The Salafi Awakening

The Salafi Awakening

Mini Teaser: In the wake of Egypt’s revolution and subsequent elections, Westerners have focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptian Salafis, more fundamentalist than the Brotherhood, bear watching as well.

by Author(s): Daniel BymanZack Gold

SINCE EGYPTIAN president Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside on February 11, 2011, many U.S. academics and policy makers have issued warnings, reassurances and speculations on the question of how relations with Egypt will be affected by the rise of its largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. True to expectations, the Brotherhood did well in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, with its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) collecting almost half of the seats in the new People’s Assembly. The biggest election surprise, however, was that its greatest rival was not one of Egypt’s many secular parties, all of which did poorly, but rather another set of Islamists—the Salafi Islamist bloc won almost a quarter of the seats.

This surprising Salafi showing stirred many Egyptian liberals and international human-rights activists to warn that the Salafis, if given any power, would curtail the rights of women and non-Muslim minorities, particularly Egypt’s large Coptic Christian population. For the United States, the potential consequences of the Salafi rise are also profound. In some circles, the label “Salafi” is understood to mean one particular stream of Salafism championed by Ayman al-Zawahiri (an Egyptian), Osama bin Laden’s successor as head of Al Qaeda. And indeed, some of the Salafis in politics once were jihadis. Even if the Salafis are not all closet jihadis, they are feared because of their unrelenting hostility toward Israel, harsh stance on women’s and minority rights, rejection of democratic principles and general anti-Americanism. The Brotherhood presents itself as a group of pragmatic, kinder and gentler Islamists. The Salafis do not.

Thus, a big question hovering over events in Egypt is how a strong Salafi influence there will affect U.S. interests in the region. Recognizing the concerns of the international community, the leadership of the largest Salafi party has gone out of its way to strike a pragmatic tone on foreign-policy priorities. However, it is hostile to U.S. military actions in the region and opposes U.S. counterterror measures and support of Israel. Tensions on issues such as minority rights also seem likely, as the primary Salafi focus is on domestic political and social issues. Perhaps most worrisome, many of the problems the United States has with the Salafis reflect mainstream Egyptian public opinion. Hence, far from being radical outliers, Egypt’s Salafis represent a kind of barometer on the thinking of significant elements of the country’s population, and any democratic leaders will take these feelings into account. As most U.S. interests in the region will not—and should not—change, the United States will only be able to offset some of this criticism, and often we simply must anticipate problems. Ideally, areas of disagreement should not be put at the center of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

THE SALAFI movement gets its name from the Arabic al-salaf al-salih (the worthy ancestors, or venerable forefathers), which refers to the early generations of Muslims, “who had first-hand experience of the rise of Islam and are regarded as exemplary for the correct way to live for future Muslims,” in the words of author Roel Meijer. Though they are not inherently antimodernity, Salafis strive to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and maintain a literalist reading of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. Historically, Salafis have focused more on personal behavior and less on politics.

There is no centralized international Salafi leadership, and Salafi practices may differ regionally, by country, within individual countries and even (or especially) among the followers of different Salafi preachers within a city. Particularly important to Salafis are charismatic religious leaders, and divisions often occur due to personal rivalries masquerading as doctrinal disputes.

The Sharia Assembly was created as a Salafi association in Egypt in 1912—sixteen years before the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Salafism really took off in the 1970s and 1980s with the return of Egyptian laborers from the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Saudi Arabia. The Saudi legal system is based on Wahhabi doctrine—perhaps the most well-known Salafi movement—and both the government and wealthy Saudi individuals export Wahhabism across the ummah (Islamic community) by funding preachers, building mosques and spreading Salafi religious materials.

