Skip to main content

Egypt: The New Founders

Chapters on this page:


Egypt: The Founders

By Samer Shehata

The single most powerful and prolific Islamist movement was born in Egypt, the intellectual center of the Arab world. Formed in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was started as a social and religious club by a twenty-two-year-old schoolteacher, who recruited six members of the Suez Canal Company. It has since become the ideological grandfather of more than eighty-five other Islamist groups in dozens of countries well beyond the Arab world. Members or supporters of its many branches now number in the tens of millions.

More than any other group, the Muslim Brotherhood reflects the way Islamist politics have transformed Arab politics in the early twenty-first century. In the 2011–12 elections, the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, won 43 percent of the seats in parliament in the freest vote in Egypt’s 5,000-year history. All together, Islamist parties won about 70 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

But the Brotherhood has also evolved significantly over the eight decades between its birth and its rise to power. The Brotherhood first tried to run for office in the 1940s but was repeatedly outlawed. It went through a militant phase in the 1950s and 1960s, when some of its members attempted to assassinate political leaders, including President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The regime undertook a massive crackdown against the organization, and thousands of its members were imprisoned and tortured. During this period, the Brotherhood’s chief ideologue justified violent jihad. Even after the Brotherhood renounced extremism in the late 1960s, its platform continued to be intolerant of Christians and women’s rights. It called for laws to comply with Sharia, or Islamic law. And it rejected Egypt’s peace accord with Israel. Under the cover of other parties, it began running candidates for office again in the mid-1980s. In 2005, it won eighty-eight seats in parliament.

The Brotherhood faced regular repression under three successive presidents—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, who tolerated some of the movement’s social welfare services but methodically curtailed political activities. Members and leaders of the Brotherhood were frequently detained and imprisoned, even after it became the largest opposition group in parliament in 2005.

The Egyptian uprising in 2011 caught the Islamists by surprise. But they quickly capitalized on it, mobilizing members and security for Tahrir Square. After Mubarak was forced to step down, the Brotherhood formed a new political party to run for office. After decades of repression, the Brotherhood went from being an embattled opposition to the most powerful bloc—holding 216 of 498 seats in a parliament charged with writing Egypt’s new constitution.

The Brotherhood’s political fortunes improved in 2012 when Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, became the country’s first democratically elected president. But Morsi’s tenure and the Brotherhood’s newfound power were short-lived. Following massive street protests, Morsi was ousted by a military coup in July 2013, after only one year in office. Brotherhood supporters and others opposed to the coup staged massive sit-ins, which were violently dispersed by security forces. More than 800 people were killed in what Human Rights Watch described as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”

Over the next two years, the Brotherhood faced the greatest repression in its 87-year history. Morsi was arrested along with thousands of other Brotherhood leaders and supporters. The organization was outlawed. Its funds and properties were confiscated. In May 2014, Abdel Fatah el Sisi, the popular military general who forced Morsi from power, won the presidency in elections that were criticized by both domestic and international observers.

Political divisions and violence increased after Morsi’s ouster. An Islamist insurgency in Sinai targeted security personnel, military outposts, and government infrastructure. More than 100 members of the security forces and scores of innocent civilians were killed. And in the year following Morsi’s removal, anti-coup demonstrations frequently took place on university campuses and other locations across the country.

By 2015, Egypt was deeply polarized. Many Egyptians supported Morsi’s removal, but others considered his ouster a military coup. The Brotherhood insisted that Morsi was Egypt’s legitimate president and refused to recognize the legality of the new political order. Scattered protests against the new regime continued. Violence spread from Sinai to Cairo and other cities, while political freedoms were severely constricted. Thousands of Muslim Brothers, along with members of secular and youth groups, were imprisoned. The future of the Muslim Brotherhood became more uncertain than at any time in the movement’s 87-year history.

The Beginning

Hassan al Banna founded the Society of Muslim Brothers in the provincial town of Ismailiyya during a tumultuous political period. The son of a cleric, Banna came of age as Egyptians pressed for an end to British occupation and Western cultural and economic encroachment, including Christian missionary activity. Banna believed that Egypt—and the Muslim world in general—were weak and blighted by corruption, social inequality, and foreign exploitation.

Ismailiyya was a microcosm of the challenge. Home to the Suez Canal Company and British military garrisons, the town was filled with luxurious homes for foreigners juxtaposed with poor living conditions for Egyptian workers. Western influence permeated education, language, law, social habits, and values.

Like other Islamic modernists, Banna believed that Muslim societies were weak because they had fallen out of touch with their faith. He held that the key to achieving national independence, progress, and development was an Islamic renewal that restored religion in everyday life and politics, including application of Sharia, or Islamic law.

The Brotherhood began in 1928 as a social welfare society devoted to Islamic revival and social reform. The society built mosques, schools for both boys and girls, youth centers, and Koranic schools. It undertook literacy campaigns. It engaged in many forms of charitable work. It also created small economic enterprises and artisan workshops.

Egypt’s first mass social and political movement experienced rapid growth. The Brotherhood had 50 branches nationwide by 1934, expanding to 300 branches with some 50,000 members by 1938. When Banna was assassinated in 1949, the Brotherhood had approximately 2,000 branches with an estimated 500,000 members, making it the largest organized force in the country. It also soon became the mother of all mass Sunni Islamist organizations in the Arab world.

The Brotherhood initially recruited members primarily from the lower-middle class and working class, including employees of the Suez Canal Company. Members also were artisans, laborers, merchants, and civil servants. A charismatic speaker and efficient organizer, Banna preached in villages across the country. The movement’s nonelitist character was an important source of its strength. The educated and professional middle classes eventually constituted the backbone of the movement and its leadership.

In the 1930s, the Brotherhood became increasingly involved in politics, taking strong positions on both domestic and regional affairs. It called for immediate evacuation of British forces from Egypt and raised awareness and funds for the 1936 general strike in Palestine. To support its causes, the movement published pamphlets, newsletters, and eventually a weekly newspaper that took up social, cultural, and religious issues. It held regular public meetings, rallies, and national conferences. Banna was a frequent speaker across the country.

The Brotherhood’s rapid growth and activities led to Banna’s first brief detention in 1941. In 1945, he was one of a handful of Brotherhood candidates who ran for parliament. They all lost in what was widely seen as a flawed poll.

Like other political parties, such as the Wafd, Nationalist, and Young Egypt parties, the Brotherhood established a small clandestine militia in the early 1940s. This era was a period of nationalist agitation, political instability, and occasional violence, including bombings and assassinations. A member of the Nationalist Party assassinated Prime Minister Ahmed Maher Pasha in 1945.

