From his cluttered, rundown clinic in Alexandria, Egypt, the
55-year-old pediatrician Sheikh Yassir Burhami holds court a few nights a week to manage the affairs of his three and a half decade old organization: Ad-Daʿwa al-Salafiyya, or “the Salafi Dawa”
for short. Patients with screaming babies often interrupt these late night meetings for a free diagnosis from Dr. Burhami. A block away the mosque he frequents is little more than part of the ground floor of an
apartment building. But this ostensibly humble man and his at first
unassuming infrastructure has perhaps been one of Egypt’s shrewdest politicians in the country’s ongoing political transition. Burhami’s calculated pragmatism maneuvered his ultraorthodox organization, which has played a key role in instigating the polarization that still grips Egyptian society along ideological and sectarian lines, away from the line of fire unleashed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies. The Dawa may rely on Shura or deliberation among movement principals for its major decisions, but Burhami, who is officially the Dawa’s vice-president, is in practice its true leader and policymaker.
The Dawa is Egypt’s largest, most organized group of politicized Salafis. Its roots are in the ‘ilmiyya, or scientific, school of Salafism, which is historically characterized by its insistence on a traditional and rigidly scriptural non-violent approach to proselytizing that also generally shuns organized political participation. Yet the Dawa was also born out of the student movements of the 1970s, and despite its historical eschewal political participation, it has also embraced organization for the purposes of spreading its message. It was this tradition of organized work and proselytization that facilitated the Dawa’s foray into organized political work and its founding of a political party following the January 2011 revolution.
The Dawa’s unexpected successes in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, when it won nearly a quarter of the seats, was only the first sign of the group’s strength and aspiration to effect change in Egypt. Salafist ideology has not predetermined the Dawa’s post-revolutionary political calculations. If it had, the Dawa would have likely come to the defense of the Muslim Brotherhood just as Egypt’s other Salafis have done. Instead, the Dawa’s prime motivation is the survival of its message and reason for existing, which is to guide Egypt to true Islam in a hostile environment of rival Islamists and godless secularists wishing to eradicate the messengers. The Dawa fears in particular its biggest competitor, the Muslim Brotherhood. Dawa Sheikhs believe the Brotherhood actively seeks to undermine them, that it is willing to engage Shiites, and most importantly, that the Brotherhood is not the true vanguard of Islam. The Dawa also holds a paranoid fear that secularists allied with the Coptic Church wish to eradicate Egypt’s Islamic identity and Sharia law.
As a result of these existential fears and sense of holy mission, the Dawa does not settle for being second to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s Islamist landscape. So it has opportunistically struck a tactical and unholy alliance with the military and state institutions. The collaboration has insulated the Dawa from the worst of government attacks that the Muslim Brotherhood has faced while the Dawa bides its time in the certainty that its religious beliefs ultimately will prevail. In doing so, it sacrifices much of its credibility and in the process faces grave challenges from establishment institutions, such as al-Azhar and Ministry of Religious Endowments, that are actively seeking to degrade the Dawa’s capacity to instruct the faithful.
Burhami is the mastermind of this strategy. He holds significant influence over the Dawa’s other five founding Sheikhs.1 These scholars are largely disinterested in the Dawa’s administration and, to avoid fitna, have no truck with Burhami’s political exploits. Therefore, Burhami’s shrewd pragmatism and worldview largely shape the positions of the Dawa and its political arm, the al-Nour Party. Those who know the Dawa’s religious positions are confused that the al-Nour Party stands as the political Islamist “odd one out” because the party both abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood and then entrenched itself in the camp of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and his government’s relentless campaign against dissenting Islamists.
The confusion clears when one understands that Burhami and the Dawa will adopt virtually any means to achieve their movement’s ends: safeguarding the Dawa, its network, and its young cadres, which Burhami has largely developed. The Dawa believes its mission is that of teaching the true word of God and readying Egypt for its predestined reversion to an Islamic state implementing all of God’s laws and punishments. Everything else comes second. Understanding the historical development of the Dawa, the impact of revolutionary politics, and the worldview of the Dawa, especially that of Burhami vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood, are key to understanding the Dawa’s positions today and its future.
The Dawa’s History
Salafism in Egypt had its roots in the crisis of modernity Muslim ideologues have grappled with since the late 19th century. To Salafis, the answer lies, in its simplest explanation, in returning to the purest roots of Islam and the strict emulation of its prophet and his companions. Such a society, in their view, would be able to focus on the development of the spiritual, economic, and military with God’s blessing in the same way that Islam enabled the early Muslims to conquer much of the known world. In Egypt, purist groups such as al-Jam’ya al-Sharia and Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiya were founded in 1912 and 1926, respectively. They were concerned with the diminishing role of Sharia in their society and predominance of Sufism at the height of British influence.
Decades later, another crisis influenced the future Sheikhs of the Salafi Dawa and sent them searching for the solution to their country’s condition. They grew up in Nasser’s Egypt and witnessed its crushing defeat at the hands of Israel. In the following decade, campus activism raged across Egypt. University students heatedly debated ideas on Islam and politics. The would-be Salafi students were frustrated with established Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sunnah and the Muslim Brotherhood and the values of Egyptian society. The Salafi students thought established Islamist groups were unable to nurture and develop the youth cadres that the achievement of their vision required.
Mohamed Ismail el-Moqadem, the Dawa’s founder, first encountered Salafism with Ansar al-Sunnah and later became exposed to Salafi scholars from Saudi Arabia during pilgrimage trips to Mecca. El-Moqadem linked up with Abu Idris, who was his friend from high school. They went to different colleges but soon started preaching their Salafi message in 1972. Eventually they joined the growing Islamic Groups across Egypt’s campuses, which included figures such as future Brotherhood leader Abdel Monem Abul Futuh. The Salafi students, however, formally founded the Salafi School in 1977 to preach their distinct manhaj.2
What further distinguished them was their refusal to join the Muslim Brotherhood. This is especially curious considering Burhami’s own father and uncle were Muslim Brothers and were detained by Nasser. El-Moqadem refused to give up his burgeoning Dawa. He and other Salafi students didn’t trust the Brotherhood, which they believed sought to destroy them to dominate the Islamist movement and its message. Furthermore, the identity of the Brotherhood’s murshid was kept secret at the time, and the Salafi students refused to swear blind allegiance to a man they did not know.3
A formative experience for many of the future Dawa Sheikhs occurred in 1977 when then Minister of Religious Endowments, Sheikh Muhammad al-Zahabi, was kidnapped and brutally murdered by a newly born jihadi group. In response, the Salafi students went out to the street wearing t-shirts with slogans condemning the act.4 Since then the Dawa has consistently rejected violent jihadism. This refusal to engage in violence helped feed conspiracy theories that it was doing so at the behest of the domestic State Security Intelligence (SSI) apparatus. Although Burhami admits that the Dawa’s interests might have intersected with the SSI’s, he stresses that the confrontation with jihadists started well before the Islamist insurgency under Mubarak due to the barbarism of the violent methods employed by Egyptian jihadists.
In 1982, the group formally began calling itself “The Salafi Dawa,” to differentiate itself further. At one point, differences between the Dawa and the Muslim Brotherhood boiled over into violent clashes between supporters of the two groups.5 According to the Dawa’s narrative, their members had ignored the Brotherhood’s demand for it to not speak at a forum and MB cadres came at them with chains to teach them a lesson. The Brotherhood actively applied pressure against Dawa Sheikhs and made it difficult for them to preach. Burhami often relays a personal experience of his when he was thrown out of a mosque by Muslim Brothers. But against these odds, the Sheikhs institutionalized their work and presented themselves as a serious contender among Egypt’s Islamist currents.