Egyptian government policy also fostered the spread of Salafism. While Islamists faced many restrictions and brutal treatment at the hand of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government, his successor, Anwar Sadat, lifted the lid and portrayed himself as a pious leader in hopes of using the Islamists to counter the strong Nasserist current. However, his relations with Islamists soured because of his refusal to implement Islamic law, his close ties to Washington and his peace deal with Israel. Radical Salafis, some of whom were linked to a young jihadi leader named Ayman al-Zawahiri, assassinated Sadat in 1981. One assassin declared, “I have killed Pharaoh.”

The Sadat assassination led to ferocious repression of many Salafi groups. The level of repression rose and fell during the Mubarak years, but the regime kept a heavy hand on Salafi organizations if they showed any political inclination. As a result, many Salafis focused their activities on preaching and community service, trying to Islamicize society from the bottom up. The Mubarak regime encouraged this, hoping to use apolitical Salafis to counter the influence of the more political Muslim Brotherhood.

As Georgetown University’s Jonathan Brown argues, Egypt’s Salafi movement split three ways in its reactions to last year’s January 25 revolution. When the uprising began, most Salafi leaders backed Mubarak and condemned the demonstrators. However, as the demonstrations progressed and the government became more repressive, some Salafi leaders criticized the government’s actions against demonstrators. Meanwhile, another Salafi contingent remained silent.

The revolution offered the Salafis both a challenge and an opportunity. Salafi groups long have criticized democracy as an invention of man, whereas God’s law should rule. Fallible humans should not be allowed to sanction or encourage un-Islamic activity and justify it in the name of the people’s will. So Salafis in most of the Arab world had been politically quiescent—a decision that the lack of political opportunities and regime repression reinforced. After the revolution, however, many Salafis realized that by not participating in elections, they would miss an opportunity. Shortly after Mubarak’s fall, Salafi movements and the Muslim Brotherhood mobilized their followers to support a constitutional referendum to protect an Islamic space in society and stop secular activists from controlling the process. Other Salafi groups such as the Salafi Call saw the revolution as an opportunity to implement an Islamic society from the top down. Salafi organizations ran candidates in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, hoping Salafi members of parliament would be able to influence Egypt’s political system for years to come, either by protecting the current status of Islam in Egypt’s governance or strengthening Islamic rule by clarifying ambiguities and codifying sharia.

The Salafis did unexpectedly well in the elections. Their local organizations mobilized followers effectively, as did their charismatic leaders. They appealed to poorer Egyptians, in contrast to the more staid and middle-class Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They probably also appealed to many Egyptians who accepted the Brotherhood’s mantra that “Islam is the solution” but saw the Salafis, not the Brotherhood, as the standard-bearers for religion.

Because Salafi views on democracy are evolving and inconsistent, and because some still consider the movement undemocratic, it remains unclear where its participation in elections will lead. Salafi political parties may run candidates in this one election to protect the status of Islam in Egypt or to lay the foundation for an Islamic state. They may seek to legislate an end to democracy itself. Or they may become accustomed to democracy and continue to run in future elections as parties that will work for and uphold Islamic ideals. Whether they would surrender power, particularly to secularists or others they deem “un-Islamic,” is also an open question. Indeed, Salafi groups themselves are unclear on their future role.

THE SALAFI parties abandoned the Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, to form the Islamist bloc in November 2011, with the political party of the Salafi Call, Al Nour, as its main component. The Salafi Call is Egypt’s largest Salafi movement. Omar Ashour of the University of Exeter notes that Al Nour and the Salafi Call have a political jump on other Salafi parties and movements because of “their long organizational and administrative experience and their charismatic leaders.” The Asala Party, a far smaller Salafi party that joined the Islamist bloc, in contrast, has a support base limited to the Cairo area. These formal parties are supported in turn by the Salafi front, a coalition of different Salafi strands that claims it will do whatever is necessary to solidify the role of Islam in society.