The Brotherhood’s militia, known as the “special apparatus,” was trained in the use of small arms. It was ostensibly charged with armed resistance against British occupying forces, but it was also involved in several domestic operations. Two members of the group assassinated a prominent judge in 1947 after he sentenced a Muslim Brother to prison for attacks against British soldiers. There are conflicting accounts of how much control Banna had over the militia and whether some actions were taken without his knowledge or orders.

The Brotherhood also supported the war effort in Palestine in 1948 by sending arms and volunteers to the front. In November 1948, the government discovered an arms cache at the home of a Brotherhood leader responsible for aiding the Palestine war effort. Other arrests led to the government’s discovery of the movement’s militia.

The Egyptian government moved quickly to dissolve the Brotherhood, confiscating its assets and arresting many members, although not Banna. In retaliation, a young Muslim Brother assassinated Prime Minister Al Nuqrashi Pasha on December 28, 1948. Banna denounced the assassination, but less than two months later Banna was assassinated by members of the Egyptian political police.

The Nasser Era

On July 23, 1952, a group of junior military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a coup to depose King Farouk. The Free Officers Movement promised national independence, social justice, development, and democracy. The Free Officers had previous contact with members of the Brotherhood, including Banna. Some Free Officers, notably a young officer named Anwar Sadat, were sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s ideas.

The Brotherhood initially welcomed the revolution, but the honeymoon was brief. The military junta had no interest in partners and did not return to the barracks, as promised. To consolidate its own power, the military began to eliminate rivals, dissolve political parties, and put former senior regime officials on trial. The military also outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested many of its leaders. The military and the Brotherhood then moved into open conflict.

In October 1954, a Brotherhood member attempted to assassinate Nasser during a visit to Alexandria. Over the next decade, thousands of Muslim Brothers were arrested; others went into exile. The crackdown continued until after Nasser’s death in 1970.

The 1960s were a particularly dark period for the movement. The Brotherhood was radicalized by Sayyid Qutb, a writer intensely critical of Western civilization, of Egypt under Nasser, and of authoritarian governments in Muslim countries. Qutb was arrested following the 1954 assassination attempt against Nasser and spent a decade in prison.

Qutb’s ideas later influenced extremist movements—from Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group (al Gamaa al Islamiyya) to al Qaeda—that justified violence for political ends. He was released from prison in 1964 but was soon rearrested for allegedly plotting an assassination attempt against Nasser. Qutb was tried and executed in 1966.

After intense internal debates, the Brotherhood moved away from Qutb’s ideas, renounced violence, and gave priority to religious propagation rather than to political power. The turning point was marked by the 1969 publication of Preachers, Not Judges by Hassan al Hodeiby, the general guide of the movement. Hodeiby rejected takfir, the idea of declaring Muslims infidels, and rejected violence as a method of political change.

The Sadat Era

The Brotherhood’s status shifted under Anwar Sadat, a former army officer who succeeded Nasser in 1970. Sadat released many of the movement’s leaders from prison and used the Brotherhood to counterbalance his Nasserist rivals. Although the movement was still legally outlawed, it was permitted to operate on university campuses. Islamists swept student elections between 1975 and 1979, until the government dissolved the student unions. The group was also allowed to propagate its message (dawa, or the call) and to reestablish many of its social welfare activities. Religious publications proliferated, and two newspapers associated with the movement began circulation in 1976.

Sadat was also less hostile, if not sympathetic, to some of the movement’s ideas. He called himself the “believer president” and employed Islamic rhetoric and symbols to bolster his legitimacy. He also introduced Sharia, or Islamic law, into the Egyptian constitution. Article 2 of the 1971 constitution declared that “the principles of the Sharia are a principal source of legislation.”(Previous constitutions had only stipulated that Islam was the state religion.) In 1980, Sadat amended the article to stipulate that Sharia was “the principal source of legislation.”

The 1970s generally witnessed increasing religiosity and conservatism across the Arab world. The 1973 Middle East war was a particularly important turning point. The war, an invasion designed by Sadat to take Israel by surprise, was fought using Islamic symbolism, not Arab nationalism. The Arabs lost militarily, but the war shook Israel, altered the status quo, and encouraged both countries to move toward peace negotiations.

But Sadat personally became increasingly unpopular in the late 1970s. His peace treaty with Israel, including his trip to Jerusalem, was contentious at home and isolated Egypt in the Arab world. Economic conditions deteriorated, resulting in the 1977 bread riots. Sadat’s rule gradually became more authoritarian. Radical Islamist movements—such as Takfir wa Hijra, which rejected the Brotherhood’s call for reform and instead promoted isolation and radical change through violence—emerged during this period. After Sadat’s crackdown on political opponents, members of Islamic Jihad assassinated the Egyptian leader on October 6, 1981, during a parade to commemorate the 1973 war.

The Mubarak Era

During Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, the Brotherhood began to participate in formal politics, including elections for parliament, professional syndicates or unions, student councils, and even faculty associations. The Brotherhood so successfully gained control of unions for doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and lawyers that the regime changed the election rules to block the Brothers from dominating those groups.

But the Brotherhood’s most strategic decision in the 1980s was to run for parliament even though it was still outlawed. It fielded candidates under cover of other opposition forces. For the 1984 election, the Brotherhood forged a coalition with the Wafd Party. The alliance took slightly more than 15 percent of the vote, or eight seats for the Brotherhood and forty-eight for the Wafd in a 448-person legislature. In the 1987 elections, the Brotherhood allied with the Labor and Ahrar parties. The alliance took 17 percent of the vote for fifty-six seats, thirty-six of which went to the Brothers.

Participating in the democratic process had a profound influence on the movement. It gained practical experience with campaigns, voter mobilization, media outreach, and parliamentary affairs—the processes of democracy. But the experience also deepened the movement’s interest in pluralism and forced it to articulate clearer positions and specific solutions to critical issues. Both required compromises.

The Brotherhood was not Egypt’s only Islamist movement, however. During the 1990s, radical Islamist cells increased their violent attacks against the Mubarak regime as well as the Coptic Christian minority and foreign tourists, particularly in Upper Egypt. The deadliest terrorist attack was carried out in Luxor, where more than sixty people—mostly foreign tourists—were killed in 1997. Although it had renounced violence, the Brotherhood often paid a price too. After the 1995 assassination attempt against Mubarak in Ethiopia, the regime cracked down on all Islamist groups. Hundreds of the Brotherhood’s members were imprisoned; some were tried in military courts and received long prison terms.