The Dawa worked slowly to force itself onto the Islamist scene, gradually building its infrastructure. In 1985, the Dawa founded the al-Furqan Institute to prepare new preachers who follow their Salafi creed.6 The institute, which teaches out of mosques, proliferated into 25 branches across Egypt after the 2011 revolution, with about 6,000 students.7 The Dawa later founded a Zakat Committee, which eventually spread across Alexandria and provided relief to needy families.8 The group also published an infrequent magazine, Sawt al-Dawa. To manage the sprawling activities of the nascent group, it formed an Executive Council, which managed the Dawa’s affairs nationwide from a central office.9
The steady progress of the Dawa soon attracted the attention of the authorities. In 1994, the government detained El-Moqadem and Saeed Abdel Azeem and shut down Sawt al-Dawa and the al-Furqan Institute and froze its administrative operations. The details of the charges levied against the Dawa remain unclear. Burhami later explained that under an agreement, the government allowed the Dawa to continue proselytizing on campuses and keep its Vanguards of the Dawa, which were its young recruits who operated much like the Brotherhood’s ‘Ashbal or cubs. The Sheikh’s travel inside and outside Egypt was greatly restricted.
Eight years later came another crushing blow from the authorities. This time the government accused some of the Dawa Sheikhs and their students of receiving foreign financing and spreading radical thought. The timing of the accusations, one year after the attacks of September 11, 2011, convinced the Dawa that the charges and subsequent detentions were part of an effort by the Egyptian government to appease the United States.10 Facing the threat of completely losing the freedom to preach, the Dawa grudgingly agreed to SSI demands to abandon its university networks and freeze the Vanguards of the Dawa in exchange for retaining the ability to preach in their mosques. Any activity outside the borders of the Alexandria governorate was strictly forbidden. Salafi preachers from outside of Alexandria could not travel there. Burhami was especially targeted for his initial refusal to accept the deal offered by the authorities.11 During the proceedings, the other Sheikhs learned the full extent of the campus networks Burhami had helped establish for aggressive recruitment of young cadres loyal to him.12
Burhami faced considerable restrictions. He was first confined to one mosque, and SSI futilely attempted to oversee his sermons. He was even forbidden from leading prayers for a short period of time. Burhami was also attacked with an energetic and vicious smear campaign led by Madkhali Salafis, who oppose organized work. According to the Dawa, dozens of cassette tapes and books smearing Burhami and the Dawa suddenly were in wide circulation.13 The most outspoken were Sheikhs Saeed Raslan and Talaat Zahran. The latter was a former student of Burhami’s but later turned Madkhali.
The constant fear of a surprise crackdown by authorities had an understandable impact on the way the Dawa operated in the years before the January 2011 revolution. It still faced a threat from authorities even though it discouraged and avoided direct violent confrontation with the state. And unlike the jihadists and Brotherhood, Dawa leaders stayed away from what they called “the politics game.” SSI had taken a peculiar interest in the Dawa due to what security officials rightly recognized as its potential to expand. What distinguished the Dawa from other Salafis, especially the Madkhalis, was its organizational work, which the government has always viewed with suspicion. The SSI had constantly attempted to restrict the work of the Dawa inside Alexandria, carefully planning the mosques and neighborhoods the Dawa Sheikhs could frequent. Much of the Dawa’s activities had to occur in secret, especially its outreach and development of young cadres. Some individual cadres, usually those hailing from wealthy families, even hid from their own family the fact that they attended Dawa lessons.
The competitive nature of the Islamist environment and lingering suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood pushed the Dawa to develop a distinctive identity. It also made the Dawa suspicious of others. It believed that no one would come to its aid if the SSI ever decided to exterminate the only successful model of organized Salafism in Egypt. A critical part of the Dawa’s curriculum in al-Furqan to this day is teaching cadres what distinguishes the Dawa from Egypt’s other Islamist currents and why those groups have gone astray, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. In Dawa lectures today in al-Furqan, it is common to come across discussions of the Brotherhood’s “secret history” and the work of its secret apparatus to discourage cadres from sympathizing with them.
The Dawa’s suspicions were confirmed only weeks before the January 2011 revolution when a Coptic church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Day 2011. Immediately, dozens of Salafis across Alexandria were rounded up and tortured, and the Dawa itself was under siege. The Dawa was an easy target largely due to its sectarian rhetoric towards Christians. The SSI-directed weekly magazine Rose al-Yusuf ran a feature story, “The most dangerous man against Egypt: Yassir Burhami and Alexandrian Salafism.”14 The tabloid al-Fajr ran a sensational story titled, “The relationship between al-Qaeda and the Salafi Dawa.”15 The Dawa was viewed with suspicion by locals who viewed all Salafis as jihadists. The government could act with impunity because the other segments of Egyptian society, and even the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed Salafis as ultraorthodox outcasts. No one was going to risk defending them following a sectarian terrorist attack. A follower of the Dawa, 30-year old Sayyid Belal, was tortured to death in his interrogation only days before the outbreak of the revolution. SSI was poised to escalate its crackdown; however, the start of the January 2011 revolution saved the Dawa from the full attention of SSI. To this day it remains unclear who was responsible for the attacks, but there is no evidence to confirm the Dawa was involved.
The Dawa in a Revolutionary Egypt
The Dawa had long discouraged political participation. It taught that protests are permissible but futile. And it deemed democracy an apostate form of government. Some confuse this as a rejection of organized political work or pursuing rule, as Madkhalis do. But in reality, the Dawa’s core objection was to the balance of power in Egypt, which it believed will never yield success for Islamists in open competition against the secular state.16 Furthermore, the rejection of democracy by some Sheikhs, specifically Burhami, was absolute and ideologically uncompromising on all levels.17 Others, such as Dawa spokesperson Sheikh Abdel Monem El-Shahat, added a conspiratorial twist, believing that the West encouraged Islamists to participate in politics to force them toward violence and “wear them down.”18 In 2012, Burhami summed up the sense of frustration the Dawa felt when he said, “Our reality is smaller than our creed.”19 He meant that the full extent of what the Dawa hopes to accomplish and change remains restricted by the political and social conditions of Egypt.
When the call for rebellion was sounded, the Dawa was uncertain what to do and initially did not participate. As events accelerated, the Dawa fell back on its core rallying cries of entrenching Sharia in Egypt and defending its “Islamic identity.” On February 8, 2011, three days before Mubarak was even removed, the Dawa held a massive rally warning worshipers of the threat to Article 2 in the constitution, which stated in part, “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation.” The speakers warned secularists of the consequences of their challenging Egypt’s “Islamic identity.” There was also a marked shift in rhetoric evidenced toward the growing rebellion by el-Moqadem, who thanked the “efforts of the protesting youth.”20
Immediately after Mubarak’s fall, the Dawa began to realize the historic opportunity that was presented to them. But the movement was still limited by its suspicion of outsiders and uncertainty over the true fate of the Mubarak regime and his security apparatus. In a surprising move, one of the Dawa’s first actions was to seek legal registration as a charity organization. The government’s ministry of social solidarity refused to license a charity with the word “Salafi” in its name. Eventually the Dawa was granted a license under the name of The Charitable Preachers Organization on June 15, 2011.
A decision that was far more controversial was to found a political party and participate in the political process. The calculation used by Dawa Sheikhs in making decisions or forming opinions is to balance the maslaha or benefit against the potential mafsadah or harm in accordance with Sharia.
