EGYPT: "Democracy is cool as long we can have Shari'a law"

In its drive to create a perfect Islamic state, Abboud al-Zomor’s Salafi Islamic Group and other groups like it that were once synonymous with some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Egypt, are now leaping aboard the democracy bandwagon, alarming those who believe that religious radicals are seeking to put in place strict Islamic law through ballots.

NY TIMES –Abboud al-Zomor (Photo below)— the former intelligence officer who supplied the bullets that killed President Anwar el-Sadat and is Egypt’s most notorious newly released prisoner — waxes enthusiastic about ending the violent jihad he once led. “There is no longer any need for me to use violence against those who gave us our freedom and allowed us to be part of political life.”

The public approval of the constitutional amendments on March 19 provided an early example of Islamist political muscle, the victory achieved in no small part by framing the yes vote as a religious duty. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Islamist campaign was the energy invested by religious organizations that once damned the democratic process as a Western, infidel innovation masterminded to undermine God’s laws.

Mr. Zomor, 64, and other Salafis, or Islamic fundamentalists, rhapsodize about founding political parties and forging alliances with the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood to maximize the religious vote. Foremost is the desire to protect, if not strengthen, the second amendment of Egypt’s Constitution, which enshrines Shariah, or Islamic law, as the main source of Egyptian law.

“If the constitution is a liberal (democratic) one this will be catastrophic,” said Sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, scoffing at new demands for minority rights during a night class he teaches at a recently reopened Salafi mosque in Alexandria. “I think next they will tell us that Christians must lead Muslims in the prayers!”

The Salafi movement is inspired by the puritan Wahhabi school of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, whose grand mufti churned out a fatwa condemning the Arab uprisings as a Western conspiracy to destroy the Islamic world. But an array of philosophies exists under the Salafi umbrella, ranging from apolitical groups that merely proselytize on the benefits of being a good Muslim to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2, is an Egyptian Salafist.

Some Egyptians are convinced that the government released the likes of Mr. Zomor as a kind of bogeyman — to frighten the country about the possible downside of democracy. Mr. Zomor said Salafist violence was only a reaction to the repression of the Mubarak government, but he shocked many Egyptians by advocating punishments like amputating thieves’ hands.

In an example of fundamentalists now emerging into public light, the sons of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik who is serving a life sentence in the United States, convicted in a conspiracy to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, recently addressed a conference at a five-star Cairo hotel, demanding that the United States release their ailing father.

“Somebody wants to give the impression that democracy will bring about the worst in Egypt,” said Hossam Tammam, an expert on Salafi groups. He finds the threat exaggerated, but noted that the Salafis would be hampered in political participation because they did not accept the idea that all Egyptian citizens should enjoy equal rights. The Salafi model is based on medieval Islamic caliphates where minorities were protected but had to pay a tax for the privilege, and were barred from the military and many government positions, he said.

Sheik Mohamed Hussein Yacoub, a prominent Cairo cleric, generated outrage by labeling the referendum results as a “gazwa al-sanadiq,” or “conquest of the ballot boxes,” using a freighted Arabic word for conquest associated with Islam’s early wars. Egypt belongs to the observant, he said, and those who object could emigrate to North America.

When a Christian student objected, one fundamentalist argued, “When we launch wars, we do it to strengthen our religion,” he said. “Will you fight alongside us to spread our religion?”

“I will be angry,” replied the other student. We cannot put God’s orders to a referendum,” said Ibrahim Mohamed, 21, one of the Salafi students. “Islam says adulterers must be stoned.”

Various Salafi groups have been taking the law on social issues into their own hands, including severing a teacher’s ear about 10 days ago in upper Egypt after accusing him of renting an apartment to prostitutes. And the army intervened on Monday to calm violence in the oasis of Fayoum that broke out after Salafists destroyed places selling beer and the owners shot a Salafi dead. Critics say the Salafi program is too religious to have broad appeal; while the Muslim Brotherhood frames its arguments in policy terms, the Salafis emphasize spiritual benefits that play well among the poor.

“The Salafis have realized that the only way for them to survive is to be politically engaged,” said Mr. Tammam, the expert. “If the Salafis are absorbed into the political system here, they can be reformed, but this will not eliminate radical thinking for good.”