The Arab awakening is having the perverse effect of empowering some of the region’s most illiberal and anti-democratic forces, says a prominent observer.
“However much the west wants Arab societies to produce leaders with whom its feels comfortable, the turmoil in the region in the past two years has allowed for the emergence of less pleasant political actors. The most worrying is the Salafis, the ultraconservative Sunni sect whose objective is the establishment of sharia, or strict Islamic law,” writes Roula Khalaf in a must-read FT survey:
The fall of authoritarian regimes has offered Salafis, a disparate movement that had hitherto maintained a low profile, a rare opportunity to organise and agitate…
The Salafi surge is seen by secular-minded Arabs as the biggest threat to democratisation in the region, with the Islamists’ Saudi-style vision particularly damaging for the development of women’s rights. But the Salafis are also a significant complicating factor in the more moderate Islamists’ early experiments in governing.
Mainstream groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood find themselves pulled towards more hardline views by the Salafis while also facing pressure for greater moderation by the liberal opposition.
“The major challenge to stability in the Arab world … lies only partially in the transition to democracy from autocracy,” says Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor, the political consultancy. “Greater than that is the challenge mainstream Islamists face from a complex and divided Salafi movement.”
Salafists in Syria, for instance, have benefitted from generous funding from Gulf sources that has facilitated the spreading of their ideologically crude but appealing message, according to a recent report of the International Crisis Group.
“Salafism offers answers that others could not. These include a straightforward, accessible form of legitimacy and sense of purpose at a time of substantial suffering and confusion; a simple, expedient way to define the enemy as a non-Muslim, apostate regime, as well as access to funding and weapons,” says the report. “At a time when [rebel] groups struggled to survive against a powerful, ruthless foe and believe themselves both isolated and abandoned, such [Salafi] assets made an immediate, tangible difference.”
In this respect, the ultraconservatives have become important conduits for illiberal external actors to influence the political trajectory of the Arab revolts, often in a sectarian direction.
“The militantly anti-western sects known as Salafists represent Saudi Arabia’s most passionate potential allies. They have definite affinities with the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia; their clerics and adherents attend Saudi schools,” writes analyst Brian Downing:
Salafi forces were central to the anti-coalition insurgency in Iraq and continue to oppose Shia rule. They are also parts of the Syrian rebellion which is on the verge of ousting the Assad government. Egyptian Salafis hurriedly patched together a political movement after President Mubarak’s ouster last year and won 25 percent of the popular vote in recent elections.
Observers noted their generous gifts to the poor in the weeks before the vote but were at a loss to determine how they afforded such largesse. Suspicion naturally fell on Riyadh.
In Tunisia, Salafists have emerged as the principal threat to the country’s once-promising transition.
“The ruling Ennahda Party has yet to distance itself from the radicals,” notes one observer:
Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi even encouraged “our young Salafists” to patiently embark on a long march. “Why the hurry?” he said in a video of a meeting with Salafists. “The Islamists must fill the country with their organizations, establish Koran schools everywhere and invite religious imams.” The video was secretly recorded and posted online, but Ghannouchi claims his words were taken out of context.
“In Tunisia, Islamic activism in general was impossible under an extremely repressive regime, and the Salafis were very loose networks of young people with no identified leadership, no institution, nothing,” says Thomas Pierret, an Islamist expert at the University of Edinburgh. “So in the end, you have thugs who make trouble at universities and attack people in streets.”
Some previous authoritarian regimes suppressed political manifestations of Salafism, notes the FT’s Khalaf:
But others, including Egypt, adopted a more complex approach, clamping down at times but also using the movement to counter more politically mature mainstream groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Under the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime in Cairo, Salafi television stations were licensed and some preachers became household names, appealing particularly to the poor. The Salafis also took up some of the same tactics as the Muslim Brotherhood, setting up charities that provide social services to impoverished areas.
“Before the revolution we were there, doing social work, our ideology spreading by the day, and we were not violent so our movement also reassured people,” says Mohamed Nour, a party representative of the Salafist Al-Nour party.
That party’s former chairman resigned this week to launch a new Al-Watan party in a move that some analysts believe reflects the rival Muslim Brotherhood’s success in its efforts to divide Egypt’s Salafists.
“The new party is part of a proliferation of religion-based political parties [and] …it could indicate divisions among Islamists as they compete for seats in the legislature and a role in Egypt’s evolving political struggle between more secular-minded political parties and Islamists,” observers suggest. “It also reflects the dispute within the Islamist groups who struggle to reconcile democratic maneuvering with religious ideology.”
While some Arab secular and liberal activists would like to see the Salafists suppressed, others contend repression would be counterproductive.
But Tunisia’s leading Islamist leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has argued that Salafis must not be demonised, even if their religious thinking is misguided.
“It’s not easy,” says Omar Ashour of the University of Exeter. “Any attempt to ban them or crack down on them will cause more harm in the long term because they will turn to violence, and you will see the sense of victimisation more ingrained. At the same time, any tolerance to attempted infringements on women’s rights and minority rights … will also be damaging in long term.”
His expectation is that the movement will damage itself as more open political systems take root in the region.
“Salafi [ideology] was growing because it was more or less never allowed to be under public scrutiny or in power institutions,” he says. “Once it gets there, with all its promises to relieve economic problems and guide society to heaven, I think it will start dwindling.”
That would perhaps create the space and opportunity for liberal and secular democrats to move away from their safe havens and comfort zones to conduct their own welfare-based outreach efforts to promote and entrench democratic ideas amongst region’s the impoverished, illiterate masses.