The issue of whether or not to engage on political issues following the revolution was settled quickly, with the Dawa issuing a statement on March 7, 2011 that urged its followers to vote yes on the upcoming constitutional referendum.21 Already the Dawa had tied itself to the fate of the Sharia article, article 2. The Dawa believed that secularists and Christians were in a grand conspiracy to remove all references to Sharia from the constitution’s text. The Salafis were soon confronted with the benefits of acting as the poll drew near. The Dawa made its first calculation related to politics: that the maslaha from participation and helping enshrine Sharia far outweighs the mafsadah of letting secularists and Christians decide the fate of the country’s “Islamic identity.” With a poll showing a landslide victory ratifying the amendments, which the Salafis saw as a vote for Sharia, the Dawa warmed to the idea of winning at politics. One day later, the Dawa officially decided to participate in the political process. The straightforward 38-word communique reversed dense volumes the Dawa had written rejecting political participation.22
Yet the Dawa was apprehensive about throwing its weight behind a political party. This concern at the time was more political than religious in nature for the Sheikhs feared the consequence of the party failing and exposing the Dawa to risk. Some individuals, especially Emad Abdel Ghafour, strongly advocated founding a party.23 Abdel Ghafour had been with the Dawa for decades, but his travel overseas, especially to Turkey, inspired him to pursue politics. That made the more conservative Sheikhs suspect his dedication to their ultraorthodox views. The Sheikhs agreed to let Abdel Ghafour found the party, al-Nour, and become its president. They also agreed that the party would be his portfolio, and he had the responsibility to shield the Dawa from any fallout. Sure enough, the initial press reports about the party referred to “Salafi youth” who wished to found a party. A press report quoted a founding member as saying that the Sheikhs of the Dawa will focus only on their preaching.24 Ultimately, even Burhami, the staunchest opponent of democracy, warmed to the idea of founding a party and gave the nod.25
Al-Nour was officially granted a government license in June 2011, but it was not the only Salafi voice on the scene. Soon parties such as al-Asala and al-Fadeela popped up. They were much smaller and weaker in comparison and represented the largely unorganized Salafi movements in the Cairo metropolitan area, the lower Delta, and Central Egypt. The Islamic Group, based in Upper Egypt, also found its own party called the Construction and Development party.
In reality, there were and still are deep ideological divisions among most of these groups. Although the Islamic Group is closer to the Dawa, they have historically differed on the issue of violence and jihad. The larger swath of Egyptian Salafis who entered politics hailed from a strand of Salafism usually influenced by a single Sheikh (such as al-Asalah and its Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud). The other type of Salafis were the so-called “revolutionary Salafis,”26 who often lacked any serious religious training and are confrontational, such as the Salafi Front or former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and his fanatical supporters.
The Dawa frowned on this type of revolutionary activism. The Dawa viewed itself as the true vanguard not only of Salafism but also of Islam in Egypt. But events in Egypt were moving too fast for such divisions to materialize. For the most part, these Salafis agreed to work together on most issues. This naturally allowed the media and most of Egyptian society to lump all Salafis together. That created a conventional wisdom that all Salafis thought and acted the same; this negatively affected the Dawa’s image by association.
However, due to the Dawa’s complete and total rejection of violence, it can be cautiously considered “moderate” compared with Egypt’s other Salafis. However, its sectarian rhetoric and regressive views on basic freedoms—stances the movement refuses to abandon as a principle of faith—has allowed many to make the case that the Dawa foments a polarizing environment that encourages violence against minorities.
That violence became a reality in 2011. In March of that year, men described as Salafis by the media attacked a Christian man and cut off his ear. The media sensationalized the event and focused their attentions on the Dawa. During the summer, Egypt was rife with acts of vandalism, political violence, and thievery. Salafis—though not necessarily Dawa rank and file—along with other Islamists attacked dozens of churches across the country. Salafi satellite channels unaffiliated with the Dawa turned political and polarizing. It seemed as if Egypt was burning, and the Salafis were making sure it would turn medieval. Dawa Sheikhs interviewed last year for this research categorically denied any connection to these attacks but were unapologetic about their distinctively polarizing rhetoric about Copts and other minorities. Though their lack of involvement might technically be true, they were riding a wave of unprecedented freedom with no checks on their rhetoric, which fanned the flames.
The best example of the Dawa flexing its street muscles and confrontational rhetoric was a massive rally held on July 29, 2011. Alarmed secularists dubbed the demonstration “Kandahar Friday” because of the thousands of thick-bearded and white-robed Salafis who had replaced the usual activists. The objectives of the rally highlighted the polarizing state of Islamist discourse during this period. The Salafis wanted to kill efforts to write the constitution before parliamentary elections and adopt supra-constitutional principles enshrining personal rights that would limit the ability to impose Sharia.
In an official statement issued by the Dawa before the rally, it declared its rejection of, “[The] will imposed by a minority known for its secularist and liberal affliction against the aspirations of the people.” The reference to this “minority” is understood to mean the country’s Christians and Western-educated elite. In the rally, Salafis largely affiliated with the Dawa not only embraced Tahrir activism, but also registered their staunch support for the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its president, Mohamed Tantawi. The Dawa was happy to support the military, which was mostly criticized by secular activists, to win its favor and avoid its wrath. More importantly, the Dawa mobilized because of its overwhelming fear of the country’s secularists and the Coptic Church and the alleged conspiracy to expunge Sharia from the constitution. Dawa-style activism was in full swing and its perceived fear of an attack on Sharia quickly led to its embrace of collective street action and voicing of political demands. The only instances of Dawa Salafis holding protests in the past was in 2010 and also was largely due to their conspiratorial conviction that the Church was imprisoning Christian women after they had converted to Islam.
The Dawa Today
Although the Dawa is Egypt’s largest Salafi movement, few details have been published about its financing, structure, and operations.
Finance and Communications: Perhaps one of the most widely held conventional wisdoms about the Dawa is its alleged financing from the Gulf. In reality, there is no evidence to prove this. And Dawa Sheikhs vehemently dismiss this notion as baseless.
Although it is feasible that donations from private foreign individuals sympathetic to the Dawa’s brand of Islam may have helped finance its operations, this sort of funding is neither continuous nor does it keep the Dawa afloat. In reality, the Dawa as a body is not wealthy and never was. Instead, it primarily relies on technology and piggybacking off private and state-built mosques to hold its network together.
The Dawa’s primary media operation is its website Ana al-Salafy (launched in 2007) along with Sawt al-Salaf (launched in 2006). Ana al-Salafy is meticulously updated with the Dawa’s latest sermons and includes everything from fatwas to the Friday schedule for the Dawa’s different Sheikhs. The early reliance on the internet enabled the Dawa’s message to be disseminated worldwide. The wealth of content made it a hard-to-ignore resource for Salafis. The workforce is largely volunteer or paid nominal fees since they see it as a religious duty. This enables the Dawa to have a strong communications platform reaching its base with minimal costs. Following the 2011 revolution, al-Nour launched its own, largely unsuccessful, newspaper al-Fath, and an online news portal called Akher al-Anba’.
Amazingly, the Dawa lacks the single most critical outreach tool in Egypt, its own satellite channel. The dozens of Salafi channels and televangelists naturally led people to simply lump the Dawa into this media operation. This generalization has hurt the Dawa as stated earlier because the Egyptian Salafi channels have long been notorious for divisive rhetoric and sensationalism.
Despite recognizing the critical need for a channel propagating its message and distinguishing itself from that of the other Salafis, the Dawa cannot muster the necessary funds. A senior al-Nour party official responsible for exploring the possibility of launching a channel explained to me in detail that the Dawa lacks the liquidity to maintain daily operations of a channel. Burhami told me a satellite operation is a financial black hole.
Another Dawa practice that significantly cuts down the organization’s operational costs is its unrestricted use of mosques that fall under its control. The Dawa’s al-Furqan Institute, which boasts 25 branches on its website, in reality, operates mostly out of mosques, which the organization often uses as training camps for cadres. The Dawa’s network also benefits from equipment and furniture found in mosques, which are usually donated. It is not clear that the Dawa actually pays the operating costs of these mosques since the government and/or locals usually service mosques. However, the Dawa may no longer have the ability to freely access this infrastructure in the future as the Sisi government seeks to enforce government control over Egypt’s mosques.
