Religious Flowering — and Splintering — Comes to Cairo: Inside the Salafist Revival

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Andrea Bruce / The New York Times / Redux

Worshippers gather at a Salafi mosque in Alexandria, Egypt, on March 29, 2011

Friday noon prayer at the al-Tawhid mosque in Cairo used to be led by a state-appointed imam. And his sermons were downright boring, says Ibrahim Abdel Alim, a religious researcher who attends al-Tawhid. "He used to talk about government things." Few people bothered to show up.

But in the post–Hosni Mubarak season of religious and political expression, things have gotten a little more interesting. "Dear God, please take revenge against the Shi'ites and the Jews," calls the voice of Fawzy Said, the fundamentalist imam who took over after the revolution, to the hundreds of worshippers who now spill out of the mosque onto green rugs spread across the sidewalk and the pavement of a nearby gas station. "Please punish the invaders and send someone to them who can cut off their heads."

Gulp, say the liberals and secularists who helped lead the February revolution that toppled Mubarak's 30-year reign. Many now fear that at least some of their newfound freedoms may be backfiring. The Islamists want to take over Egypt and impose their will on the population, some warn.

Indeed, some of them are loud. An online fundamentalist campaign to boycott the mobile-phone empire of prominent Christian tycoon Naguib Sawiris picked up momentum this week, after Sawiris posted an inflammatory cartoon on Twitter that depicted Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed like fundamentalist Islamists. "Now, thank God, we can enjoy our freedom," says Abdel Alim. "Now there's an opportunity to compare right vs. wrong. There used to be just one opinion."

But if the revolution has had an uncomfortable lesson for Egypt's discordant and inexperienced liberals, it has the same catch for the Islamists: with free expression comes diversity, and not everyone is going to agree. The country's largest Islamist bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, has begun to fracture in recent weeks. A number of the group's most politically active youth, who joined in the winter protests in Tahrir Square, have broken off to form their own more inclusive party, the Egyptian Current Party. A popular, longtime member of the group's older leadership, Abdel Mineem Abu al-Fotouh, was expelled after violating the group's pledge that it wouldn't field a presidential candidate. (In the past month, al-Fotouh has forged ahead anyway with campaign events, a website, and populist rhetoric.) Even the Salafis — while able to mobilize hundreds for protests against people who they accuse of insulting their religion — have yet to convene around a single political ideology or party.

As if to illustrate just that, on a recent night in the conservative town of Beni Suef in Egypt's lush Nile Valley, two of the more rogue Salafi Islamists to gain publicity since the revolution and a Coptic priest did the unthinkable: they took to an outdoor stage before several hundred mostly bearded men, and held a conference about religious tolerance. "The crisis of any minority is also the crisis of the majority," lectured Salafi politician and ex-jihadist Kamal Habib. "We have to assure the Christians that even though there has been an Islamist blossoming since the revolution, their rights are not going to be stepped on."

Sectarian violence has been one of the ugliest outcomes of the Salafist revival — often sparked by conflicts over conversion or church building, but rooted in a simmering culture of discrimination. And even as Habib spoke, another group of Salafis held a protest outside a church in a village farther south. But the fact that some members of the sect are also interested in holding a dialogue is unprecedented. The conference organizers said it could never have happened before the revolution — in part because many of the Salafis were in jail, but also because of the Mubarak regime's unwillingness to address complex domestic problems. "This is the first initiative to bring the Christians and the jihadi current together," Ashraf Hassan al-Sisi, one of the event's coordinators, told TIME excitedly. "One of the things we have to understand about dialogue is we're not always going to agree," the Coptic priest, Youssef Anwar, told the crowd. Men of both religions shook hands. A banner depicted a Copt and a Salafi embracing. The whole scene could have aired on Oprah.

For political optimists like Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, a young columnist and an ex-member of the Muslim Brotherhood, this newly public debate over ideology comes as no big surprise. "The transition from identity to reform politics doesn't happen overnight," he says. But inevitably, the black-and-white dichotomies and simplistic identity politics of the Mubarak era will be forced, by natural selection, to transform into groups with real foundations. And when that happens, certain Islamists might find they have more in common with certain secularists, and vice versa. "Salafism is not a movement that has a coherent ideology. Salafism for me is a materialist world view."

Muslim Brotherhood members are already split on their preferences for the presidency: some favor al-Fotouh, the populist breakaway; others say they'll likely throw their lot in with interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Still others say they'll wait and see. "To the person who fears the Muslim Brotherhood, I want you to look at the old regime, how they made us fear Islamists — whether Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis," Islamist presidential candidate al-Fotouh told the crowd at a recent campaign rally. "But Islam is the highest thing we all have in common," he added. Even that link may prove to be tenuous.