A protester holds empty tear gas canisters near Tahrir Square (Photo illustration by Foreign Affairs, image courtesy Reuters)
If the Arab Spring uprisings were an earthquake in Middle Eastern politics, last week was a major aftershock. The rumbling began in Cairo, where a satellite TV station run by Salafis played clips of an inflammatory film about the Prophet Muhammad. Soon after, Salafi religious leaders called for protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, blaming Washington for not censoring a film made in the United States. The pattern was repeated in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere. Although much has been made of the riots as a response to the film, they are more fundamentally about the nature of the post-Arab Spring regimes, and specifically about who gets to police public morality. Salafis across the region see themselves as the rightful guardians of the public sphere -- and are acting to ensure that others see them that way, too.
Although Salafis do not make up a majority of the population in any of these countries, they were able to set the political agendas there for the past week for several reasons. They punch above their weight because of the vast funding they receive from fellow travelers in the wealthy Gulf monarchies, particularly in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Each year, millions of dollars flow out of the Gulf and into Salafi charities and satellite channels like the one that touched off the riots. (By comparison, liberal NGOs receive far less support from the wealthy countries in the region.) Salafi leaders spend this money on social programs and proselytizing, handy tools with which to gin up votes or whip up anger at perceived slights to Salafism or Islam.
Indeed, most of the Salafi groups do not aspire to take over the state through violence or even elections -- their numbers are too small. Instead, they seek to use public anger to pull these states to the right. Where they have strong political and cultural institutions behind them, as in Egypt, they can do so through political pressure and shows of strength in the street. Where such institutions are lacking, Salafis instead use vigilantism or preaching to challenge the powers that be.
It is unclear what percentage of Egypt's population Salafis make up, but they control a quarter of the parliament. This means that the less conservative Muslim Brotherhood, which won both the parliamentary and presidential elections, cannot ignore them. In parliament, Salafis have agitated for a constitution that recognizes the paramount authority of Islamic law. They have also pushed for legal codes that reflect the Koran's commandments.
Like the religious right in Israel, Egyptian Salafis hold the feet of less conservative politicians to the fire. They demonstrated the full extent of their power to do so last week as protests raged. On September 13, the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater, sent a conciliatory letter to the American people via The New York Times. In it, he wrote that "the breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated." Presumably, he did not want to provoke Western anger and put U.S. financial assistance at risk. But Cairo had to worry about domestic politics, too, and so Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi embraced the protests and turned a blind eye to their excesses, either hoping for the Salafis' praise or fearing their wrath.
In other countries, Salafis make up even smaller percentages of the population and have less institutional clout, but their penchant for vigilantism makes them feared nonetheless. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamists in power only recently allowed the Salafis to establish a political party leaving the Salafis without representation in the new Constituent Assembly. To push their conservative agenda, Salafi activists have taken to the streets, where they have ransacked alleged symbols of Western decadence such as bars and art exhibits and clashed with police in protests against the secular state. Salafi rioters also burned cars and smashed windows at the American embassy, allegedly encouraged by a jihadi Salafi cleric in Tunisia. The Tunisian government has since sought his arrest.
Organizationally, Libya's Salafis fall somewhere in between those of Tunisia and Egypt. Their number is reportedly greater than in Tunisia but they do not have the centralized institutions of the Egyptian Salafis, which makes it hard for them to mobilize politically. Their three political parties fared poorly in the recent elections, winning only one seat between them. Like their Tunisian counterparts, Libyan Salafis are noteworthy for their vigilantism, particularly for attacking the shrines of local saints. It seems likely that Salafi jihadis led the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of several American citizens, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. The government responded quickly by condemning the violence and vowing to track down the culprits. Libyan citizens also protested against the perpetrators of the attack.
As the United States considers how to respond to the protests, it would do well to consider the varied national circumstances underlying them. In Egypt, after all, Salafis who participate in politics have shown that they are not necessarily hostile to U.S. security interests in the region. As shown by their political platforms, they care more about cultural issues. Yet it is precisely their anger over a cultural issue that led to their assault on the U.S. consulates and embassies. If Salafis become involved in electoral politics across the region, their cultural views will not change. At the very least, though, they would become more answerable to their fellow citizens.