The Brotherhood persevered politically, however. It won seventeen seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections despite alleged electoral fraud. In 2005, it took an unprecedented eighty-eight seats in the People’s Assembly, the largest number any opposition group had ever won. Almost immediately, the Mubarak regime clamped down on the group by imprisoning the deputy guide and other leaders, sentencing them in military courts, and confiscating Brotherhood businesses. Over the next five years, the regime restricted political space generally. In the December 2010 elections, widely considered the most flawed in modern Egyptian history, the ruling party won more than 90 percent of parliamentary seats. When the extent of electoral fraud became apparent, the Brotherhood withdrew from the poll.

Less than two months later, on January 25, 2011, protests to demand sweeping political change erupted in Cairo. Both the regime and the Brotherhood were taken by surprise. Younger Brothers participated in the initial demonstrations, but as individuals. The movement’s leaders waited four days before calling on the faithful to join the protests—and only when the scale of the uprising became apparent.

But in the end, the Brotherhood’s numbers, organization, and discipline were critical in defending Tahrir Square and other protest sites from Mubarak’s security forces. Eighteen days after the uprising began, Mubarak was forced from power by peaceful civil disobedience.

The Uprising

The Muslim Brotherhood established a formal political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, in June 2011. The party’s top three leaders came directly from the group’s highest body, the Guidance Bureau. Mohammed Morsy was selected as the party’s new chief, Essam el Erian was chosen as vice president, and Mohammed Saad el Katatny became the secretary-general. (Katatny was subsequently elected speaker of parliament and resigned as secretary-general.) All three had previously been elected to parliament and were deeply involved in the Brotherhood’s political activities. Morsy is an American-educated engineering professor. Erian is a medical doctor and well-known Brotherhood spokesman. And Katatny is a German-educated microbiology professor. Rafiq Habib, a Christian intellectual, was named as a second vice president.

The platform of the party states that it is committed to equality for all Egyptians; pluralism; social justice; human rights; and the freedoms of expression, belief, and worship. It advocates a “civil state” with an Islamic reference, language the Brotherhood has developed to signal that it does not advocate theocratic government. It is committed to popular sovereignty and to the Sharia as the main source of legislation. The party believes that Egypt needs comprehensive reform to overcome decades of authoritarianism, corruption, and mismanagement.

But the uprising also exposed differences within the Brotherhood. After Mubarak’s ouster, the movement faced several internal fissures. Younger members, many of whom participated in the uprising, left the movement to establish the new Egyptian Current Party. They had objected to the undemocratic manner in which Freedom and Justice Party leaders were chosen. They differed with the leadership on the role of religion in politics, its rigidity on other issues, and the specific relationship between the movement and its new party. They also resented the marginalization of younger members within the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, for example, expelled Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a charismatic, liberal, and popular figure, in June 2011 after he announced his intention to run for president. The movement had earlier pledged not to run a presidential candidate to allay fears that it would try to dominate Egyptian politics.

Guaranteeing space in the new political era also forced compromises. During the first year after Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood’s relations with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were cautious, pragmatic, and at times uncritical and supportive. Unlike the Tahrir protesters who demanded the immediate transfer of power to civilian authority, the Brotherhood initially accepted the military’s political timeline and transition plan, which it calculated would benefit its own interests.

The Brotherhood did not press the military council to fulfill the uprising’s specific democratic aspirations. The Brotherhood was reluctant to criticize SCAF’s management of the country or the security forces’ use of violence against civilian protesters, which resulted in nearly one hundred deaths and thousands of injuries. It also offered only mild criticism of SCAF’s decision to try more than 10,000 civilians in military courts. The Brothers even supported the generals’ characterization of protesters as troublemakers.

On the issue of a new constitution, the Brotherhood had long advocated a parliamentary system of government, especially after decades of unrestrained presidential power. But the Brotherhood now began to propose a balanced presidential-parliamentary system, a popular idea among other political groups as well. And it stipulated separation of executive, legislative, and judicial authority. It also objected to a SCAF proposal that would have ensured significant powers for the military and effectively placed the generals above civilian control.

The Muslim Brotherhood is generally a conservative and risk-averse organization. Former Deputy Guide Mohammed Habib reflected, “Revolution is not in the Brotherhood lexicon.” But the Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian politics changed significantly after the 2011 uprising. From an embattled opposition force, the Brotherhood emerged as the largest elected force in Egypt, and its statements and actions reflected this new reality.

In and Out of Power

The Brotherhood calculated that the domestic political situation had changed after Mubarak’s ouster, and its political ambitions changed accordingly. It vowed during the 2011 uprising that it would not field a presidential candidate. One of its key slogans was “participation, not domination.” In March 2012, however, the Brotherhood reversed course. It claimed that SCAF had restricted parliament’s power and that former Mubarak regime figures posed a threat to the revolution. It announced plans to nominate a presidential candidate.

The Brotherhood’s initial candidate was Khairat al Shater, the group’s powerful Deputy Guide and one if its leading financiers. The election commission disqualified Shater’s candidacy. The Brotherhood then nominated Mohamed Morsi, the head of the movement’s Freedom and Justice Party.

More than ten candidates competed in the 2012 presidential race, but none received a majority. Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, were the top two vote-getters. They competed in a polarizing run-off, which pitted a member of the once outlawed Brotherhood against an ex-Mubarak official.

Morsi was declared the winner on June 24, 2012 with 51.7 percent of the vote. He became Egypt’s first democratically elected and civilian president since the 1952 revolution ending the monarchy.

Barely a month into his presidency, Morsi forcibly retired Egypt’s two most senior military commanders, Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Sami Ennan. They had also been the two most powerful figures on the SCAF; both were closely associated with the Mubarak regime. The move marked the highpoint of Morsi’s short tenure as president. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, director of military intelligence and the SCAF’s youngest member, replaced Tantawi as Defense Minister.

Egypt was still without a constitution 18 months after Mubarak’s ouster. Hoping to pass a new constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, Morsi issued a highly controversial constitutional declaration on November 22, 2012. It granted him expanded powers, including the ability to issue laws without judicial oversight. The declaration marked the beginning of the end of Morsi’s presidency.

