Samuel Marshall writes from Cairo: What do the events in Cairo, Sana’a, Benghazi, Tunis, Oman and elsewhere tell us about modern Islam? The attacks on US embassies and property were carefully coordinated and carried out by a core group. The mob was then added to give the impression that it was all spontaneous. So who make up this core group? They are skilled in guerrilla tactics and armed with rocket propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs and so on. They plan and act on a pan-Arab and pan-Muslim basis.
They are the Salafists. They can be seen as fundamentalist Muslims who want the Caliphate and they want it now. What is the Caliphate? An Islamic republic ordered by the Sharia or Islamic law. They polled 25 per cent of the votes in the last Egyptian election. They declare war on the infidel –first and foremost the Americans. It is a global vision. They brook no opposition to their declared views.
The other leading group is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). They can be called pragmatic Muslims. Their end goal is the same: a Caliphate and the Sharia. However the road to the desired goal is uncertain. Various ways are possible. It is a matter of trial and error. A plurality of views is possible. The President of Egypt, Mohammed Mursi, was not the first choice of the MB in the presidential election. He has to contend with opposing views within the Brotherhood. As long as this continues there will be various approaches to resolving the country’s pressing problems. If one leader emerges who can silence others then a dictatorship will emerge. This will narrow the options for Egypt.
Power in Egypt resembles a triangle. The Salafists, the MB and the military. Both the Salafists and MB would gain if the US stopped funding the military: – $1.5 billion this year already. The military are estimated to control about 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy. Both the Muslim groups have to weaken the soldiers’ hold on the wealth of the nation.
Anti-American protests are now spreading to all Muslim countries. The latest attacks have occurred in Khartoum, Sudan and Lebanon. Does this mean that the Salafists are spreading their influence like wildfire? No. Resentment against American policies does not need to be organised from afar. It is endemic in all Islamic countries. Muslims feel that if their brethren are killed in one country, they are also directly affected. There is a solidarity which manifests itself time and again.
So what of Al Qaeda? How close are their relations with the Salafists? The first thing to remember is that Al Qaeda is aimed at an external enemy: the United States and its allies. The Salafists are concerned about gaining power within their own country. Expelling US influence will help this but the main thrust of policy is domestic. Al Qaeda is not regarded as very influential in Egypt. If this is correct then they have little influence over events there. What about Libya? Al Qaeda is present there. Only time will tell who was behind the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi.
Salafists increase their influence through mosques and social help. They are very well organised at the community level.
Salafists, as fundamentalists, are always offering extreme solutions to present problems. If Egypt slides into disorder and chaos, they will become more influential. Then the key question will be: will the military intervene and impose a military dictatorship?
The argument here is that as the crisis in the Muslim world deepens, the main beneficiaries will be the Salafists. This is because they will claim that moderates have tried and failed to solve the nation’s problems. Is this the future for Islam?