Anti-Christian violence sparks fears of rising Salafi influence

Salafism, a fundamentalist version of Islam, is not new to Egypt. But since the fall of the staunchly secular president Hosni Mubarak, Salafists are more visible and, some Egyptians say, more disruptive than ever before.


The deadly attacks on two Cairo churches over the weekend have highlighted fears that sectarian violence could flare up rather than die down in post-revolution Egypt.

Tensions – sometimes deadly – between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian communities are not a new phenomenon in the world’s largest Arab nation. But Saturday’s clashes between the two communities following the burning of two churches in Cairo’s Imbaba neighbourhood, have raised fears of the growing role of fundamentalist Salafi Muslims in Egypt.

An ultraconservative strain of Islam, Salafism is a salafist theology whose followers believe in emulating the first three generations of Muslims, theoretically rejecting any innovations.

While Salafism does not explicitly advocate violence, experts believe their extreme interpretation of Islam creates an environment where adherents are susceptible to radical ideology, making it “a bridge to extremism”.

A fringe group in Egypt, the Salafis - unlike the Muslim Brotherhood – do not have an organized structure.

From Qena to Cairo, Salafis grab the spotlight

Following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak - whose secular regime kept a repressive lid on Islamists of all stripes - Salafis have gained visibility in recent months.

On Saturday, they were at the helm of an angry crowd that surrounded Imbaba’s St. Mina church, claiming that a woman forcibly converted to Christianity was being held there.

The Imbaba clashes, which killed at least 11 people, came a day after a group of Salafis gathered in Cairo to protest the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The Salafis – along with the Muslim Brotherhood – are also believed to be responsible for last month’s protests in the southern city of Qena that led to the suspension of a newly appointed Coptic Christian governor.

The protests in Qena were initially sparked by the new governor’s close association to Mubarak, but they gradually developed into strident demonstrations demanding the appointment of a Muslim governor.

According to Egyptian press reports, some of the slogans at the Qena protests chanted, “There is no God but God; the Nazarene [the Christian] is the enemy of God,” and “Salafis and Brotherhood are one hand against the Nazarene governor.”

Under the Mubarak regime, relations between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood were tense, with Salafis routinely criticising the Brotherhood for taking part in the political game under the secular regime, which according to them contradicted Islamic principles.

A WikiLeaks cable published by the British Daily  Telegraph newspaper cites a 2009 US Embassy in Cairo cable as saying, “MB [Muslim Brotherhood] leaders and prominent Salafis routinely denounce each other in the press for being agents of the security services.”

But the events in Qena showed that while the two groups do not share a common platform, they are capable of working together on specific common goals.

In the end Egypt’s caretaker government resolved the Qena dispute by announcing the governor’s suspension for three months.

An ‘iron fist’ against troublemakers

The interim administration’s response to Saturday’s deadly Christian-Muslim clashes following the Imbaba attacks was immediate. More than 200 people were arrested in the wake of the violence while Egyptian Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi warned that anyone who threatened the country's security would face "an iron fist".

While the caretaker government’s response to the violence was reminiscent of the old regime’s way of treating communal problems as a security issue, Egypt’s new rulers have attempted to address their underlying causes.

On Wednesday, the government said it was formulating a new law that would ease restrictions on building churches while banning protests in front of places of worship.

Under a law dating back to Ottoman times, Egypt’s Christians are required to seek the ruler's permission before building churches. They also have to obtain permission to renovate or repair them.

Are the Saudi funding the Salafists?

Many Egyptians have voiced discontent over the way police handled the Imbaba clashes. The Egyptian police force, which was discredited during the popular uprisings earlier this year, remains demoralized and not yet fully operational.

Some Egyptians say the security services deliberately failed to immediately intervene in Saturday’s clashes because they are unwilling to confront the Salafis. Others believe there is a sinister plot by elements of the old regime intent on stirring up trouble to discredit the revolution.

Murkier still is the suspicion that Saudi Arabia is funding the Salafis in Egypt. Emad Gad, a researcher at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, believes Saudi authorities are backing the Salafis in Egypt.

“The primary source of funding of the Salafis is Saudi Arabia, one can assume they are supported by the kingdom, which fears the establishment of a democratic regime in Cairo that would inspire other people, including their own citizens," Gad to FRANCE 24.

While the allegation is impossible to prove, many Egyptians believe it.

On Wednesday, demonstrators gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Cairo, protesting against Saudi funding of Salafi groups.

Mubarak’s regime did however undertake belated efforts to confront the rising Salafist ideology. As the country prepares for a parliamentary election in September – the first since Mubarak’s ouster - many Egyptians are concerned that the current political and security vacuum would see the Salafis widen their scope of activities.

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