Stung by their omission from Mohammed Morsi's new cabinet, the conservative Islamists warn they will use their popularity among Egypt's poor to seek power in fresh elections later this year.
Egypt's Salafis plot after being sidelined by Morsi
CAIRO // When President Mohammed Morsi last week swore in Egypt's new government, one group was conspicuously absent from his cabinet: Salafis.
The omission was glaring, particularly after the Salafist success in parliamentary elections this year, when one of their main political parties, Al Nour, won a quarter of the seats in the lower house. That made the Salafis, together with their fellow Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood's victorious Freedom and Justice Party, potentially the most powerful bloc in Egypt's short-lived legislature.
Yet when it came to appointing ministers, Mr Morsi opted for technocrats instead of ideologues, spurning the Salafis and consigning them for the moment at least to the political sideline. Yet as he surveys Egypt's political landscape, Sheikh Shaaban Darwish still dons a happy face. A member of the supreme committee of the Al Nour party, he suggests that Mr Morsi's cold shoulder provides a welcome opportunity for Salafis to begin preparing to run in new parliamentary elections scheduled later this year.
"Of course, we are unhappy with the developments and Mr Morsi's choices," said Sheikh Darwish, who is also a popular imam in the Saft El Laban - "milk container" - neighbourhood of Giza. "But we have put our anger away for now. We do not need confrontation or else many will say the Islamists are fighting among themselves."
With a confident grin, the sheikh made it clear that for him and other Salafis, there is no such thing as defeat, only temporary setbacks. He insisted that it is their "choice" not to challenge their rejection by Mr Morsi. They are keeping their eyes on the prize.
"Of course we are seeking power. We have created political parties," he said. "What I can promise you is the Salafis are coming."
The optimism of Sheikh Darwish and other Salafis in the face of their exclusion from Mr Morsi's cabinet comes easily, for it is leavened with a large amount of pragmatism. They know the new president can afford to shoulder much political baggage as his administration takes on what both the Salafists and the Brotherhood view as their main priority: restoring the power of the presidency and persuading Egypt's military to remove itself from politics.
That task was made all the more formidable just before Mr Morsi was declared the winner of the presidential elections, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) gave itself veto power over any legislation and curtailed the powers of the executive branch.
Analysts say that Mr Morsi's choice of a cabinet made up of relative unknowns - many of whom were promoted from within the ranks of Egypt's vast bureaucracy - was aimed at avoiding any row that might detract from undoing what Islamists say is an excessive concentration of power in the military.
One cabinet seat, the minister of religious endowments, was reportedly going to be offered to the Salafists but was withdrawn after protest from Al Azhar, the 1,000-year-old religious university that has emerged as a moderate force in the debate over religion and democracy.
Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, said that shutting the Salafis out of government was "a more short-term calculation that the price of alienating Scaf and the Sheikh of Al Azhar is too high".
"The Brotherhood did seem to want to attract some other political forces into the cabinet, but their eye is primarily on the Scaf right now," Mr Brown said.
In an interview, Sheikh Darwish described how Islamists of all stripes were in agreement that Mr Morsi needs breathing space to begin the Muslim Brotherhood's "renaissance" project for Egypt, which envisages improved government services and a more fair distribution of wealth through the private sector.
Speaking in his study lined with books about Islam, he nevertheless is keenly aware of the fault lines between the Brotherhood and Salafis, who adhere to an austere puritan form of Islam that is similar in practice to Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Although both are Islamist, Salafis enjoy most of their popularity among the country's poor, while the Brotherhood's appeal is rooted predominantly in its middle classes.
Politically, both the Brotherhood and Salafi movements seek an Islamic state. Yet they differ over its outlines and disagree over the means to achieve it, with the Brotherhood promoting a more gradualist approach. Still, while the more moderate vision put forth by the Brotherhood and Al Azhar was not as ambitious as he might like, Sheikh Darwish said it was a step in the right direction after decades of permissiveness and corruption under the rule of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
"We must be patient and make long-term plans," Sheikh Darwish said. "This is not the time to begin laying blame and accusing others of betrayal."
He also downplayed the warning of another senior Al Nour official, who said last week that Salafis would withdraw from the committee rewriting the country's constitution and call for huge street demonstrations unless the country's new charter based its laws on Sharia.
Article 2 of the country's 1971 constitution says "the principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation".
"We have to put pressure on groups," he said. "We haven't made an official decision about a march or leaving the committee, but this is a way of expressing our views."
The Al Nour party's main goal is to prevent the country's highest court from remaining the sole arbiter of whether laws comply with Sharia, he said.
The supreme constitutional court has taken the view in recent years that it would only apply principles mentioned in the Quran, leaving out the Sunnah and Hadith.
"That means that only 5 per cent of Sharia is applied in Egypt," he said. "This is not right."
While Mr Morsi declined to name any Salafists to his cabinet, there may be other plans to appoint several Salafis to deputy positions, said Eric Trager, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The key question is, 'Can Morsi offer the Salafis something else to appease them?'" he said.
If not, the Salafis could ally themselves with the Brotherhood's opposition, just as they did during the first round of presidential elections. The Salafis initially supported Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was kicked out of the Muslim Brotherhood last year for disobeying orders. When Mr Aboul Fotouh failed to make it to the second round, they rallied around Mr Morsi in the contest against Ahmed Shafiq, Mr Mubarak's last prime minister.
Many Islamists feared Mr Shafiq would merely restore Mubarak-style rule, so as if to show they were not incapable of political compromise for the sake of long-term goals, they supported their fellow Islamist and occasional rival. "For now, we are patient," Sheikh Darwish said. "Only for now."