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Salafis and Sufis

January 17, 2012

Last month Carnegie published a useful primer on the recent political involvement of some of the less studied Islamist groups in Egypt: Salafis and Sufis in Egypt, by Jonathan Brown.

While Sufi groups are only dipping their toes in the political scene – and as the report notes, seem unlikely to participate vigorously in the future – the previously quietist Salafi movement did not take long to make an about-turn and delve into the newly-opened political scene. There are now several Salafi parties, of which Al-Nour is the largest, which entered the 2011-2012 elections in an alliance and have been winning an unexpectedly large percentage of the vote – around 25% at the latest estimate (although final results after the third round are yet to be determined).

Jonathan Brown makes very interesting points about the increasing centralisation and discipline of the Salafi movement and its relatively rapid coalescing into parties. He also highlights what appears to be a pragmatic inclination:

The al-Nour party’s website is a model of pragmatism. It is—noticeably and indeed bizarrely—free of Islamist language and effectively accepts the existing structure of the Egyptian state and law. It highlights how social justice and political transparency are essential for preventing a return of the systematic corruption of the Mubarak era. The party calls for a civil state where all Egyptians live together without discrimination, “far from a theocracy that claims the government rules by God’s will.” It calls for the separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers, with the justice system protected from political interference. The party seeks to guarantee a long list of freedoms and rights, including freedom of expression, the right to choose a leader and hold him accountable, and free health care and education. The party does insist in a somewhat vague way, however, that these rights exist within a basic Sharia framework.

However his analysis regarding the move from quietism to the formation of political parties is quite brief, and I would be interested to read more.

[The Salafis justify] this sudden departure from Salafi quietism by invoking the Sharia principle of “public interest.” Their argument was that an Islamic state is the ideal, but in its absence it is imperative to participate in a secular system in order to prevent the return of an oppressive and corrupt government.

I find this debate particularly interesting after reading Laurent Bonnefoy’s new book on Salafism in Yemen, as he describes the trenchant opposition to hizbiyya – and therefore to organised political involvement – as a defining characteristic of the Salafi movement in Yemen under Muqbil al-Wadi’i. However some Salafi groups in Yemen have already (over the last 10+ years) started moving towards a less extreme position regarding organised political or social activity, and although the political context in Yemen is certainly very different from Egypt, it might be the case that political changes in Yemen feed the activist tendency in the Yemeni Salafi scene.

Also worth reading is this post on The Arabist blog: Salafis: Why the surprise?

Salafism in Yemen and Saudi Arabia

January 14, 2012

The formulation of an alternative narrative of the emergence of Salafism was tantamount to an attempt to rescue part of history, in its social and political transformations, from the exclusive influence and control of the state and its meta-discourse. In order to do just that, it was necessary to banish the mechanical and self-serving narratives of nations, history and their interests, replacing it with an approach focused on social recompositions and aggregations of individual practice.

From the excellent Salafism in Yemen, which I have just finished reading and thoroughly recommend.

A quick translation – from the declaration of the First Southern Conference in Cairo

November 26, 2011

Mareb Press has published the statement issued by the First Southern Conference which took place 20-22 November in Cairo, and reports that 600 southerners and southern exiles took part. Interestingly the agreed statement puts forward federalism as the “safe exit” solution for the southern question. Here’s the relevant section:

وأكد المؤتمر الجنوبي على الثوابت التالية:

حق شعب الجنوب في تحقيق مصيره كحق شرعي تكفلة كافة المواثيق الدولية وبنود القانون الدولي .

ورأى ان خيار صياغة الوحدة في دولة فيدرالية إتحادية بأقليمين جنوبي وشمالي على خط الدولتين الموقعتين على إعلان وحدة 22 مايو 1990 هو المخرج الآمن لحل القضية الجنوبية والمشروط بحق شعب الجنوب في تقرير مصيره بعد فترة أنتقالية لا تزيد عن خمس سنوات, وان عدم الأستجابة لهذا الحل يعطي الجنوبيين الحق في اللجوء الى كافة الخيارات.

And a rough translation:

The Southern Conference affirmed the following principles:

The right of the southern people to self-determination, as a legal right guaranteed by international covenants and provisions of international law.

[The conference] sees that the option of unity in the form of a unified federal state in two regions – north and south of the line of the two states who were signatories to the Declaration of Unity on 22 May 1990 – is the safe way out for resolving the southern question. This is conditional on the right of the southern people to self-determination within a period not exceeding 5 years, and a lack of response to this solution gives southerners the right to resort to all options.

I’m not sufficiently well acquainted with the different groups who make up the southern movement to assess the significance of this statement and how much of the southern movement would be represented by it (mostly exiles?), but I thought it was nevertheless interesting.

I hope to be more well-informed after reading April Alley’s recent Crisis Group report, Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question. However it’s still on the to-read list.

Who are the rioters?

August 10, 2011

A number of people have highlighted how, initially, the mainstream media didn’t manage to – or didn’t particularly try to – interview any of the rioters or the looters. However today a little more information is coming out about who they were and what they have to say.