The Dawa’s financial instability stems from the absence of obligatory dues from members. Those who do pay are asked for a minimum of only 10 Egyptian pounds or less than $1.50. To finance the 2011-2012 parliament election campaign, al-Nour piled on debt by borrowing from sympathetic business owners.27 Many of the candidates largely funded their own campaigns or donated apartments that served as headquarters. Volunteers and donations also enable al-Nour to campaign. Many contributors believed that their largesse counted as good deeds.
To understand the power of such a phenomenon, one needs only to look at the meteoric rise of former Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. His face was plastered all over Egypt’s walls in what many believed to be a well-funded and organized campaign. In reality, inspired Salafis, especially the business owners, would simply print the posters out of their own initiative. For reasons that need further study, Salafis of different stripes are disproportionately represented in Egypt’s technology and electronics sales and in so-called “technology malls,” which sell computers and other parts. This existing infrastructure meant that hundreds of tech-savvy Salafis could cheaply create digital content online in support of Abu Ismail. The volunteer efforts gave the impression that Abu Ismail was a serious contender. The benefits of such a phenomena are multiplied for the Dawa as it organizes this type of volunteer work. For instance, a Dawa cadre interviewed showed me how his tech start-up volunteered designing much of al-Nour’s early posters and the production of a famous song advertising the party.
To improve its financial situation, the Dawa founded the House of Business (HOB) in the fall of 2012. It describes the venture as a “non-profit economic organization”28 whose purpose is to function as an association for more than 160 businessmen and entrepreneurs to found Sharia-compliant small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). The businessmen, many of whom are Salafi, pool their capital to establish these SMEs. They are attracted to the model because they become shareholders with other trusted God-fearing businessmen in ventures with diversified risk. The model for this is the Brotherhood’s Ibda association, which attracted many businessmen who were excited at the opportunity to invest their money with the then-ruling Brotherhood. HOB’s secretariat is headed by the Dawa’s president, Abu Idris, and includes senior members of al-Nour. A former al-Nour party member involved with HOB explained that shareholders in SMEs founded with HOB members’ capital donate a variable portion of their profits to charities in their communities. In practice, the charities operated by Dawa members or those close to the movement are the favorites. This is how the Dawa can benefit from the venture without having to funnel funds directly to its accounts and rousing suspicion. The money spent by HOB in financing Dawa charity organizations means more funds can be allocated for its administrative purposes and other ventures. The work of these various charities help the Dawa reach new constituencies and encourage them to support the Dawa, its party, and follow its Sheikhs in return.
The true success of the venture is yet to be determined but it has attracted tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investments thus far. The Sharia-compliant SMEs range from tourism companies to a part-café, part workshop for freelancers on the Alexandrian corniche called Grenada. HOB founded its own House of Investments, which claims to have capital stock of $20 million.29 There are no restrictions on Gulf businessmen financing these ventures, but no evidence thus far of their involvement. The Dawa’s capacity to found HOB and find capital for its Sharia-compliant vision of the economy shows potential. More importantly, it proves the critical importance of sympathetic Salafi businessmen in the Dawa’s operations. This largely local business network can launch companies with capital worth millions of dollars in less than a year and can be called upon to finance political campaigns. However, as explained earlier, the current business model does not allow a way to directly exploit the funds so as to provide a continual source of finance for the Dawa’s and al-Nour’s daily administrative operations.
Dawa’s organizational structure: The Dawa’s embrace of organizational work has long set it apart. Since its founding, a leadership hierarchy of some form has been in place, but repeated crackdowns dismantled such structures. Recognizing the importance of having a hierarchy, the Dawa moved to make its organizational structure permanent following the 2011 revolution.
As early as March 13, 2011, the Dawa organized a temporary presidential council comprising El-Moqadem, Abu Idris, and Burhami. The Dawa also established an administrative council of 15 members.30 Three months later, the Dawa held its first Shura Council, and 179 of 203 members attended. The Dawa also founded the Dawa Secretariat, composed of the six founding Sheikhs. During the meeting, Sheikhs El-Moaqdem, Fareed, and Hotayba said that they would not run for any administrative positions in the new Dawa structure. The Shura selected a 13-member administrative council. They selected Abu Idris as president, Burhami as first vice-president, and Abdel Azeem as second vice-president. This meant that only three of the Dawa’s top Sheikhs were involved in the day-to-day affairs of the Dawa, which also included the politics of al-Nour.
This new configuration was significant since it naturally pitted Burhami against Abdel Azeem. They each had their own style in preaching, but Abdel Azeem is folksy and media savvy, having hosted his own television show. Abu Idris may have been selected as president for his quiet and reserved demeanor. Since the revolution, Abu Idris has given perhaps less than a dozen interviews and, after the coup, it became clear that he was aligned with Burhami’s anti-Brotherhood politics when he publicly voted for Sisi in the May 2014 presidential elections.
The Dawa has not shared its internal bylaws with outsiders; however, the general outlines of the hierarchical structures are clear. The Dawa Secretariat is the senior-most body. It is not directly involved in implementing policy or decisions, but rather setting strategy and giving general direction. Symbolically it functions to represent Dawa unity, although Abdel Azeem is no longer an active member due to his support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Secretariat seems to have unrestricted freedom to do whatever it pleases. For instance, it directly appointed Cairo-based Sheikh Mohamed Yousri Ibrahim to preside over its Shura Council even though he was not a Dawa cadre.
The Dawa’s administrative council implements decisions and policy throughout Egypt and delivers directives to governorate-level administrative councils to carry out. The Shura Council has allotted seats for 203 Dawa Sheikhs and cadres from across Egypt. The body meets bi-annually or in emergencies such as choosing candidates to support in elections or what position to take in referenda. Members vote in a secret direct ballot, and the majority decision becomes the Dawa’s. The Shura Council is also responsible in monitoring the administrative council’s performance during its meetings. However, it is unclear to what extent the Shura Council can influence the administrative council.
There are governorate-level Shura Councils that monitor the activity of the governorate-level administrative councils and nominate local cadres to the general Shura Council. Each governorate is divided into sectors (if the governorate is large), districts, and mosques. In meeting with Dawa cadres in Alexandria, I learned of leaders who are considered responsible for certain districts and mosques. This extends to other governorates, but little is known about the extent of horizontal coordination between the different sector leaders and what function they serve. A diagram of the aforementioned structure looks similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s.
In practice, the Dawa’s vertical structure (Figure 1) might function in the implementation of top-level decisions, but there is no evidence to suggest it has the same level of cohesiveness and organizational discipline as the Brotherhood’s network. The culture of the Dawa encourages loyalty to the Sheikhs, but it has traditionally discouraged blind obedience in favor of instilling in cadres the need to inquire about the religious justifications for orders. Lately, because of the pressures exerted against the Dawa by rivals as well as many defections, movement leaders responsible for developing cadres insist on unquestioned loyalty to preserve the Dawa.
Understanding Dawa Decision-making
The Dawa’s suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood wished to undermine and destroy it has played a disproportionate role in shaping the Dawa’s decision-making calculus. While the rest of Egypt’s non-Dawa Salafis looked up to the Brotherhood as more experienced in the realm of politics, the Dawa’s suspicions of the group actually motivated it to participate in politics to serve as a counterweight.
In multiple interviews with Burhami and other Dawa figures over the course of the past year, their disdain for the Brotherhood was palpable. Following the July 2013 coup, I asked an al-Nour party official close to Burhami if he felt the Brotherhood deserved the intensity of the crackdown, and he said it did. I started to ask him if the Brotherhood now “knows its place,” and he finished my question for me while nodding and agreeing with the provocative proposition. The Dawa had reached this level of contempt for the Brotherhood because it was convinced that the Brotherhood was plotting its undoing. Burhami has largely led this thinking since he was the primary Sheikh responsible for the politics portfolio. His own prejudices against the Brotherhood influenced many of his decisions and his ability to convince most of the Dawa Sheikhs to adopt his line.
