ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) - On a beach-front wall in Egypt’s second city where courting couples often stroll are scrawled the words: “Would you accept this for your sister?” and “Be in fear of God.”
For frequenters of Alexandria’s shores, the authors of the disapproving messages are clear: Salafis, ultra-conservative Islamists who have overcome their distaste for politics to stake a claim on Egypt’s future after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.
“What we want is the complete commitment to Islamic sharia law... The minimum is the constitution and then establishing a system of good governance,” said Abdel Monem el-Shahat, a scholar and spokesman for Alexandria’s leading Salafi body.
This port city with its historic seafront cafes serving wine and beer, a testimony to Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past, is a stronghold for Salafis whose newly-formed parties are campaigning in a parliamentary election that starts on November 28.
The Salafi presence cannot be missed. Banners of Al-Nour (Light), seen as the biggest Salafi party, hang across streets urging women to take the Islamic veil, or hijab, already worn by most Egyptian women. Others announce medical help for the poor.
Their candidate lists feature men with long beards and shaven upper lips in the style Salafis believe the Prophet Mohammad favored, and women whose faces are hidden by veils or replaced by symbols, at the women’s request, the party says.
The growing Salafi presence particularly worries Egypt’s Coptic Christians who make up about a tenth of Egypt’s 80 million people. Alexandria has one of Egypt’s largest Coptic communities, making campaigning in the city a tense affair.
But many Muslims also fret about changes to a Mediterranean city they once cherished as an outward-looking, liberal hub.
“Alexandria isn’t the same any more ... It’s losing its character and it will be unfeasible for it to return as the center for political and cultural freedoms,” said Sarah Hegazy, a Muslim woman who teaches at Alexandria University.
Salafis staged a show of strength in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on July 29 when they appeared en masse chanting slogans such as “Islamic, Islamic, we don’t want secular.”
Salafis were out in strength again Friday demanding an end to army rule. That protest led to clashes with police who used teargas and heavy-handed tactics to try to move demonstrators who had stayed overnight out of Tahrir Square.
The skirmishes grew into running battles that claimed have at least 22 lives since Saturday, drawing charges from protesters that police fired live rounds at them.
Judging Salafi support in Egypt’s chaotic and fragmented political landscape is difficult, but analysts say the movement may have three million devoted backers across the social spectrum and may control 4,000 mosques nationwide, resources that could help to secure a loud voice in parliament.
A newspaper has reported that Egypt has about 108,000 mosques and smaller Muslim places of worship.
Salafis may take votes from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the most established Islamist group, which professes a less strict view of how Islam should determine state policy.
Salafi scholars say their goal is to apply sharia according to what they consider the authentic principles of the Prophet Mohammad and early Muslims. Salafis once spurned politics, but now say they must step in to safeguard Egypt’s Islamic identity.
They want to influence Egypt’s new constitution, due to be drawn up by a 100-strong constituent assembly appointed by the parliament that emerges from the three-phase election.
Abdel Rehim Ali, an expert on Islamic movements who heads the Arab Center for Study and Research, said Salafis have opted to use existing tools, such as parliament, even though they do not accept its validity in Islam, to achieve their goals.
“Their political speech is naive due to their lack of experience and their attempt not to compromise too much so that they don’t sound like other political Islamic groups,” he said.
Salafis were among the least repressed of Islamic groups under Mubarak, who crushed an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, because of their quietist approach at the time, Ali said.
Salafism is a centuries-old purist school of Islam. It was revived in Alexandria in the 1970s by a group of university students inspired by the 19th century Wahhabi teaching in Saudi Arabia. They sought to spread their message by preaching.
They split from militant groups such as al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which sought in the 1980s and 1990s to create an Islamic state by force. They also criticized the Brotherhood’s involvement in politics because of the compromises involved.
The Salafi vision bars women and religious minorities, such as Christians, from top executive posts and seeks a return to Islamic codes that would ban alcohol, “un-Islamic” art and literature, and beach tourism that bares the flesh. It would prescribe Islamic banking rules that would exclude interest.
In public, however, Salafi politicians emphasize economic and social programs with a wider appeal. Al-Nour party posters proclaim: “Together we will build Egypt.”
“We are proposing political and economic reform programs that focus on education, security, health ... We are the closest group to the people and we know and feel their problems,” said Emad Abdel Ghaffour, who heads Al-Nour, the political wing of the main Salafi body, al-Daawa al-Salafiya, or Salafi Call.
He said the focus was fighting corruption and creating jobs.
Salafi-oriented satellite television channels were set up in Mubarak’s era, but propounded an apolitical message.
Ahmed Moussa, 24, who was won over to the Salafi cause after the anti-Mubarak uprising, said he had long been aware of Salafi sheikhs. “With the religious conscience inside you and the social upbringing, you are prepared to listen to them,” he said.
Shahat, an engineer who is running for parliament for Al-Nour, attributes such support to “the openness to ideas of Alexandria’s people.”
After a Friday sermon and prayers at a mosque in an Alexandria slum this month, dozens of bearded young men gathered around Shahat, kissing his hand and asking for religious advice and guidelines on dealing with possible election violence.
Many fear a return to the old tactics of using hired thugs by remnants of Mubarak’s now dismantled party to win seats.
Smiling, Shahat calmly told the group to avoid physical confrontation and use their numbers to disrupt rivals’ plans.
He asserts that Salafis are flexible and don’t want to impose their vision on an unwilling society.
“We will declare the correct sharia ruling but it is not wise to confront people with laws they won’t abide by... We don’t want the country to enter a cycle of endless conflicts,” he said, but suggested the Brotherhood had compromised too much.
“The main difference between us and the Brotherhood is we will insist on highlighting the gap between the correct sharia and the status quo, rather than ignoring it.”
Such comments have raised fears among Copts, who have blamed Salafis and other ultra-conservative Islamists for a series of attacks on churches across Egypt.
“We found banners calling for a boycott of Coptic products. I feel I am losing my country... They succeeded in creating a sectarian divide,” said Kameel Sediq, a senior official in a civic council linked to Alexandria’s Orthodox Coptic church.
Al-Nour’s Abdel Ghaffour denied Salafis posed a threat to Christians or others. He said he had visited churches with a message of tolerance, adding: “We want gradual reform in all fields that doesn’t come through violence or being tough.”
Editing by Edmund Blair, Alistair Lyon