Many activists criticized the move, claiming it gave Morsi autocratic powers. Secular and liberal political parties formed the National Salvation Front, a coalition that opposed Morsi’s declaration and the proposed constitution. The coalition included prominent secular and liberal political figures such as Mohamed el Baradei, Amr Mousa, and Hamdeen Sabahi.

Morsi’s declaration also sparked street protests. Hundreds of protesters staged peaceful sit-ins outside the Ittihadaya Palace, headquarters of the Egyptian presidency. Morsi’s supporters and opponents clashed outside the palace on December 5 and 6, 2012. Ten people were killed and hundreds were wounded, amid allegations that Brotherhood members tortured dozens of anti-Morsi protesters. (Morsi later faced trial for these offenses, along with other alleged crimes).

In December 2012, Egypt held a referendum on the proposed constitution. The turnout was only 33 percent. It was passed with only 64 percent in favor.

Opposition to Morsi and the Brotherhood increased in the following months. A new opposition movement -  known as “Tamarud, or “rebel” in Arabic – emerged in late April 2013. It was fiercely critical of both Morsi and the Brotherhood. The group drafted a petition withdrawing confidence from the president. It sought 15 million signatures in support of the petition - more than the number of votes Morsi received in the 2012 presidential election.

The petition claimed that Morsi failed to achieve the revolution’s goals or his election promises.  It decried the country’s deteriorating economic and security situation and demanded early presidential elections. The Tamarud movement also called for mass protests against Morsi and the Brotherhood on June 30, 2013.

By then, millions of Egyptians had become disgruntled with the president, the Brotherhood, and the lack of economic improvement. Morsi’s first year in office was characterized by government mismanagement and political incompetence. Many Egyptians felt that he was more concerned with consolidating power than governing the country. Others feared that the Brotherhood was “infiltrating” the state, making it more difficult to vote it out of power.

Egyptians also began feeling the consequences of an energy crisis. Regular fuel shortages meant that drivers often spent hours in petrol station lines. By the summer of 2013, electricity cuts in Cairo and other parts of the country became frequent.

The June 30, 2013 protests turned out to be historic. They were the largest demonstrations in the country’s history, even larger than the 2011 protests against Hosni Mubarak. Millions took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, and other parts of the country. The protests clearly had the backing of the Egyptian military. American-made jet fighters drew enormous hearts of smoke in support of the protesters below. And a procession of military helicopters flew above Tahrir Square waving large Egyptian flags, to the delight of the crowds.

That evening Abdel Fatah al Sisi issued an ultimatum. He gave the president 48 hours to reach a compromise with the opposition or else the military would intervene. For all practical purposes, Morsi’s presidency was over.

On July 3, 2013, Sisi announced the end of Morsi’s rule. Seated around him were the country’s top generals, the Sheikh of al Azhar, the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and several political personalities, including Mohamed el Baradei and Younes Makhioun, a leader in the Salafi Nour Party.

Sisi’s speech laid out a “road map” for the country’s future. He named the Head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, as Egypt’s interim president. The recently approved constitution was suspended, and a new constitutional committee was established. Sisi called for early presidential elections and the formation of a national reconciliation committee—although the national reconciliation never became a priority. Morsi and many of his aides were taken into custody. They would later be charged with various crimes and put on trial.

Egyptians were deeply divided on Morsi’s ouster. Although millions supported the military’s actions, many others saw it as a coup that put the military back in power. Pro-Morsi demonstrations erupted. The largest took place in Rabaa al Adawaya Square, in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. Tens of thousands of people staged a mass sit-in that occupied the square and the surrounding area. A smaller sit-in took place in al Nahda Square, near Cairo University.

Brotherhood members and others opposed to the coup camped out in these squares for six weeks. Many of the movement’s leaders, including General Guide Mohamed Badie and prominent Brotherhood parliamentarians, such as Essam el Erian and Mohamed al Baltagi, joined them. The leaders gave speeches to rally Morsi’s supporters.

International figures, including European Union Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, attempted to mediate between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s newly formed government but to no avail. The government announced it would clear the sit-ins in late July. On August 14, 2013, thousands of military and security personnel dispersed the sit-ins by force. More than 800 people were killed, including at least 40 members of the security forces. Approximately 4,000 others were wounded.

The massacre at Rabaa became a highly charged symbol for the Brotherhood, representing the group’s resistance to the new regime’s brutality and repression.

Rising Violence and Repression

Egypt’s security situation, which had been deteriorating since the 2011 uprising, became even worse after the 2013 coup. Violent Islamist groups opposed to the Egyptian military and Morsi’s ouster carried out dozens of brazen attacks on security personnel, military outposts and other targets, killing more than a hundred members of the security forces and dozens of civilians.

Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis (ABM), or “Supporters of Jerusalem,” has been responsible for much of the violence. The group is an al Qaeda affiliate that has undertaken dozens of deadly attacks in Sinai and Egypt’s mainland. ABM claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of the Interior Minister, the bombing of a military intelligence building in Ismailayya and a police compound in Mansoura, the killing of dozens of soldiers, and many other attacks.

In November 2014, ABM leaders swore allegiance to Omar Al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group changed its name to Wilayat Sinai, or “Sinai Province,” referring to Sinai as one province in the larger Islamic State (ISIS). ABM or WilayatSinai continued to undertake deadly attacks despite the government’s efforts to stamp out the group.

Besides the rising violence in Sinai, more than 50 Coptic Churches and many Coptic businesses were destroyed after the Rabaa massacre. They were targeted in retaliation for perceived Coptic support of the coup. The new regime blamed much of the violence on the Brotherhood, even when it lacked evidence and ABM claimed responsibility for attacks. The Brotherhood was immediately labeled a “terrorist organization.” This discourse was increasingly used to justify repression and curtail media and political freedoms.

The government crackdown on the Brotherhood intensified. In September 2013, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood and ordered its assets confiscated. Three months later, the Brotherhood was officially designated as a terrorist organization. Its Freedom and Justice Party was also dissolved by court order. Most of the movement’s leadership was arrested, except the few who escaped or were in hiding. And thousands of other members and sympathizers were imprisoned.

In 2013 and 2014, Egypt’s courts also issued several mass death sentences against hundreds of Brotherhood members, including the General Guide. It was unclear whether any of these sentences will be carried out, however. Hundreds of other Brotherhood members have received lengthy prison sentences, and many more await trial. Mohammed Morsi was charged with treason and the death of protesters in front of the Ittihadayya Palace in December 2012.

