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Egypt

Salafists remain strong in Egypt, despite disunity

A new Salafist party has been established in Egypt - the result of a factional dispute. But although the radical Islamists are not always unified, they remain influential in the country.

Former Islamist presidential hopeful, Hazem Abu Ismail (L), and former chairman of the Salafi Nour Party, Emad Abdel Ghafour (R), look on during a press conference to announce the launching of new al-Watan party, in Cairo, Egypt, 01 January 2013. According to local media, Abdel Ghafour, who resigned from Nour Party, announced the formation of the new party with an aim to group the Salafists and compete in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nour Party was the most influential Salafi party in Egypt, and came in the second place after the Muslim Brotherhood_s Freedom and Justice Party in last elections. EPA/STR +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Hazem Abu Ismail Salafi Nour Partei Emad Abdel Ghafour Kairo Ägypten

He wanted to start a "new chapter," announced Emad Abdel Ghaffur at the start of the year in Cairo. The former chairman of the Egyptian Al-Nour ("The Light") party had apparently had enough of the internal power struggle that had dogged his group for the past few months.

One of the questions that had divided members was what role clerics should play in the future political decisions, and Ghaffur, who has a reputation for pragmatism, then declared his resignation from the party. Instead of the Al-Nour Party, he now leads the newly-founded Al-Watan ("The Homeland") party - and can boast more than a hundred members already.

More Salafist parties

This has broadened the spectrum of Salafist parties in Egypt still further. Aside from the dominant Al-Nour, the significantly smaller "Party of Authenticity" and the "Party of Construction and Development," voters now have the option of "The Homeland."

Islamist Egyptian protesters attend a demonstration by hundreds of Salafists for the enforcement of Islamic sharia law at Tahrir Square in Cairo November 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

The Salafists have become more and more politically active

On top of these, the ultra-conservative TV preacher Hasem Abu Ismail, who last year hoped to be a presidential candidate, has also announced the establishment of a new party. "The two parties want to work in tandem and represent Salafist values together," said Günter Meyer, professor for economic geography and director of the Center for Research into the Arab World at the University of Mainz, Germany.

But Hamadi El-Aouni, political scientist at the Free University in Berlin, does not expect the new parties to bring a new political impulse. One Salafist party "more or less" does not change the scene in Egypt much, he said. "They are just names, not programs." Meyer added, "Unlike the secular parties, who fight each other, the Salafist parties represent a unity."

Influence despite disunity

The so-called "Islamist Bloc," which comprises the three oldest Salafist parties, won 25 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary election, which have since been declared invalid. El-Aouni and Meyer both expect this alliance to do well at the next elections due in a few weeks - and infighting will not change much.

Egypt's economic straits play into the Salafists' hands, said El-Aouni. "The Salafists are capable of mobilizing their people - and people allow themselves to be mobilized very easily," he said. The population has been suffering unemployment, poverty and uncertainty since the beginning of the unrest in the country. "It's easy to buy someone's vote for a liter of olive oil or a sack of flour," he said. "And that's what the Salafists do - not spontaneously, but in a well-organized way."

Politics and propaganda

Food shops in Cairo Foto: Hannibal dpa

Pressure on the economy plays into the Salafist's hands

Ironically, under Egypt's previous dictatorial regime lead by Hosni Mubarak, the Salafists were considered apolitical, unlike the equally Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. That has changed utterly since the fall of Mubarak. "Now the Islamists are in power," said El-Aouni, referring to the groupings who want to see Islam play a stronger role in politics and society. "Not only politically, but economically and structurally. That means they have opportunities they didn't have before," he said.

The Salafists use these chances. "They work with various methods," said El-Aouni. "They have professional preachers, TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers - a whole series of very efficient propaganda platforms. In addition, the Salafists have a lot of money and are financially supported from abroad - mainly from the Gulf States." What they don't want, however, is to open a substantially new political chapter - the vast majority of this movement is working for a return to the early Islamic values of their pious ancestors.

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