Burhami points to several political experiences with the Brotherhood in justifying the Dawa’s unorthodox alignment with the military, which has sealed its political course for the foreseeable future. Focusing on these events from the Dawa’s point of view reveals how the group has viewed the past few years as a struggle for survival with no allies to count on. Understanding this history and the Dawa’s narrative about it is crucial for understanding the actions and behavior of the Dawa and Burhami in Egypt’s anti-Islamist political environment today.
The 2011-2012 parliament: The earliest experience that contributed to developing the Dawa’s political acumen was the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections and the movement’s subsequent experience in the parliament.
Al-Nour had refused to join the Brotherhood in its Democratic Coalition for it included non-Islamist parties. Instead, it formed the Islamist Bloc with the much smaller al-Asala and Building and Development parties. Al-Nour won the overwhelming majority share in its bloc and nearly a quarter of the seats in the parliament’s lower and upper house.
The elections themselves, however, exposed dormant rifts between the Dawa and the Brotherhood. The old fear that the Brotherhood sought to dominate the Islamist landscape at the expense of the Dawa crept back. According to the Dawa, the Brotherhood used every dirty trick possible to limit the Dawa’s gains and punish it for its decision to contest nearly one hundred percent of the seats in the elections.
The most irritating case for the Dawa was the electoral defeat of the Dawa’s own spokesperson, Abdel Monem al-Shahat, in his district by a Brotherhood-backed candidate. With his frequent television appearances, the uncompromising and prickly Al-Shahat had become the face of the Salafi Dawa and al-Nour Party. He was infamous for declaring in televised interviews that God has forbidden democracy and for going on tirades against novelists such as Egyptian Nobel Laureate Neguib Mahfouz.31 Al-Shahat was perhaps the easiest man to hate in Egypt during this time. The Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of this. Al-Shahat, who is close to Burhami, competed against a Brotherhood-backed candidate in the run-off election for the al-Montazah district in Alexandria—and lost.
The Dawa strongly believed that non-Islamists and, allegedly, Christians voted for the Brotherhood candidate to ensure al-Shahat’s defeat. The competition was fierce, and the Brotherhood benefited from the alleged secular boost which put its candidate a little over 28,000 votes ahead of al-Shahat.32 In response to this, Sheikh Ahmad Fareed said, “If they wanted to implement Sharia, then how did they [the Muslim Brotherhood] ally with the Church and the Egyptian bloc [a secular coalition] to beat someone like Sheikh Abdel Monem [al-Shahat]?”33
According to the Dawa, the Brotherhood targeted the Salafi voter base and exploited people’s ignorance. Fareed alleged in December 2011 on a live television segment that the Brotherhood directed illiterate voters wishing to vote for al-Nour to vote for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party instead. He further alleged that the Brotherhood “terrorized” illiterate voters by telling them their vote would be wasted on inexperienced and ignorant Salafis.
The deeper issue observed during the time was the Brotherhood’s exploitation of poor families historically helped by the Dawa. Al-Nour members interviewed at the time explained how they were frustrated to find that the Brotherhood reached these needy families first to secure voter pledges even though the Dawa had invested more money in developing them as a constituency.34 Fareed alluded to this when he said the Brotherhood received many votes that it didn’t “deserve.”35 He went on to say on the live segment,
Lying is not permissible according to Sharia. If they [Muslim Brotherhood] can’t abide by Sharia in elections, how can they be entrusted with its implementation?36
Most of the alleged incidents were uncovered following the coup, however, as Dawa Sheikhs sought to prove to their followers the Brotherhood’s deceit and justify their support for the coup. Sheikh Alaa Amer, based in the Delta governorate of Beheira, explained some of the election abuses in a lecture titled, “Did we betray the Brotherhood?” Most were personal. In the lecture, Amer said that the Brotherhood spread rumors about his alleged marital impropriety in an attempt at character assassination. He listed political and doctrinal differences with the Brotherhood to his followers in justifying the Dawa’s stance on the coup and asked rhetorically, “After all of this you [the Brotherhood] are still not convinced that I am different than you?”37
Burhami, also in a lesson after the coup, said he regretted not advertising the extent of what he alleged to be vote rigging by the Brotherhood and its attempt to “completely exclude al-Nour.” He called on his followers to start a hashtag on Twitter documenting their stories of Brotherhood vote rigging.38 Burhami pointed to an elections “code of honor,”39 signed and breached by the Brotherhood a month before the election. Burhami rejected the accusation that al-Nour refused to coordinate with the Brotherhood during the elections. He explained to the faithful that when he brought up the subject days before the elections in a meeting with then-president of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Mohamed Morsi, Morsi patronizingly told Burhami, in English, that it was “too late.”40
In the short-lived 2012 parliament, relations between al-Nour and the FJP were at best dysfunctional. Al-Nour greatly contributed to this with its incompetent stock of parliamentarians, who themselves became a focus of public attention and scrutiny. One was caught in a lie about a nose job masquerading as an assault injury. Another was arrested with a woman in a car on the side of a road. Al-Nour failed to pass any piece of legislation it can claim as its own. Instead, its members’ antics and propositions for socially conservative measures provided entertainment for numerous news cycles.
The Brotherhood found al-Nour at best a nuisance and attempted to limit its representation in parliamentary committees. The often unfiltered press comments made by Salafi MPs, al-Nour or not, reflected on the Dawa. The Brotherhood benefited from this for it made the Brotherhood appear moderate in comparison. During this time, al-Nour was constantly targeted for ridicule by the media and others who wished to attribute al-Nour’s ultraconservatism to the Islamist current in general. The Brotherhood rarely if ever defended al-Nour.
The presidential elections: Divisions between the Dawa and the Brotherhood grew as presidential elections neared, and brewing disagreements inside the senior Dawa leadership started to come to light.
Early on, the Sheikhs of the Dawa became largely united in their opposition to Salafi contender Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Burhami, largely due to his management of political affairs, was the most vocal critic inside Dawa deliberations. To the Dawa, Abu Ismail was not only unfit for the job due to his lack of experience but also because his brand of so-called “Revolutionary Salafism” posed a serious risk to the Dawa’s model. Abu Ismail’s rhetoric was too confrontational and his brand did not substantively contribute to spreading Islam or providing charity in Egypt. Many of the Dawa youth were attracted to Abu Ismail’s lofty rhetoric and belief that he could found an Islamic state. Abu Ismail had started campaigning well before anyone else in the summer of 2011. Abu Ismail was not integrated in any organized Salafi network, nor was he close to the Dawa’s manhaj or expected to abide by its decisions. Abu Ismail was also a polarizing figure, and his often silly presentation of what an “Islamic Egypt” would be like under his rule worried the Dawa. Already the Sheikhs were beginning to understand the harm that might befall the Islamist project in Egypt should polarizing and inexperienced Islamist figures take the lead.
Fearing the worst, some Sheikhs in the Dawa, especially Sheikh Saeed Abdel Azeem, grew warm to the idea of supporting Brotherhood strongman Khairat al-Shater in place of Abu Ismail, whom they rightly feared would lose a national poll to a non-Islamist. Al-Shater’s presentation and history impressed many of Egypt’s Salafis, and Saeed Abdel Azeem had personally urged the Brotherhood to let al-Shater run despite the Brotherhood’s decision at the time not to participate in elections. Although Burhami now points to the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood to run a candidate for office as a breach of a promise, in reality the Dawa announced what it described as an initiative to urge for a consensus Islamist presidential candidate in March 2012.41 A week later, the Brotherhood replied with al-Shater, and the Dawa released an official statement saying that al-Shater was under consideration.42
Abdel Azeem’s perceived proximity to al-Shater and by extension the Brotherhood was worrisome for Burhami and other Dawa figures. Both Abdel Azeem and al-Shater were senior members of a new Islamist organization called Islamic Legitimate Body for Rights and Reformation (ILBRR). ILBRR presented itself as a coordinating body to unite many of Egypt’s Islamist figures to counter non-Islamist political forces. Burhami, Fareed, and others in the Dawa were also members of the body. Al-Shater, who at the time was Egypt’s man of mystery, invited many conspiracies about the true aims of ILBRR and the extent of Brotherhood manipulation of its decisions since he was a member of its secretariat.