In the fall of 2014, a new constitution was drafted to replace the Islamist-inspired constitution passed under Morsi. A constitutional referendum was held in January 2014. Participation was only 38.6 percent, but 98 percent of voters approved the document.

Abdel Fatah al Sisi resigned from the military in March 2014 to run for president. Sisi’s election was never in question, given his public popularity and backing by the military. Only one candidate stood against him, Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist populist who ran unsuccessfully in the 2012 presidential contest.

In May 2014, Sisi was elected president. The official results reported voter participation at 47.5 percent, with Sisi receiving an astonishing 96.1 percent of the vote.

After the election, the general-turned-president continued to consolidate a new political order that excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and limited other forms of political dissent. A new protest law effectively banned street demonstrations. Hundreds of secular and liberal youth activists, many of whom were involved in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak and had protested against Morsi in 2012, were imprisoned. Press freedoms were also restricted; several dozen journalists, including a number of foreign reporters, were jailed.

Key Positions


The Brothers have long accepted the basic principles and institutions of democracy, such as a multiparty parliament, the separation of powers, and judicial independence. The group’s founder ran for parliament in the 1940s. Since the 1980s, the Brotherhood has consistently participated in legislative and other elections, when permitted, despite significant government repression. But the Brothers are not liberal democrats, and some of their views on women, personal freedoms, and minority rights (including the right to run for president) reflect the limits of their liberalism.

Women’s Rights

The Brothers accept many rights for women, including the right to work, get an education, and hold public office. But Egypt is socially conservative on gender, sexuality, and social issues, so the Brothers reflect a widely held patriarchal concept of gender that views women as primarily responsible for the family and home.

The Brother’s 2007 draft political party platform drew sharp criticism for stipulating that women and Coptic Christians should not be eligible for the presidency. In the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brothers now say that the party would not nominate a female presidential candidate but would not advocate prohibiting women or Copts from holding the office.

The Muslim Sisters, the female branch of the movement, has played a visible role in election campaigns and social services, but the Sisters’ role is not equal to that of their male counterparts. Women are not members of either the Guidance Bureau or Shura Council, the Brothers’ governing bodies. The Brotherhood nominated a single female candidate in the 2000 and 2005 elections. After the Mubarak regime instituted a sixty-four-seat quota system for women, the Brothers fielded more female candidates in the 2010 elections. But the ruling military dropped the quota in 2011. (All of Egypt’s political parties historically fielded few women as candidates, a practice that continued in democratic elections in 2011 and 2012.) In 2012, the Freedom and Justice Party had the largest number of women in parliament—four.


The Brotherhood and its political party claim to support citizenship rights for all Egyptians, regardless of gender or religion. But Copts and liberals are skeptical that the movement believes in equal political rights for religious minorities. The group’s 2007 draft manifesto said that Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, should not be eligible for the presidency. This position was removed from the 2011 party platform.

The United States and the West

The Brothers support relations between the United States and Egypt based on mutual respect and interest. But the movement decries American support for Israel and Arab authoritarian regimes (such as Mubarak’s) as well as U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The first contacts between the Brothers and U.S. Embassy officials were in the late 1980s, but they ended at the request of the Mubarak regime in the early 1990s. After the 2011–12 election, top U.S. State Department officials flew to Cairo to initiate new contacts with Freedom and Justice Party leaders.


The Brotherhood’s long-standing position was that the Camp David Treaty should be put to a national referendum. Like the majority of Egyptians, the group is intensely critical of Israel and supports Palestinian rights, including the right to resist occupation. The movement also gave birth to Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement that won the 2006 Palestinian elections, governs Gaza, and justifies violence against Israeli military and civilian targets.

The Brotherhood’s current position on Israel reflects its attempt to maneuver between its long-standing ideology and political realities. After Mubarak was ousted, the Brotherhood said that it would honor Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but like other Egyptian parties, it suggested that the treaty might have to be modified. The Brothers are unlikely to call for abrogating the agreement while at the same time supporting Hamas and the Palestinians in neighboring Gaza.

The Future

In the four years after Mubarak’s ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced both the heights of political power and the depths of intense government repression. Morsi and Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement went from prison to the presidential palace and back again.

In 2015, the Brotherhood’s future is highly uncertain after the government crackdown and change in public sentiment. It faces existential challenges.

Repression and political exclusion may lead some in the movement to be radicalized and view violence as an acceptable political tool. Some members may conclude that democratic rules are not applied fairly to Islamists and that the ballot box provides no hope for the future.

Morsi’s election, his single year in office, and his subsequent ouster by the military left Egypt deeply polarized. Intense political conflict and bloodshed on the streets traumatized the nation. The possibility of democratic and inclusive politics seems farther away today than at any time since the 2011 uprising.

Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is a former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities–American Research Center in Egypt, and the Carnegie Foundation. He is the author of Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt (2009) and the editor of Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change (2012). His website is

Photo credit: Hassan al Banna by Bismika Allahuma [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0](] via Flickr commons; Former President Mohamed Morsi via his Facebook page


Egypt: The New Puritans

By Khalil al Anani

Salafism emerged as a new force in Egyptian politics following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The rise of ultraconservative ideologues has been particularly striking because Salafis had previously renounced participating in politics altogether. In Egypt, the Salafis emerged from the political backwater to win the second largest vote in the 2011–12 elections for parliament. They played a pivotal role in the political transition. But they eventually fragmented over policy and President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013. By early 2015, Nour, the largest Salafi political party, was aligned with President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, while other Salafi parties opposed the military-backed government.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis historically have been a loose coalition of groups and individual sheikhs who espoused strict interpretations of Islam and called for implementation of Sharia law. To them, the ideal Islamic society emulates the first three generations after the founding of the faith in the seventh century. They generally hold conservative and often illiberal views on gender relations, minority rights, and personal freedoms.

Yet political Salafism is also a heterogeneous phenomenon encompassing different groups with socioreligious views ranging from the far right to the left. Some sheikhs would like to re-create God’s rule on earth. Others more modestly want to implement traditional mores and forms of justice. The sheikhs also differ in terms of the time frame and context for implementing Sharia. Some want to begin moving soon; others are committed to gradually implementing the Sharia, even if it takes decades or centuries. The various sheikhs are often stronger locally than nationally, another contrast to the Brotherhood.

As in other Egyptian movements, the Salafis have a generational divide. The older generation tends to be more puritanical, while the younger generation is more willing to reach beyond its own circle. The sheikhs considered the act of suicide by the Tunisian street vendor, which sparked the Arab uprisings, to be forbidden, or haram. The older generation of Salafis also did not support the 2011 uprising, whereas many in the younger generation turned out at Tahrir Square and other protest sites. One group of young Salafis launched the Costa Salafis, named after a popular coffee chain and complete with a page on Facebook.