The most troubling component of the Islamist bloc is the Building and Development Party, the political wing of Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya (GI). The GI was one of Egypt’s most notorious terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s, with its members responsible for attacks on Egyptian government officials and Coptic Christians as well as the 1997 tourist massacre in the Egyptian city of Luxor. Although the GI formally renounced violence in 2003 (and began its recantation well before then), the group remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Indeed, the founder of the Building and Development Party is Tareq al-Zomor, who was released from prison in March 2011 after serving around thirty years for planning Sadat’s assassination. Nevertheless, the party insists it has “accepted the principles of political pluralism and has renounced violence.” The GI’s terrorist past did not preempt its party’s approval.

In addition to the GI, the Salafi movement has come to be associated with Al Qaeda and violent jihad. Though the Salafi Call is part of the “quietist” Salafi trend, Salafism also has an activist current: groups that go beyond preaching to call for the overthrow of non-Muslim—or, in Salafi eyes, not properly Muslim—governments and encourage or carry out actions to such ends.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Mubarak regime fought (and won) a brutal war with domestic terrorist actors such as the GI and the Egyptian remnants of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad Organization. Violent, or sometimes simply politically active, Salafis were imprisoned under brutal conditions. Many Egyptian jihadis fled the country, some of whom—like al-Zawahiri and his followers—joined forces with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In prison, many other Salafis—particularly those associated with the GI but also some connected to al-Zawahiri’s organization, including the group’s top ideologue Sayyed Imam al-Sharif, known as Dr. Fadl—recanted. They published several books criticizing their own use of violence and Al Qaeda. Though al-Zawahiri blasted those who repudiated violence, claiming they did so under torture, their criticism dealt a huge blow to Al Qaeda’s narrative.

After the revolution, some violent Salafis who escaped prison took shelter in the deserted Sinai, where Egyptian security forces were less active and where they could seek protection from the tribal bedouins. On February 7, 2011, well-armed fighters attacked security and government institutions in Rafah, on the border with Gaza. A week earlier, the pipeline in El Arish, which exports Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan, was bombed for the first of what would be ten times in 2011. Another Sinai police station was assaulted on July 30, 2011, when a hundred armed men streamed through El Arish waving black Islamic banners and calling themselves Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.

Sinai-based radicals are also active against Israel. A deadly cross-border raid on Israel on August 18, 2011, which was initially blamed on Palestinians, increasingly appears to have been planned and executed at least in part by Egyptians. That December, a new Egyptian jihadigroup announced its founding and claimed credit for the attack. Calling itself Ansar al-Jihad (Supporters of Holy War) in the Sinai Peninsula, the group swore fealty to bin Laden and decried the treatment and suspicion of Salafi Muslims under the Mubarak regime.

LIBERAL EGYPTIANS fear the Brotherhood and the Salafis, which together control over 70 percent of the People’s Assembly, might team up to dominate both legislating and writing the constitution, ignoring the interests and concerns of secular parties, women, Christians and other minorities. Although both the Salafis and the Brotherhood want Egypt to be an Islamic state, they have differing visions for achieving this goal.

The Salafis tend to be far more anti-institutional than the Brotherhood. In power, Salafis likely will emphasize more bottom-up solutions that focus on society. Another issue concerns the pace of Islamicization. One FJP spokesman claimed that his party “sees the state as a civil state with an Islamic background. All rights to all citizens would be preserved, guarded by the law and the constitution, not by religious beliefs of citizens.” Al Nour, he argued, would rush to implement Islamic law before society is prepared for it. So far, this has led to disagreements and even limited clashes over the future of Egypt. Reportedly, Brotherhood youths had to be chastised for their harsh dealings with Al Nour.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims that it will work with secular parties, its monopolistic behavior has driven the Salafis to cooperate with modern liberal Islamists at times—demonstrating that it isn’t only in America that politics makes strange bedfellows. However, as the largest and most politically vibrant alternative to the Brotherhood, the Salafis will project their influence at least indirectly in all parliamentary action. In addition, they have the potential to capture many current Brotherhood supporters by using the same arguments for Islamicizing Egypt that the Brotherhood itself has long used. A revealing, if somewhat humorous, event interrupted one of the first sessions of the new parliament. Asala Party MP Mamdouh Ismail stood in the back of the chamber and chanted the Muslim call to prayer at the top of his voice. This led to a shouting match with the Speaker and FJP parliamentarian Saad el-Katatni, who reminded Ismail that he was no more a Muslim than anyone else.