ILBRR could claim to speak for the largest association of Sheikhs. It was only natural that if al-Shater, or any Brotherhood candidate, would run for president, he would become ILBRR’s candidate. The Dawa, which saw itself as the vanguard of Salafism, made an unusual move early in 2011 in appointing ILBRR’s secretary general, Mohamed Yousri Ibrahim, as president of its Shura Council to demonstrate the Dawa’s own broad appeal. During this short-lived period of intra-Salafi integration, the Dawa moved in the direction of supporting al-Shater. It is unclear how Burhami received the idea, but a near-certain confrontation between him and Abdel Azeem was averted when al-Shater was disqualified from running.
With the Dawa back at the drawing board, Burhami could make a stronger case for not supporting the Brotherhood’s alternate candidate, Morsi. However, as the Dawa was deciding whom to pick, it was surprised to find Abdel Azeem voting with ILBRR to support Morsi for president. This was the first time since the revolution when a conflict in the most senior Dawa leadership was observed.
The Dawa eventually surprised everyone, and especially irritated the Brotherhood, by supporting ex-Brotherhood member Abdel Monem Abul Futuh. Abul Futuh inflamed matters further by presenting himself as a liberal Islamist, which went against Dawa criteria for its ideal, Sharia-compliant candidate.
The Dawa’s decision on whom to support in the election was one of the clearest examples of Burhami’s shrewd pragmatism and his decision-making calculus. Burhami had initially supported an Islamist thinker, Mohamed Selim El-Awa, but did not make the strongest case for him. Burhami worried that El-Awa was not presidential material despite having what Burhami acknowledged were the appropriate religious credentials. In justifying the insistence on not supporting Morsi in the first round of elections, Burhami said in May 2012 before the first round:
[A questioner asks] ‘We heard from you that if the Brotherhood takes control, they’ll destroy the Salafi Dawa?’ [Yes] This is from experience, their method that we suffered from a lot. One time I was thrown out of a mosque. They picked me up and threw me outside. I have not forgotten. They certainly regret that now for creating such a powerful incident that has left its mark on me…at the time they were violating an agreement [to let Burhami preach at the mosque]…The best way to have a good relationship with the Brotherhood is to have a strong presence, then the relationship will be excellent.43
With Morsi’s victory, it was clear the Dawa had made the wrong bet. There were already some rumblings inside with the Burhami-Abdel Azeem split and also discontent from al-Nour’s president, Emad Abdel Ghafour, who objected to Burhami’s influence in his party.
The Morsi presidency: After Morsi’s victory, al-Nour tried to realign itself. According to Burhami, the Dawa suggested to Morsi that at least seven ministries be allotted to al-Nour since it was the second largest bloc in parliament. Al-Nour also requested that Morsi appoint a Salafi vice-president and review major decisions with an informal council of Islamist leaders. Morsi ignored all of the requests.
The only tangible gain for the Dawa was its representation in the drafting committee for the deeply polarizing December 2012 constitution. Burhami infamously engineered article 219, which “defined the principles of Islamic Sharia.” In a lecture to followers in November 2012, Burhami explained that he slipped the language in to limit freedoms that can breach Sharia44 and apologized to followers that he was unable to block an article making al-Azhar’s grand imam, who is openly hostile towards Salafis, immune from removal.45 Yet despite this achievement, Burhami teaches his followers today that the Brotherhood was not to thank for the article’s inclusion but rather that the Brotherhood had instead sold them out and framed it to non-Islamists as a “Salafi issue.”
During that fall, the most serious challenges to the Dawa’s unity and Burhami’s hold over it appeared. Dissent from al-Nour’s president, Abdel Ghafour, who rejected Burhami’s influence over al-Nour, came to the surface. Rumors circulated that Abdel Ghafour had been kicked out from al-Nour, but they later were denied.46 The discontent was real. In December 2012, Abdel Ghafour declared his resignation and intention to found a party. He formally launched Al-Watan in January 2013. The party’s launch event signaled to Burhami who his enemies were. Abdel Azeem spoke at the event. Other figures detested by Burhami such as Hazem Salah Abu Ismail were also in attendance. Al-Watan’s split was not civil. The new party converted al-Nour party offices and even took over al-Nour’s twitter account.
For Burhami, the gloves had to come off. In the following months, the Dawa stepped up its public criticisms of Morsi and his presidency. By the end of January of that year, al-Nour met with the Brotherhood’s secular opposition represented in the National Salvation Front (NSF) to ostensibly pursue national reconciliation.47 The irony was that the country needed such reconciliation because of a divisive constitution al-Nour was instrumental in engineering. The Brotherhood worried about opponents of its autocratic and expansionist aims. But when it came to the fundamental clash of ideologies and cultures, al-Nour embodied the most activist strand of Islamism. Yet the party recalibrated its strategy and found that working with secularists is a lesser mafsadah than allowing the Brotherhood to consolidate its rule over Egypt, and in its view, destroy the Dawa.
Dawa leaders point to a recent leaked secret recording of al-Shater discussing Brotherhood electoral strategy during the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections as proof of the Brotherhood’s designs in action.48 In it, al-Shater explains that the Brotherhood supported ILBRR’s Mohamed Yoursi Ibrahim in his parliamentary campaign for being a reasonable Salafi compared with the Dawa and that the Dawa had frustrated the Brotherhood.49 Sure enough, following Morsi’s victory, Ibrahim was nominated for the post of Minister of Religious Endowments. But he did not get the job due to a public outcry over allegations that Ibrahim was picked because of his connection to al-Shater.
The Dawa’s accusations that ILBRR was a tool of the Brotherhood to provide influence over Salafis came to light following an escalation by the Brotherhood. Morsi’s office fired an al-Nour party presidential adviser, Khalid Alim ad-Din, from his post and accused him of misconduct. The Dawa was furious because it found the Brotherhood publicly humiliating its member. Immediately, the Dawa Sheikhs resigned in protest from ILBRR and demanded that the Brotherhood apologize for its firing of ad-Din. Al-Shater refused. As a sign of the growing rift between Burhami and Abdel Azeem, the latter had refused to resign from ILBRR and in fact was promoted. In retaliation, Burhami and al-Nour’s new president, Youness Makhioun, began to speak of Brotherhood nepotism and the “Ikhwanization” of the state.50 In the months before the coup, the mutual hostility only increased.