The Salafis developed a large support base by providing grassroots social services, including welfare, medicines, and food for the needy. Although many Salafis are middle-class professionals, they are also religious populists who play to the lower-class resentment against Egyptian elites. Ironically, Salafis made inroads in Egyptian society partly because the government tolerated their social activities as a counterweight to the more political Muslim Brotherhood. Salafis are often (although not always, as younger members insist) distinguishable by their untrimmed beards and prayer marks on their foreheads, symbols of the practice of their faith.

In Egypt, the chief Salafi political actor is the Salafi Call, or al Dawa al Salafiyya. Its political arm, the Nour Party, was formed only in mid-2011, after the Egyptian uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But within six months, the Nour Party won 25 percent of the vote in the first free and fair election, or 125 of 498 seats in the lower house of parliament. Together with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists captured about 70 percent of the vote.

But relations between the Nour Party and the Brotherhood soured quickly, a reflection of a decades-old political rivalry between Salafis and the Brotherhood. Salafi leaders resented the Brotherhood for not treating them as equals. The Nour Party capitalized on mounting opposition to President Morsi. They supported his ouster by the military in July 2013. Other Salafi parties, however, opposed the coup, leaving the Salafi block more fractured than ever.

The Beginning

Salafism in Egypt originated when university students broke away from the Islamic Group, or al Gamaa al Islamiyya, an umbrella network of Islamist factions that emerged in the 1970s to counter leftists and Nasserists (sometimes with the encouragement of President Anwar Sadat’s government). By the mid-1970s, the breakaway factions ranged from radical and violent Islamists to conservative but peaceful groups. The students at Alexandria University created their own movement, the Salafi Call, or al Dawa al Salafiyya, in the late 1970s.

The Salafi Call was created largely because of political and ideological differences with other Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to dominate the Egyptian Islamist scene in the 1970s. The Call’s chief founder was Sheikh Mohammed Ismail al Moqadim, a surgeon who received his religious education in Saudi Arabia. He was influenced by Saudi Salafi thinkers such as Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Baz and Sheikh Mohammed ibn Saleh al Othaimin, who were religious leaders of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s own brand of Salafism. Saudi Arabia was created by the merger of Wahhabi clerics and the al Saud family.

In Egypt, the movement’s epicenter was Alexandria, where Salafism sought to enhance its presence among university students. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Call did not have a formal organizational structure. It relied primarily on preaching—known as the call to Islam, or dawa—and student outreach in leaflets, Islamic camps, and lectures in the city’s mosques. The major Salafi leaders included Sheikh Yasser Burhami, Sheikh Ahmed Farid, Sayyed Abdel Azim, and Mohamed Abdel Fattah.

In 1986, followers founded the Al Furqan Institute for Preparing Preachers, a school for religious education. Al Furqan became the main venue for the Salafi movement. Through the institute, the movement directed Salafi activities across the country through social, youth, and district committees in the 1980s and 1990s. The movement disseminated the Salafi ideology through a growing religious education network, and it published a monthly magazine, al Dawa. In 1994, as the movement’s influence grew, the government closed the institute, dissolved its executive council, and banned its monthly magazine.

From Piety to Politics

Yet the Salafi Call eschewed politics. Classical Salafism has a long tradition of quietism. Many Salafis believe that political participation is heresy that corrupts Muslims and therefore should be avoided. Moreover, many traditional Salafi scholars prohibit rebellion or revolution against the ruler even if he is unjust or corrupt, as long as he is a Muslim.

In more practical terms, the movement also shunned Egyptian politics because the government provided no political space for any Islamists to participate. Despite their quietism, many Salafi leaders were arrested during President Hosni Mubarak’s last decade in power. The movement even remained silent when one of its members, Sayyed Bilal, was arrested and tortured to death in January 2011, a month before Mubarak was toppled. When popular protests erupted against Mubarak, Sheikh Burhami’s faction criticized the protesters and called on Salafis to abstain from participating.

After the revolution, however, Salafi leaders became heavily involved in politics. The movement spawned three new political parties: al Nour (Light), al Asala (Authenticity), and al Fadila (Virtue). The three parties formed a coalition—the Islamic Alliance—to field candidates in Egypt’s first fully democratic election in 2011–12.

The ideology of all three parties is uncompromising. They advocate rigid application of the Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence), which they believe entails gender segregation, strict Islamic dress for women, and social restrictions such as outlawing alcohol. Abdel Moneim al Shahat, a controversial senior Nour Party official, outraged Egyptians when he dubbed democracy as “forbidden” (haram) and “blasphemy” (kufr). He described the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz as “atheist literature” that promoted “prostitution and drugs.” Another hardline Salafi leader urged Egyptians not to vote for liberal, secular, or non-Muslim candidates in the elections.

Salafis are socially conservative partly to preserve Egypt’s Islamic identity in the face of Westernization and secularism. As a result, they argued that a new constitution should emphasize the role of Sharia in public and political life as well as in private belief. During the new parliament’s inaugural session in January 2012, many Salafi members insisted on adding a religious reference to the official oath; they swore to uphold the constitution as long as it did not contradict the Sharia.


Since the 2011 uprising, Salafis have sought to inject themselves and their ideas into the center of political debates. They were surprisingly well organized in their first elections despite total political inexperience. They tapped into deeply rooted social networks to encourage support for their candidates. They also built alliances and coalitions with different political forces.

Before the parliamentary elections, the Nour and Asala parties joined the Democratic Alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and including the liberal Wafd Party. But the two Salafi parties withdrew from the alliance on the eve of elections after what they perceived as attempts by the Brotherhood to marginalize Salafi candidates. The two Islamist parties then formed an alliance with the Building and Development Party, the political arm of the Islamic Group (al Gamaa al Islamiyya). (Many leaders of the Islamic Group, which had advocated violence against the regime, were imprisoned in the 1980s and 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, the group had formally renounced violence, and many of its members were released. In 2011, the group fielded candidates for parliament through the Building and Development Party.)