For now, the Brotherhood has shown itself to be pragmatic, and it might work more with liberals to reassure international audiences. But it could also try to move in both directions simultaneously, offering liberals concessions in some areas while reasserting religious credentials to rally its conservative base in others, as happened when the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate promised Salafi clerics a role in ensuring laws comply with Islamic law, for example. At the same time, wary of the Brotherhood’s monopolization of power, Al Nour and Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya backed rival Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in May’s presidential election, though both quickly threw their support behind the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi when their candidate did not make the runoff.

WHAT THE Salafis want from the United States remains unknown. The broader Salafi current (like most Egyptians) has long been critical of Washington and its policies in the region, with many seeing the United States as a power bent on subjugating Muslims. Shortly after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a popular Salafi preacher on Egyptian television, Hassan Abu al-Ashbal, called on the president-elect to convert to Islam “and to withdraw your huge armies and military bases from the lands of the Muslims.”

Yet the Salafis may be tempered by the realities of power. Since there is no Salafi hierarchy, outlandish clerics are able to tarnish the image of all Salafis, but Al Nour spokesman Mohamed Nour suggests the Salafi movement is evolving: “As we interact with the community, . . . our views on many issues are becoming more inclusive.” And indeed, Al Nour initially spoke up for the American democracy-promotion organizations that the Egyptian government pursued, though party leaders said they were misquoted when it became clear that public opinion was on the other side.

Perhaps more importantly, it is possible that despite the genuine hostility the United States will sink below other Salafi priorities. On the topic of U.S. security cooperation, an issue one would assume would raise the ire of Salafis, Al Nour chairman Emad El-din Abdel Ghafour instead waffled, claiming “it is necessary for the various political forces to consider this and make a decision consistent with the popular will in this matter.” This was not exactly an endorsement but neither was it the vehement rejection that might have been expected. Historically, Salafi figures have focused first and foremost on individual behavior rather than on bigger strategic and political issues. For now, their thinking on these broader issues lacks coherence.

The Salafi position on the United States is particularly important because Washington has long valued Egypt as one of its most significant partners against Al Qaeda and its allies. Because Egyptian jihadis helped found and played an important role in Al Qaeda in the 1990s, Washington and Cairo were natural allies. The United States rendered suspected terrorists to Egypt, and the two countries shared intelligence on the threat. The likelihood of a conviction—and thus the ability to easily get suspected terrorists off the streets—made Egypt a valued partner. As Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, avers, “It served American purposes to get these people arrested, and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated.”

Mubarak’s fall and the subsequent rise of the Salafis could challenge this partnership. Some of the Salafis represented by the Islamist bloc, including members of the GI, were imprisoned under Mubarak in part due to U.S. efforts. While many have no love for bin Laden, it is a big jump to favor cooperating with the same U.S. agencies that helped imprison their members before the revolution.

In addition, in the Salafi community the U.S. “war on terror” is associated with killing Muslim civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, prison abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and other unpopular measures. The Salafi movement embraces the causes of Muslims worldwide and would be reluctant to help in their perceived oppression—or be seen as doing so. Indeed, Abboud al-Zomor (released from prison with his cousin Tareq) told the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, “I have no problem with al-Zawahiri returning to his country in safety and with honor.”