The Dawa’s conviction that it was on the right path in confronting Morsi received further confirmation after his Iran rapprochement. Initially, one of the reasons el-Moqadem drifted away from the Brotherhood in 1979 was the group’s admiration of the Islamic Revolution there, which the young Salafis at the time saw as a threat of expanding Shiism in the region. Other Dawa Sheikhs who may have objected to Burhami’s earlier political moves were on board with the anti-Shiite campaign. For instance, Fareed headed the Dawa’s own “Committee to Defend against Shiism in Egypt.” The Brotherhood’s Iran policy provided Burhami with almost a godsend case to exemplify to followers the danger the Brothers posed to Egypt’s religion. Shiites, to whom Burhami constantly says Salafis are “allergic,” are not only a religious threat but also a threat to the homeland for their loyalty to Iran. Al-Nour now argues that it zealously guards the interests of the homeland. In an interview Burhami explained,
Egypt enjoys Sunni unity. This protects it from the dangers of inter-ethnic strife like that in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Opening the gates to the spread of Shiism in Egypt threatens this unity and undermines the collective peace.51
As dissent grew against the Brotherhood, the Dawa rightly feared that a backlash against the Brotherhood would mean one against Islamists at large. There were many incidents of men with beards verbally attacked by regular Egyptians who had come to hate the Brotherhood and blame them for their living conditions. The Dawa was not ready to forget what it viewed as a campaign by the Brotherhood to infiltrate it and destroy it. After all, the political process in itself was an experiment in the “game of politics.” The Dawa still holds this mentality despite the new challenges and threats it faces. When I asked Burhami after the coup if he believed that his foray into politics put the Dawa in this situation, he insisted that,
The same would’ve happened even if the party wasn’t founded. Because the other currents who are trying to monopolize representing Islam [the Muslim Brotherhood] would have still clashed with the Salafi Dawa even if it was just a pressure group in society.52
The Future of the Dawa Under Sisi
The significant backlash against the Dawa following its support for the July 2013 coup only served to reinforce the suspicions that informed its decisions following the revolution. The Dawa is convinced today that the Brotherhood is actively trying to destroy it and points to incidents of violence against its cadres and a systematic campaign to undermine Burhami. Despite keeping the Brothers at bay, the Dawa believes that it faces an Egyptian deep state that is in league with the Church and secularists who are actively working to marginalize it. The Dawa points to how this camp tried yet again to marginalize Sharia in the 2014 constitution and a litany of recently passed laws designed to limit al-Nour’s representation in the coming parliament.
It is important to analyze three factors to assess the future of the Dawa under Sisi. First, the experiences of the past three years have helped develop a type of Sharia-compliant pragmatism, which explains how the Dawa views its place in the Egyptian political landscape. Second, the Dawa’s relationship with the military convinces it that it will be immune from attacks by secularists. Finally, without internal cohesiveness, the Dawa’s effectiveness could be limited.
The Dawa’s Sharia-compliant pragmatism: The Dawa views politics as simply a game. It abandoned its long-held apprehensions about political participation virtually overnight due to the Dawa’s fear that secularists and Christians would challenge Egypt’s so-called Islamic identity. The Dawa fought to keep Article 2 in the constitution even though it has fundamental issues accepting a man-made constitution replacing the Qur’an in the first place. It does not believe that the Egyptian state is ruling by Sharia yet considers an article in the constitution of a modern nation-state will protect Egypt’s Islamic identity. Finally, it refuses to accept that sovereignty is derived from the people. In reality, the Dawa wishes to see Egypt as an Islamic state. However, it does not believe that anyone in Egypt has the appropriate qualifications to properly Islamize Egypt and rule by God’s Sharia. Still, a senior al-Nour party official interviewed explained that an Islamic Egypt would come no matter what; it is a matter of fate. He asked me rhetorically, “What would people have called you if you said in the 50s and 60s Socialism won’t take hold in Egypt? Nothing is impossible.”53 Therefore, the Dawa believes that it must navigate Egypt’s toxic political and social landscape as it waits for God’s deliverance. Burhami explained to me the Dawa’s calculation in justifying tactical measures while believing it is still staying true to its core beliefs:
There is a difference between abandoning ideological principles and tactics. For instance, when I say that we did not promise we would implement Sharia [the Dawa refuses to acknowledge that it said it will implement Sharia once in parliament but rather that it said it will protect Egypt’s Islamic identity]. It is not because I do not believe in the importance of implementing it, but rather it is about what I am capable and not capable of. There are practical calculations and then there are foundational principles that remain unchanged. If I am able to stick to the foundational principles and move around with the practical calculations, then we will have the ability to survive while sticking to our principles.54
In this context, it becomes clear that the Dawa sees that it finds itself in a precarious situation that it hates. It is too weak to enforce change but is convinced by faith that it is predestined to victory. On this path toward an Islamic Egypt, those who oppose the creed can be dealt with in whichever way is most feasible. As Burhami explained to me, he does not believe that Islam teaches Muslims to risk their lives needlessly, and this extends to politics, in that you gain nothing from being the hero. The Muslim Brotherhood was and still is an enemy to the Dawa, and the sacrifice of one Salafi cadre is not worth siding with the Brotherhood. Burhami explained:
For them [the Muslim Brotherhood] to say, "I’ll either get all that I want or I die, or sacrifice myself, or my group, or my party" then this is a problem because some think that this is what Islam teaches: that regardless of what the situation is I must be able to sacrifice, and with this, one would be sticking to his principles... As a group and as a society I should say that "I will do all that I am capable of doing and seek to do what I am incapable of doing." Meaning that I should proceed where I am able to [that is within the boundaries of what is allowed] with my eye on my ultimate desire…Some might describe what I just said as pragmatism, but in reality, these are Sharia-based calculations. Moreover, in real life these are the calculations of any sane person, for Sharia does not tell us to confront this steel wall [the deep state] that I can’t change now. All previous prophets, for instance, continued to spread their message and took account of the calculations I previously highlighted. God himself says, "Allah burdens not a person beyond his scope."
On the other hand, the Dawa knows that it will still be viewed with suspicion by other segments of society. The Dawa, which now engages in pro-regime rhetoric, is still attacked by Egypt’s secularists. For instance, after recently showing that it was the most active campaigner for Sisi, al-Nour officials had to defend accusations that they were deceitfully guiding their followers to void their ballots. And as if on auto-pilot, a television host on Egyptian State TV in February of 2014 simultaneously mocked Burhami on live TV for his forbidding the celebration of Valentine’s Day while seemingly oblivious to the Dawa’s fierce defense of the Egyptian state. The Dawa’s critics may say that its actions are what brought it to this state of no allies to count on, but as the Dawa’s earlier history shows, it has never had to rely on allies to survive.
Salafi-Military relations: When it comes to the military that the Dawa now defends against the Brotherhood, the Dawa is also not naïve. According to Burhami’s calculus, the military’s overthrow of the Brotherhood may simply be a direction in the step towards strengthening the Dawa’s hand. Burhami sincerely believes that the ideologically shallow and insincere actions of the Brotherhood in office harmed the image of Islamists and the Dawa sustained collateral damage. Therefore, it became prudent to strengthen the Dawa’s alliance with the military.
The Salafis espouse an understanding of Islam that is contrary to what most of the pious officer corps practices, but this does not stop Burhami from justifying rapprochement. He explained,
The military is of the nationalist school of thought, and is of course different than the Islamist school of thought. The version of religiousness it is presenting is what is present amongst the masses, which is praying, fasting, going to hajj, reading Quran. This is a level that is of course better than no religiousness at all, and this puts the national school closer to the Islamic school to some extent.55
The Dawa also presents itself as an asset to the military. Although the Dawa’s rhetoric further polarized society and encouraged marginalization of Christians, they were ironically the most relied upon by the military to settle communal disputes. Salafis, and often Burhami himself, crisscrossed the country to “reconcile” local Salafis and their Christian victims. The Salafis also resolved many tribal and clan disputes, relying on their religious credibility. Following the January 2011 revolution and subsequent major incidents of violence, Salafi Sheikhs, many times affiliated or close to the Dawa, were used by authorities to convince families of victims killed by the police and army to accept blood money.56 The Dawa is also active in “periphery governorates” such as Marsa Matruh and North Sinai, which are under the direct supervision of military intelligence. In these areas, Salafis were—and still are—used by the military to settle disputes and gather intelligence.