The Salafis did well in elections for several reasons. Islamist ideologies do resonate with pious Egyptians, but the Salafis had also delivered social services to the needy for several decades. Loose-knit but entrenched networks had built up around these services among the lower class and lower-middle class, which suffered under Mubarak’s economic reforms. The Salafis achieved sweeping victories in some rural constituencies and on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Salafis’ hands-on approach was more effective than that of the social networks, based on the twenty-first-century technology used by liberal and secular activists. “They didn’t come to our streets, didn’t live in our villages, didn’t walk in our hamlets, didn’t wear our clothes, didn’t eat our bread, didn’t drink our polluted water, didn’t live in the sewage we live in, and didn’t experience the life of misery and hardship of the people,” explained Salafi leader Sheikh Shaaban Darwish. In addition, said Nour Party spokesman Mohammed Nour, “Other parties are talking to themselves on Twitter, but we are actually on the streets. We have other things to do than protest in Tahrir.”

Rival Islamists

Islamist groups won 70 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, but the fiercest battles during the first parliamentary elections were actually between different types of Islamists—not between secular candidates and Islamist candidates. The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will not necessarily work together toward a common Islamist political or social agenda in parliament. And the divergence between the two groups—on a range of issues, including interpretation of the Sharia, gender relations, and views on democracy—represents only a segment of a wider Islamist political spectrum.

The Salafis view the Brotherhood as insufficiently Islamist and too compromising. The Brothers, in turn, view Salafi positions as naïve, overly rigid, insufficiently centrist, and inappropriate in a modern Egyptian context. The Brothers have shown during sporadic participation in past parliaments that their primary focus is on politics and not on religious or cultural issues. After the 2011–12 vote, a Freedom and Justice Party leader said its priorities would be “economic reform and reducing poverty … not (fighting) bikinis and booze.”

As the Salafis began scoring well in the phased elections, Nour Party chief Emad Abdel Ghaffour vowed that the party’s new members of parliament would not play second fiddle to the Brotherhood. “We hate being followers,” Ghaffour told Reuters. “They always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision.… There might be a consensus but … we will remain independent.… They always speak of it with reproach.” He warned that the Brotherhood might try to “marginalize” Nour’s politicians and portray them as “the troublemaking bloc. The experiences of other parties who have allied with them in the past are bitter.”

The Nour Party has demonstrated occasional pragmatism in its political outlook. After the 2011–12 election, its leaders reached out to liberal forces in parliament to counter the strength of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Although Salafis favor Islamic rule, the Nour Party’s platform called for establishing a “modern state that respects citizenship and coexistence between all people.” The party stressed the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. And it emphasized social justice as well as the people’s right to elect their leaders and to hold them accountable.

The Salafis did not perform nearly as well in the 2012 presidential election as they had in the parliamentary poll. Salafi lawyer Hazem Salah Abu Ismail initially seemed to be a key contender. But he was disqualified in April because his mother was born in the United States, not Egypt. With no other clear Salafi option, the Nour Party eventually endorsed moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Brotherhood. In the first round of voting, Fotouh came in fourth place, with only 17 percent of vote, and did not advance to the run-off. In the June runoff, the Nour Party supported Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi over Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister. Morsi narrowly won.


In 2013, Salafi parties began to splinter due to personal rivalries and disputes over policy, such as membership of religious minorities. Members broke away to form breakaway parties. The Nour Party’s relations with the Brotherhood also hit a new low.

In January 2013, senior leaders in Nour led a mass defection to form the rival Watan (Homeland) Party. It claimed to follow the same Salafi approach as Nour, but it pledged to be less partisan.  “We will open up to all those qualified and [who] don’t object to the Islamic project, the Islamic view of the state,” a party vice president told al Jazeera. The Watan Party said it would welcome Copts and women on its electoral lists, in stark contrast to Nour, which opposed female lawmakers and only added women to its lists to fulfill the required female quota.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a charismatic Salafi disqualified from running in the 2012 presidential election, founded a second party in February 2013. His Raya (Flag) Party joined with six other small Islamist parties to form the Umma (Nation) Alliance. The coalition included the Salafi Asala and Fadila parties. 

In mid-2013, Salafis divided again as public sentiment mobilized against the Brotherhood. Nour initially said it would not participate in either pro-Brotherhood or anti-Brotherhood protests in June. But in a practical move, it supported the army’s ouster of Morsi in July. Its decision to side with the army, led by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el Sisi, and the secular opposition implied that not all Islamists endorsed Morsi’s actions.

Other Salafi parties--including Asala, Fadila, Raya and Watan--joined with dozens of Islamist groups to form the pro-Morsi National Alliance for Supporting Legitimacy, also known as the “anti-coup” alliance. In 2013, the umbrella organization called for Morsi’s reinstatement and organized demonstrations against the military-backed government, which often led to bloody clashes with security forces leaving hundreds dead.

The passage of new constitutional amendments in November 2013 opened another rift among Salafis. The amendments enshrined the military’s prominent role in politics and prohibited the formation of political parties founded on “a religious basis.” The “principles of Sharia” remained “the main source of legislation.” But the Supreme Constitutional Court retained the ability to decide if legislation conforms to Islamic law. The 2012 constitution had transferred that power to al Azhar’s clerics.

Nour announced its support of the constitution, despite the changes. “It is below our expectations, but generally speaking it is acceptable for us to say yes to these amendments, rather than to say no,” Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar told Al Jazeera. The draft constitution still “preserves the Islamic identity of Egypt,” Nour member Shaaban Abdul Aleem told Al Arabiya.

But other Salafi parties, as part of the National Alliance for Supporting Legitimacy, rejected the amendment procedures as illegitimate. “Boycott the null and void referendum which will be carried out under a fascist military coup,” said an alliance spokesman. In January 2014, some 98 percent of Egyptian voters approved the new constitution in a referendum, laying the framework for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.

In May 2014, former military chief Sisi ran for president against leftist Hamdeen Sabahi in what was widely viewed as a referendum on Sisi’s rule. The Nour Party was the only major Islamist group to back Sisi, who won more than 96 percent of the vote. The turnout was only 47 percent. But Nour rank-and-file reportedly did not show up at the polls in large numbers. The government crackdown on other Islamists appeared to have soured party members on Sisi.

The anti-coup alliance began to fracture in 2014. In August, the moderate al Wasat Party withdrew; the Salafi Watan Party dropped out in September. Watan cited the need for a more inclusive coalition covering a broad spectrum of Egyptian politics. 

The split between Nour and other Salafis became visible in November 2014. In Suez, members of Nour formed a human chain to block plans by the Salafi Front, one of Egypt’s largest Salafi movements, to hold anti-government demonstrations. The Salafi Front still managed to mobilize thousands in Cairo for a “Muslim Youth Uprising” to “topple military rule in Egypt.”