Even beyond the risk of jeopardizing direct cooperation, U.S. counterterrorism efforts could suffer as many experienced jihadis are now on the streets or hiding out in the Sinai. An even bigger problem relates to the promotion of violent extremism. Peddlers of propaganda critical of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and of Israeli actions will find the new Egypt a far freer environment in which to operate, even if their materials are blatantly false and encourage violence. The strains of Salafism stressing that non-Muslims (or even non-Sunnis or non-Salafis) are unbelievers and that jihad is a pillar of faith are likely to find it far easier to preach and disseminate religious materials. Some vitriolic rhetoric is inevitable, but a strong Salafi role in Egypt could worsen the tone and increase the frequency. None of these activities in isolation leads to terrorism, but together they create an atmosphere where attacking the United States, Israel and Western countries is considered legitimate and the people who do so are seen as heroic.

The most obvious challenge comes from the presence of Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya within the Islamist bloc. The GI is on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and, at the same time, part of the new Egyptian parliament. While a case can be made that the main, Egyptian-based branch of the GI has renounced terrorism, its presence on the list poses a problem for U.S. efforts to cooperate with Egypt. If the GI is part of the Islamist bloc, and if the Islamist bloc is formally or informally part of the government, then is Egypt a terrorist state?

Putting aside anti–United States terrorism, Egypt continues to have a Salafi terrorism problem of its own. In the mid-2000s, a Salafi group calling itself Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) emerged in the Sinai. The group targeted Egypt’s relationship with Israel by bombing the town of Taba in 2004, where Israeli vacationers cross into the Sinai; it targeted Egypt’s tourism sector with both the bombing in Taba and bombings in the Sinai resort towns of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab in 2005 and 2006, respectively; and it targeted Egyptian secular nationalism, as the bombings coincided with the Egyptian public holidays of the October War anniversary in 2004, Revolution Day in 2005 and celebration of the ancient Egyptian Spring Festival in 2006. In theory, these groups might be less hostile to the government with Salafis in power. In practice, the opposite might be true. The Islamist bloc, some jihadis contend, has sullied itself by entering politics. Moreover, many of the attacks from the Sinai are on Western targets as well as the Egyptian state, and the Sinai terrorists might hope the Salafi government would be supportive, or at least not hostile.

The Salafi front has demanded the dismantling of Egypt’s national-security agency and may also encourage a purge of the Egyptian military. This is understandable—these institutions brutalized the Islamists for decades, and they are undemocratic to the core. Should they do so, however, they will also gut Egypt’s counterterrorism capacity. Jihadis in the Sinai might take advantage of any potential security vacuum to strike at Israel.

ISRAEL ALSO worries about Salafi influence in Egypt, and for the Jewish state the concerns are more immediate given the two nations’ shared border and history of conflict. Looking at Salafi rhetoric, at least, Israel has reason to worry. Individual Salafi preachers are often vitriolic in their condemnations, and an Al Nour statement declared, “The party strongly objects [to] normalization and dialogue attempts and establishing relations with an entity which wants to wipe off our identity, occupies our lands, imposes a siege on our brothers and strongly supports our hangers.”

The good news is that concerns of the Salafis pushing Egypt to abrogate the 1979 peace treaty with Israel seem exaggerated, at least for now. Indeed, so far, the Salafis—like the Muslim Brotherhood—appear to seek to calm international audiences, even to the point of reassuring Israel. In an interview with Israeli Army Radio, no less, an Al Nour Party spokesman promised that the party would respect the peace treaty with Israel and existing agreements.

But focusing on the peace treaty misses much of the role that Egypt played under Mubarak with regard to Israel’s security. During those years, Egypt policed its border, and if Israel suspected a terrorist plot, Israeli intelligence and Egyptian intelligence would work together to fight it. Egypt’s intelligence and military may still control counterterrorism policy after elections, but even if they do, they will be more politically sensitive than in the past. Directly aiding anti-Israel terrorists at present is not high on the Salafi agenda, but Salafis could push the regime to turn a blind eye to anti-Israel violence emanating from the Sinai. They may not openly cooperate with terrorists, but they would not want to collaborate with Israel either. Depending on the course of events in the region and the stances of other parties, they may also find supporting anti-Israel forces a way to undermine their rivals within Egypt.

