A Salafist demonstrator holds a banner
A Salafist demonstrator holds a banner that reads 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger' during a protest at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, September 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Eran Wolkowski
Illustration Photo by Eran Wolkowski

"Allah is taking vengeance on our enemies who attacked the Muslims. He is doing this using natural disasters. This is also a message to our Muslim brethren to return to the true path," explained Khaled Said. "The Muslims seek good for all people, but America's attacks on us are making us rejoice at the damage it is suffering."

Said isn't a terrorist; he's the spokesman for the Salafi Front, which now contains two political parties: Al Nour, which won 83 seats in parliament, and Al Shaab, which was founded last week and plans to run for parliament. Said made his remarks at a very bad time for President Mohammed Morsi - just before his visit to the United States, set for after the U.S. elections, and as Egypt negotiates with the International Monetary Fund for a $5.5 billion loan.

Morsi, who hastened to send U.S. President Barack Obama his condolences for the Hurricane Sandy disaster, hasn't yet condemned Said's remarks. Very cautiously, maybe too cautiously, he's tiptoeing between the political Salafists and the jihadi Salafists, and between both of them and the secular opposition, which is battling over the shape of the new constitution.

None of this is characteristic of "a shocking dictatorship," in the words of senior defense official Amos Gilad. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood see the Salafists as a serious ideological-religious rival as well as a political one. But when the Egyptian security forces arrest Salafist militants, and when every day more cells and weapons caches are uncovered, Morsi needs the consent of the political Salafists to act against the jihadi ones.

The two Salafist groups are not identical, despite the tendency to bundle all Islamist streams into one package. There are three Salafist segments: political, jihadi and "pure." The latter opposes both participation in politics and violence, whether against the regime or foreign targets.

Each segment in turn is divided into smaller groups, some consisting of only a few dozen members. Some Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood seek to stop the jihadi Salafists, who also threaten the political Salafists, whom they regard as having deviated from the true path by getting involved in politics. But this cooperation crumbles when it comes to principles like the place of religious law in the new constitution.

Egypt's old constitution doesn't sideline sharia law, and even most liberals don't object to its provision that "the principles of sharia are the main source of legislation." This leaves plenty of room for interpretation and gives parliament supreme status; it must consult with the Al-Azhar sages on religious law, but since Al-Azhar remains dependent on the regime and the institution's head is appointed by the president, it tends to subordinate its will to his.

The political Salafists want the constitution to state that "rulings in Islamic law will be the main source of legislation." The difference is huge; in the best case all legislation would be reviewed to determine if it conforms with sharia rulings. In the worst case, religious rulings would take precedence over secular legislation.

The Salafists also demand that every provision on individual rights add the phrase "all in accordance with the rulings of religious law." They say the proposed constitution favors the secular streams and damages Egypt's standing as an Islamic country.

The conflict heated up last week: A number of extreme Salafist movements (though not the jihadis ) declared that if the regime doesn't adopt their desired amendments they will view the regime as heretical and subject to a death sentence.

The moderate Salafists, however, are employing political means. "If sharia law and its rulings are implemented, it will be possible to determine by law that it is prohibited to accuse the president and the regime of heresy," said a spokesmen for the Salafi Front.

Ostensibly, this is a generous proposal, but it implies a threat and a reminder. If Morsi doesn't accede to the Salafist demand, he will resemble Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by a jihadi Salafist for alleged heresy. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was the standard bearer for implementing sharia law, now finds that the struggle for sharia in the constitution might limit its ability to implement its political victory; after all, it has to mollify the Copts, who want to revoke the stipulation for sharia as the source of legislation.

This dilemma has produced circuitous language that tries, apparently unsuccessfully, to bridge the two views. The proposed version expands the concept of "the principles of sharia" and states that they "include its legal and original elements as they are perceived by the school of Sunni Islam."

In this way the Muslim Brotherhood hopes to strengthen sharia's standing as the source of legislation and a way of life, and to allow adequate room for interpretation. As with every legal formulation, the question is who will interpret the principles and who will Morsi and the new parliament turn to for religious advice. This is the nub of the stormy political struggle that has been accompanied by demonstrations. It might also turn violent.

In the meantime, it appears the political dispute doesn't interest the jihadi Salafists, who see any compromise as heretical; its cells are terrorizing villages and towns throughout Egypt. The way this dispute is resolved will also determine Morsi's ability to conduct foreign policy not only toward Israel but also toward the United States and other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is worried that the Salafist influence will envelop Egypt and spread to the Saudi kingdom.