The Guardian’s Paul Lewis who has been tireless in covering the riots in both London and elsewhere in the UK has a piece today exploring who the rioters are: “Young men from poor areas… but that’s not the full story“. He emphasises that the rioters were drawn from no single group, and engaged to a varying extent in the events:

Take events in Chalk Farm, north London. First the streets contained people of all backgrounds sprinting off with bicycles looted from Evans Cycles. Three Asian men in their 40s, guarding a newsagent, discussed whether they should also take advantage of the apparent suspension of law.

“If we go for it now, we can get a bike,” said one. “Don’t do it,” said another. Others were not so reticent; a white woman and a man emerged carrying a bike each. A young black teenager, aged about 14, came out smiling, carrying another bike, only for it be snatched from him by an older man.

They were just some of the crowd of about 100 who had gathered on the corner; a mix of the curious and angry, young and old. It was impossible to distinguish between thieves, bystanders and those who simply wanted to cause damage.

The Guardian also reported today that the first looter to appear in court is a 31 year old primary school assistant.

The Today Programme broadcast an interview with looters in Manchester. They sound young, and mostly say that they are looting “because they can”. But while they are not expressing any kind of coherent political demands, there is obviously anger about government policies – one of them mentions the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Similar and more explicit themes come out in a piece by Reuters:

“The politicians say that we loot and rob. They are the original gangsters. They talk about copycat crimes. They’re the ones that’s looting, they’re the originals,” he said.

One of the Kurdish man’s friends pointed to alleged payments made to the police by journalists, claims currently under investigation as part of a wider phone-hacking scandal centred on the now defunct News of the World newspaper, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media conglomerate.

“Everyone’s heard about the police taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example. It’s time to loot,” the youth said.

To state the obvious it’s clear that a complex array of factors are propelling people to engage in the disorder and looting, and of course this makes it all the more difficult to comprehend. Why would someone engage in looting if they can afford the things they are stealing? When they have a full time job? It’s easy to slap the labels of “greedy” and “criminal” on them and be done with it. It’s harder – but all the more important – to get to grips with the pervasive alienation that has led to the riots.


A few more things to read on the riots:

In Broadway Market

Even looters with Blackberrys can be ‘poor’

Austerity, Economic Decline, Social Unrest, and Political Instability

London riots

August 9, 2011

While I’m meant to be enjoying my last month in Cairo and working on my Arabic, for the last 2 days I’ve found myself glued to Twitter, watching my home town riot. I was born and mostly grew up in Haringey – not far from where the riots kicked off on Saturday night – and seeing events unfold as they have done I have been horrified and scared for my family and afraid for the community which I belong to.

The op-eds and blog posts are flowing thick and fast, but London is a big city and all 12m of its citizens have a stake in its future – so I will add my 2p’s worth.

I belong firmly in the camp that believes we need to explore the deeper causes, in order to mend the social fabric which is so clearly damaged.  In the heat of the moment it might not be easy to see what those causes are, but they are also not totally obscured. (This doesn’t mean I think the rioters are justified in attacking people’s homes and livelihoods, or that I don’t think they should be punished. We have laws against stealing things and setting things on fire, and people who break those laws should be prosecuted and subject to free and fair trials.)

Race, class, deprivation, family breakdown, alienation are some of the factors probably playing a role, which comes across pretty clearly in the makeup of the rioters. Londoners know who these kids are: the chavs, townies, rude boys, whatever shorthand you call them by. While not 100% mutually exclusive, this is not the same crowd that overran Millbank last November, or the one that pelted TopShop with paint bombs in March. Is it the hoodies and trainers that make this crowd more interested in looting than in smashing up Tory HQ? Or maybe it’s the kind of music they listen to? We can dismiss them as obviously not poor as they all have Blackberries, but show me where the rioting middle class professionals are and then I’ll believe poverty has nothing to do with it.

The immediate priority is obviously to defuse the situation and return to normality. The police have the most important role to play, and I hope that they resist some of the more “creative” suggestions which are being bandied about. I was very disappointed to hear David Lammy argue for a temporary shutdown of the Blackberry messenger service. This has uncomfortable echoes of Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to stop Egyptians protesting by shutting down the internet – not the same situation, but I suspect it would be similarly ineffective. Even worse, local councils are pledging to kick out from local authority housing tenants “found to have taken part in criminal acts“. I find it highly unlikely that this would act as any more of a deterrent than the threat of arrest and prosecution does, and if it does not act as a deterrent, then can we consider it anything other than an act of revenge?

It’s clear that London will take a long time to recover from these awful few days. But I would like to think that we can use this as a wakeup call to address some of the deep social problems which have been left to fester, or treated with sticking plasters, and think about how to heal divisions rather than entrench them. This will involve keeping an eye on the long term effects of policies: rushing to evict rioters from their homes for example will not solve anything in the long run, but rather feed resentments. I hope we take a leaf out of Norway’s book in the aftermath of the Breivik killings, and reaffirm our commitment to an open and democratic society in the face of internal strife.