Terrorists based in Gaza have found it difficult to attack Israel due to the security barrier along Gaza’s border with Israel. If they could easily go from Gaza into the Sinai, they would have a far easier avenue of attack. Israel also has relied on Egypt to limit the goods entering Gaza as part of the economic pressure it puts on Hamas. It is one thing to ignore Israel but another to cooperate with Israel against Hamas. While Hamas is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis in Gaza are often critical of Hamas, it would be difficult for Salafis to completely ignore Hamas’s needs should a crisis occur. In the end, they view the Palestinians as the good guys.

Beyond counterterrorism, Mubarak was a valued partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is moribund now, but should it start again the United States would want Arab states to provide political backing for concessions on the part of the Palestinians. Mubarak repeatedly stood by secular Palestinian leaders as they negotiated with Israel and tried to broker deals involving Israel and Hamas. The Salafis, on the other hand, probably would criticize any concessions to Israel.

In August 2011, eight Israelis died at the hands of terrorists coming from the Sinai. The Israeli military, in hot pursuit, entered the Sinai and accidentally killed six members of the Egyptian security forces along with several terrorists. The killing of Egyptian security forces enraged Egyptians and led protesters to storm the Israeli embassy. Israeli leaders and the Egyptian military were able to calm tensions, but for several days the United States feared the situation would permanently damage relations between the two countries.

Replay this cross-border attack in, say, 2014, and imagine a Brotherhood government with strong Salafi influence. How would the Brotherhood respond if Israeli forces shot Egyptians in hot pursuit? It is easy to imagine the situation quickly escalating, with the Salafi movement using any attempt by the Brotherhood to calm passions as proof that it would sell out its fellow Muslims.

CONTAINING IRAN is perhaps President Obama’s top regional agenda item. Fears of an Islamist arc that would go from Tehran through Baghdad and reach Cairo (or even Tripoli and Tunis) are greatly overblown. But the GI’s Building and Development Party, for one, includes in its platform the formation of an “Islamic axis” with Iran and Turkey as a first step in reviving the caliphate. Salafis would hesitate to endorse, or be seen as endorsing, a U.S.-led campaign against Iran given the unpopularity of the United States. This would be particularly true for any military action in the region.

Yet the majority of Salafis have little sympathy for Iran’s Islamic Republic. Many see Shia Muslims as apostates and thus, in a way, even worse than Christians or Jews. When Ismail Haniya, head of Gaza’s Hamas-run government, visited Egypt in February 2012, he was lambasted in a statement by the Salafi Call: “We refuse that Haniya leads the prayer in Egypt’s largest Sunni mosque after he shook hands with the Shiites,” referring to a recent visit to Iran. Also, Salafis, like most Egyptians, have a strong sense of national pride and want their country, not Iran, to play a leading role in the Arab world.

THE UNITED States, on paper at least, champions not just democracy in Egypt but liberal democracy—meaning not only elections but also the full panoply of minority rights, political protections and other assurances that an elected majority is not abusive.

Salafis will push to make a conservative interpretation of Islamic law the only law of the land, and during the process to draft a new constitution, they were not afraid to say so. Building and Development Party MP Hani Nour Eddin said his party “won’t give up the application of the Sharia.” At a conference last fall hosted by the Asala Party, Sheikh Shehab al-Din Ahmed rejected Egypt’s long-held civilian law, saying, “The application of the French law in Egypt spread evils and corrupted the country morally, politically and economically, so there’s no other substitute for applying the Sharia.” This absolutism may apply elsewhere. Egyptians saw how Al Nour always put its own female candidates (legally required on every electoral list) in the bottom position and did not show their images in campaign materials. Before he was barred as a presidential candidate, Salafi preacher Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail campaigned on forcing all Muslim women to wear the veil.

Salafis also reject the notion of non-Muslims being of equal status in Egyptian politics and society—including Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who represent roughly 10 percent of the population. When the parliament held a moment of silence to commemorate the death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III, several Salafi MPs left the room and others refused to stand.

