions preoccupied the west led by America from the open fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which would be clear in the near future, according to Al-Adm, which demonstrates the willingness of al-Qaeda to implement vast operations in these regions within the coming period.
Sixth: Al-Qaeda strikes and invasions exhausted the West, as Zawahri had already mentioned in his letter, which helped in the success of these revolutions.
Seventh: People’s revolutions are exhausting the West that dominated the region for long.
In its conclusion, the paper stresses that: “The global jihadist movement’ is no doubt waiting to reap the fruits of this public movement in which it participated with the blood of its sons. This movement advocated and fought for decades to reach the minds of Muslims who rose up today and ousted those tyrants.”
Al-Qaeda claims to have paved the way for these revolutions.
While he talks about the fruits which al-Qaeda will reap from the public revolutions, Al-Adm deplores the fact that Mustafa Abu Al Yazeed and others are not alive to see Mubarak’s downfall with their own eyes, after they fought him for years and died without seeing the results.
This recent al-Qaeda paper represents a strategic view about the public revolutions. Al-Qaeda is waiting to reap the fruit of its exhaustion to both the near and the far enemy. This may explain its waiting in Yemen and the lack of clarity regarding its situation until now and its waiting in Iraq (even after the departure of the Americans) as well as in Libya and the Islamic Maghreb. All factions and currents close to al-Qaeda ideology in Egypt declared that the only option for a state is Islamic, although some of them did not participate in the revolution from its start.
Al-Qaeda is waiting to reap the fruits. We have to pay attention to the future and those who want to hijack it.
This is especially in light of the strong participation of previous jihadists in Libya and the political rise of those close to them theoretically in Egypt like the Salafis.
Potential clashes provide a window of opportunity for al-Qaeda and jihadist groups to overcome their crisis and return to the Arab street. But whenever the political situation stabilizes in Egypt, Libya or Syria after the regime is overthrown, there will not be an opportunity for al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda is not only faced with a practical challenge after the loss of a number of its prominent leaders this year, including its founding leader, but also faces a theoretical challenge by the success of Salafi politics.

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