The anti-coup alliance took another hit in December 2014 with the withdrawal of two more groups, the banned Istiqlal Party and the Salafi Front organization. The Front said that it quit the group to allow more freedom to mobilize. It also announced a new focus on “Islamic identity” rather than remaining committed to “unity” with the alliance. 

The Militants

Militant Islam has a long history in Egypt. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, founded in the 1970s, assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981. And al Gamaa al Islamiyya, also known as the Islamic Group, killed hundreds during its insurgency against the government in the 1990s. But the release of extremists after Mubarak’s ouster and during President Morsi’s tenure contributed to the rise of a new Salafi jihadi groups.

The Sinai-based Ansar Beit al Maqdis was the most dangerous; it emerged after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. It originally targeted Israeli interests, but began attacking Egyptian security forces after Morsi’s ouster in mid-2013. The group escalated attacks in October 2014, prompting the government to declare a three-month state of emergency to deal with the jihadist insurgency.

By the end of 2014, the group had killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police, including more than 30 in one particularly deadly attack on an army camp. It has used the same brutal beheading technique used by ISIS . In November 2014, it reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS. It also claimed responsibility for the death of an American oil worker. 

Key Positions


Until the 2011 uprising, the majority of Salafis rejected democracy as a Western construct that was anathema to Islam. Most Egyptian Salafis also rejected the idea of participation in any formal politics. Salafi leaders criticized the mass protests against the Mubarak regime and argued that opposition to a Muslim ruler contravened Islam. But some Salafis did participate in the protests.

The quantum shift in the willingness of Salafis to participate in formal politics does not mean that most accept the principle of democracy. Some say that democracy is a “tool” or an “instrument” that can be used to implement Sharia. Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a leader in the Salafist Call, explained, “We want democracy, but one constrained by God’s laws. Ruling without God’s laws is infidelity.”

Women’s Rights

Most Salafis believe that the most important role for women is in the family, as wives and mothers. Many Salafis object to the idea of women in leadership roles, and some claim that women should minimize their activities in the public sphere. The 2011–12 elections mandated that all political parties include at least one woman on their party-list ticket. The Nour Party’s female candidates always appeared at the bottom of the ticket. Their faces never appeared on campaign material, and they were instead depicted by a flower or a party symbol.

In 2013, the Nour Party objected to Article 11 of the draft constitution, which sought to balance the representation of women in parliament and local government. “We cannot have a quota for every marginalized group,” argued a party leader.

In late 2014, Nour Party head Younes Makhioun outlined qualifications for women to run on its list in the next parliamentary elections. Aside from experience, women should have good manners, a respectable reputation and wear hijab, Makhioun said. 

Some Salafis also call for the separation of boys and girls in educational institutions after the primary level. Although several prominent Salafi leaders have said that they would not force women to wear the veil or the niqab, the full-face veil, some Salafis have suggested imposing restrictions on dress in public.


The Nour Party and other Salafi parties hold decidedly illiberal views about religious minorities and personal freedoms. They do not subscribe to the principle of full and equal citizenship for all Egyptians, regardless of religion. Several Salafi leaders have said that they oppose full political rights for non-Muslims.

The Salafis draw a distinction between private and political practice. The Nour Party contends that Sharia ensures Christians the right to practice their beliefs, including the right to handle personal status and family affairs according to Christian traditions. But the party has stated that non-Muslims cannot hold the presidency. On the subject of Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population, Sheikh Burhami went further. He specifically said, “Copts do not have the right to run for political office in Egypt.” No Copts appeared on their electoral list in 2011.

But in late 2014, the Nour Party announced that it would include Copts on its lists in accordance with the revised elections law. The Salafi Watan Party has also said it would run both Christians and women on its electoral lists .

The Salafis take a tough position on Sufi Muslims, a tolerant mystical form of Islam. Burhami has accused them of heresy and of being supported by the United States. He has been even tougher on the Bahai. Burhami said that he opposes allowing the tiny Egyptian Bahai community to hold religious services in Egypt or to list their religion on national identification cards.

The United States and the West

The views of Salafi parties toward the United States are still not clearly defined, however. Although most Salafis are hostile toward Western civilization generally, the Nour Party claims to advocate relations with foreign states based on respect and peaceful coexistence. But Salafis have demanded the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in New York after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Many Salafis are outspoken against what they view as U.S. meddling in Egypt’s domestic affairs on issues of religious freedom.


The Nour Party has shown some pragmatism in its position on Israel. Its platform does not specifically address the party’s stance on Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state, although in an interview with Israeli Army radio, a Nour Party spokesman said that the party would respect Egypt’s international commitments and would not abrogate the Camp David Treaty. But like the Brotherhood, the Salafis are sympathetic to Palestinian issues and to Hamas.

The Future

By early 2015, Salafism in Egypt had evolved from a movement that rejected democracy into a major political force. Despite ultra-conservative views and inexperience, the Salafis demonstrated they could adapt to Egypt’s new political environment and succeed in amassing popular support. Their ability to influence politics in the near future, however, is not assured and may depend on the outcome of elections scheduled for early 2015.

Egypt’s government under President Sisi is likely to discourage or block Salafi parties that had opposed the military coup from reentering politics. The only major Salafi group likely to contest the elections is the Nour Party, which aspires to win a quarter of seats in parliament.

By early 2015, the Nour Party faced a more difficult future than its early years in politics. Other Islamists have called Nour members “traitors” for supporting the military coup and standing by the government during its violent crackdown on the Brotherhood and pro-Morsi Islamists. The party is unlikely to be able to count on the same level of support it rallied in 2011and 2012. But secular groups view rigid versions of Islam as a threat to Egypt’s political life. Even if Nour secures some seats in parliament, other parties may be reluctant to cooperate.

Khalil al Anani is a scholar of Middle East politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in Britain. His books include Elections and Transition in the Middle East in the Post-revolutionary Era (forthcoming), Religion and Politics in Egypt After Mubarak (2011), Hamas: From Opposition to Power (2009), and The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Gerontocracy Fighting against Time (2008).

Garrett Nada, a program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributed an update of this chapter in early 2015.

Photo credits: Nour Party logo via the party's Facebook page (cropped); Younes Makhioun via Nour Party's Facebook page (cropped)

Related Program

The Islamists

Learn more about Hamas and how it relates to similarly aligned organizations throughout the region.   Read more