For many Salafis, democracy is only tolerable as long as it can help build an Islamic state, so domestic policies are sure to be at the top of the Islamist bloc’s agenda. Indeed, like politicians everywhere, the Salafis may be willing to make compromises on some foreign-policy issues—the main focus of U.S. concerns—to concentrate on what matters most to their constituents.

THE OBAMA administration has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood, talking to its leaders and otherwise recognizing that it will be a power, perhaps the power, in a democratic Egypt. Handling the Salafis, however, will be trickier as they are less organized and more radical.

Nevertheless, the United States is right to engage the Salafi political parties. As the Obama administration noted on the Muslim Brotherhood, engagement means dialogue, not agreement. Engaging with Al Nour, as with other Egyptian political parties, will allow the United States to express its red lines as well as learn the group’s intentions. Engagement now is particularly important, as the political agendas and priorities of the Salafi groups are still in flux. U.S. influence will be limited at best, but Washington is far more likely to have influence now than in the years to come. In this engagement, the United States should voice the same objectives and demands it uses when talking to the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since it pushed Mubarak aside over a year ago. Continued U.S. aid depends on Egypt remaining a U.S. ally on counterterrorism, not breaking the peace treaty with Israel and other important strategic issues.

A particularly nettlesome concern will be how to handle Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya and its Building and Development Party. The GI is a small minority party within the Salafi current, so by itself it can be ignored. However, encouraging ostracism of the GI or demanding that it be outlawed could easily backfire, making the group a magnet for anti-American sentiment and forcing other Salafis to come to its defense against the despised United States, all of which would increase its popularity and influence. Indeed, Washington’s goal is to convince groups like the GI to further distance themselves from terrorism. If it engages in peaceful politics, the GI will become a living refutation of Al Qaeda: a Salafi party using the political system, not violence, to advance its agenda. Conversely, banning the GI, if it remains peaceful, would reinforce a narrative that violence is the only path to power. The United States should make the GI’s designation status based on whether or not it supports terrorism and violent extremism. If it does support violence, then the Egyptian government should be pushed to outlaw it, but if it doesn’t, delisting it would send a powerful message.

When in doubt, the United States should move quietly and avoid having its own policies become the news story. The Salafi parties so far have focused primarily on domestic issues. This will not necessarily continue, however, because many members and supporters are hostile to Israel and the United States. Keeping any cooperation out of the headlines is vital to avoid giving demagogues a target for their rhetoric.

Setting priorities is essential. The United States wants many things from Egypt, but it cannot have them all. For groups like the Salafis, which do not control the government, realism is in order. Military access to the region via Egypt, counterterrorism cooperation and a constructive Egyptian relationship with Israel are particularly important. Conversely, Egypt’s role in containing Iran is limited, and the Salafis are more likely to oppose Iran if the United States does not make Iran into the cause for anti-Americanism in the region.

Human rights will be a delicate issue. The role of religion in society, and what this means for Egypt’s minorities and women, will be the biggest and most important area of disagreement. Given the political sensitivity of these issues, the United States has little influence. Thus, while Washington should make its views known, taking a strong and combative stance would further undermine Egypt’s already weak liberals.

The problem the Salafis pose for U.S. policy reflects a broader challenge for the United States in Egypt—and in the new Arab world in general. The Salafis represent an important strand of public opinion in Egypt and elsewhere, and public opinion in general is anti-American and often opposes U.S. positions on Israel, women’s and minority rights, and the use of force in the region. Thus, even if the United States wins over a particular Salafi leader, the political impetus for various anti-American policies will remain strong.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Zack Gold is a senior research assistant at the Saban Center.

Image: Jonathan Rashad

Image: Pullquote: As the largest and most politically vibrant alternative to the Brotherhood, the Salafis will project their influence at least indirectly in all parliamentary action.Essay Types: Essay