Some of the comment pieces and blog posts which have given me food for thought on this topic:

London’s Riots: Not Race, Not Politics, But an Explosion of Futureless Youth 

Rational choice rioting

On the riots

Panic on the streets of London

If the rioting was a surprise, people weren’t looking

Haringey youth club closures: ‘there’ll be riots’ (video)

Love me I’m a looter

The City Victorious

August 5, 2011
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Cairo: The City Victorious

I’ve just finished reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious. It’s a very lively and engaging portrait of both the bricks and mortar city and Cairene society. A little overwritten on occasion (verging on flowery) but an otherwise excellent introduction to the history of umm al-dunya – “the mother of the world”, as Egyptians sometimes call Cairo.

By nature I am a lover of big cities, and on my first trip to Cairo a few years ago I was star struck by the vistas across the Nile and the down town aura of faded grandeur. I’m now enjoying a more extended stay here and I’m seeing the harder edges to life here; the tensions and frustrations deriving from the long years of political stagnation, the poverty, pollution and grinding commutes many Cairenes have to submit to. However I’m also here at an extraordinary moment of optimism in Egyptian history: the protests which overthrew Mubarak have changed the rules of the game, and where politics was largely kept for the few, the many are now flooding into the political arena and finding that they can make their voices heard.

Published in 1998, The City Victorious struggles to avoid a narrative of decline. Rodenbeck seems most enamoured with the colonial era, and has little time for the Nasser period (except for Umm Kulthoum) during which, he considers, “Egypt forgot itself”. Nasser’s authoritarianism comes in for heavy criticism while when he notes that the British kept education spending to 1% of the budget in 1920 (leaving three-quarters of Cairenes still illiterate in 1940), it feels like an afterthought to his lengthy romantic descriptions of the European quarter in the colonial era. However the book is rescued from this “decline and fall” narrative by his lively and affectionate descriptions of working class culture in contemporary Cairo.

A proxy war in the north?

July 30, 2011

A little belatedly I’ve just got round to reading Robert Worth’s latest dispatch from Yemen. It’s undoubtedly great reporting, and he covers a lot of ground, making it to Taiz and Aden as well as Sana’a.

However, he gives a fair amount of prominence to the idea that a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is developing in northern Yemen. Of course he is not making allegations but rather reporting what is being said about the conflict by Yemenis, Saudis and “high ranking American officials”, but I think it is worth reiterating how little evidence there has been to date of actual Iranian involvement.

Dating to 2004, the intermittent war waged by the Yemeni government against followers of the Houthi family in northern Yemen has been fuelled by a range of factors, including but not limited to issues of religious identity.

Allegations by the Yemeni government that the Houthis are loyal to Iran were made from the early stages of the conflict (as documented by the 2009 International Crisis Group report on Sa’dah (PDF)*). Assertions were repeatedly made by the Yemeni government that Iran was supporting the Houthis; in 2009 the ICG was handed a report by the interior ministry “purpoting to document Iranian financial, ideological and logistical support” to the Houthis. ICG found the evidence to be “incomplete and biased”, and concluded that the general view was that there were only “small signs of a role by Iranian charitable organisations”.

The April 2010 Carnegie paper on “War in Saada” (PDF) by Chris Boucek came to a similar conclusion:

The Yemeni government has never produced any evidence to support its allegations that Tehran is supporting the Houthis; in fact, some Yemeni officials have confided that such assertions are unfounded.

A December 2009 cable from Sana’a finds some Saudis sceptical of the claims about Iranian involvement:

xxxx told EconOff on December 14 xxxx that Saleh was providing false or exaggerated information on Iranian assistance to the Houthis in order to enlist direct Saudi involvement and regionalize the conflict. xxxx said that xxxx told him that “we know Saleh is lying about Iran, but there’s nothing we can do about it now”.

All this is not to say that the situation has not changed, or may not change; warnings have come from several quarters that the widening of the Sa’dah conflict – most notably with the Saudi intervention in late 2009 – could inflame the sectarian dimension and encourage the rebels to seek aid from Iran. In her 2011 paper on Yemen’s relations with the Gulf states (PDF) Ginny Hill found that “in the months leading up to the 2010 ceasefire at least one Western government claimed to see some tentative signs of Iranian activity in Sa’dah.”

But it is worth bearing in mind that the unfounded allegations of Iranian involvement have been an established part of the government narrative regarding the Houthi rebellion since its inception, and these allegations are categorically denied by the Houthis themselves. Chris Boucek noted that “there are more than enough grievances in Yemen and Saada to perpetuate the fighting without drawing in regional dynamics,” – and this continues to be the case.

The widespread narratives about Iranian involvement in Sa’dah should not be dismissed as they illustrate an important dimension of the conflict, but the danger of seeing events through the lens of a proxy war is that the genuine grievances of the Houthis and their followers will be neglected.

* The ICG report Yemen: Defusing the Saada Timebomb is the most illuminating thing I have read so far on the Houthi conflict. I have yet to read the RAND book on the topic.