Mersa Matruh serves as an example of how the military uses the Dawa as a tool for social stability and even economic profit. As a periphery governorate, Matruh is an area where military intelligence has free reign to interact directly with local communities for purported national security purposes. Following the July 2013 coup, the Dawa helped neutralize a burgeoning rebellion encouraged by its own representative in the governorate, Sheikh Ali Ghalab. Ghalab had stood before a crowd and threatened violent retribution following the August 14, 2013, Rabaa square massacre of Brotherhood supporters.57 Ghalab had resigned from the Dawa in protest over its support of the coup as some other Sheikhs across the country did. The Dawa’s senior leadership in lock step with military intelligence worked to exert pressure on Ghalab to stop supporting protests in the region. Four locals were killed in violent clashes with the military following the August 14, 2013, massacre at Raba square.
In an unexpected turn of events a few weeks later at a “national reconciliation” ceremony, Ghalab not only changed his rhetoric but also stood before the most senior intelligence and military leadership in the region pledging his support and called the military intelligence liaison his son.58 Ghalab explained to followers that military intelligence had convinced him the Brotherhood sought to turn Matruh into another terrorist hot zone like Sinai and that if blood is spilled, it would be on his hands.59 The Dawa and Ghalab had done what they do best and convinced the families of the victims following the August 14 clashes to accept blood money and free pilgrimage to Mecca offered by the military as compensation. Military intelligence also promised to release detained protesters, but still holds on to a few for leverage.
The Dawa also helped serve the military’s economic interests in Dabaa, Marsa Matruh, where locals had rejected plans to build a nuclear power plant they felt endangered their lives. They vandalized the building site at a cost to the government of millions of pounds. Following the 2013 coup, the Dawa helped convince locals to let the military take over the land from the government and develop it on its own. The locals came to believe that the military was a more trustworthy custodian of the safety of the project than the Egyptian bureaucracy was.
To win further favor with the military, the Dawa worked to solidify its already strong position as a nationalist actor. The Dawa’s professed goal is to defend Egypt and its Islamic identity from Iranian Shiism and Western secularism. Like its Brotherhood counterparts and other segments in Egyptian society, including the military, the Dawa buys in to widely held conspiracy theories that the West led by the United States and in league with Israel wants to undermine Islam and destabilize Egypt. For instance, in May 2010, Dawa spokesperson al-Shahat wrote an article titled “Fifteen centuries of the Islamic, Western, Israeli conflict.”
Despite writing volumes that have previously railed against the secular foundations of the modern state and its military, Burhami has pragmatically shifted his actions. To him the justification is quite simple. What he wrote in the past was in regards to tyrant regimes and so long as Sisi does not follow their footsteps, Burhami cannot pass judgment.60 Burhami recognizes that the military is the dominant force in Egyptian politics, and if need be, the Dawa can adjust to blows directed at it as was the case under Mubarak. To drive the point that his objectives go beyond the political party and how the state may crackdown, Burhami responded to critics by saying:
If the alternative is the loss of two and a half million citizens as was the case in other countries, or the failure of the state, or to enter into a conflict, then I do not mind [the authorities] dissolving or restricting al-Nour in order to protect [the lives of Muslims].61
The Dawa’s close relationship with the military and its Islamic-nationalist rhetoric led it to believe that it will not be in Sisi’s crosshairs. Although the Dawa has grown significantly unpopular in many Islamist circles due to its decisions, it can still have influence in impoverished and conflicted communities and thus remains valuable to the military. This might help keep the Dawa shielded from the security establishment and from the brunt of the government’s recent measures seeking to consolidate mosques. Yet the government recently passed legislation requiring a minimum number of Copts to be included in party lists. The Dawa has voiced its opposition62 to this law, which will greatly prohibit its ability to contest seats nationwide, but it is unlikely to take drastic measures such as street protests or strikes. In an interview, Burhami completely dismissed the notion that the military will move against the Dawa itself or seek to destroy its networks, emphatically declaring that “nothing will happen.”63
The Future of the Dawa’s Organization
Today, the Dawa is exposed, and its internal cohesiveness is in serious jeopardy. The desperate calls for obedience referenced in the earlier section are a result of a breakdown in trust among the Dawa’s cadres and supporters. The Dawa’s support of the July 2013 coup and road map have sealed its fate with its Islamist brethren and many of its members. If that was not enough, the Dawa has been vocal in its criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and in sounding alarm bells that the Brothers are leading their youth to takfiri ideology. Finally, the Dawa was not simply content with announcing its support of Sisi, but al-Nour was in fact the most active political party campaigning in the streets.
Burhami is keenly aware of the criticism leveled against his organization. His goal is proselytization and spreading Islam, yet the Dawa engages in politics, alienating followers. In the eyes of many, Burhami has completely deviated from everything that he stood for. He now jumps from one TV interview to the next speaking of how the Dawa fears the breakdown of the Egyptian state—which to Burhami was always anathema because it has long embodied the rule of tyranny. Indeed, he had told followers not to join its police force.64
In attempting to understand how the Dawa came to its state today, it became clear that the answer lied in Burhami. Burhami is generally unfazed by the controversy and criticism of inconsistency. He maintains that engaging in politics was the right decision. He explained:
The relative weaker state of proselytization is not due to our preoccupation with politics but rather the revolutionary state of society that preoccupies young and old. Many may skip religious lessons and instead prefer following political events. This is a revolutionary state that is expected after a revolution in any society and for us to ignore this is to ignore reality.65
Burhami’s pragmatism may have served to ward off fatal attacks from the outside, but it may have aggravated internal challenges. Indeed, the focus on external threats may have diverted time and attention from developing an internal blueprint for healing rifts and building a succession plan. There has been no clear vision for how to ensure the Dawa’s leadership can pass over to the second-level leadership. The Dawa’s Sheikhs are old and despite having a time-tested friendship, they still can disagree, as was the case with Saeed Abdel Azeem after he supported the Brotherhood.
In the Dawa’s own Alexandria, it has been unable to manage the rise of dissenting Sheikhs. Sheikh Abdel Azeem will prove to be a challenge as there are no indications that he has given up his claim to the Dawa. Despite showing support for the splinter al-Watan Party, Abdel Azeem largely refrained from publicly voicing his discontent until Burhami placed the Dawa squarely in the anti-Brotherhood camp.
Another sign of threats to the Dawa’s cohesiveness closer to home come from former Dawa cadres such as Sheikh Ahmad el-Sisi. Sheikh el-Sisi has long railed against the policies of the Dawa and al-Nour and attracted many Dawa students. El-Sisi is a formidable opponent for he has long been among the Dawa’s most successful cadres and rising leaders. Even at the height of his anti-Burhami vitriol, a senior al-Nour official praised el-Sisi’s strong credentials and explained that he was consistently at the top of his class in al-Furqan. The senior official simply stated that he hoped el-Sisi would realize that he has erred. The tolerance of el-Sisi in the Dawa’s own territory is a sign of the Dawa’s rational behavior towards dissenters. However, the Dawa fails to address the concerns raised by former cadre members such as el-Sisi and is instead content to explain to followers that there is a conspiracy against the Dawa and its Sheikhs and people like el-Sisi are simply astray.
The Dawa is also still struggling to shield itself from the Brotherhood’s agitation of its cadres. In its multi-layered struggle to topple the current order, the Brotherhood is in open battle with the Dawa. The Brotherhood seeks to undermine Burhami and usually Brotherhood members and sympathizers crash Burhami’s lessons to shame him for his pro-government stances. The unquenched thirst of Sisi’s government for more Brotherhood blood makes it difficult for Burhami to convince his followers that supporting the coup was the right move. Egypt’s secularists are more vitriolic than ever, and some of the actions taken by public intellectuals and the government seem anti-Islam. For instance, the Ministry of Interior, at the behest of secular commentators, declared war on posters across Egypt that asked people if they praised the Prophet Muhammad.
An example of the impact of Brotherhood agitation came to light on the first anniversary of the coup this year when the Salafi Dawa in Mersa Matruh and its leader, Ali Ghalab, both of whom had sympathized with the Brotherhood early on, issued a damning statement refusing to engage in politics and upcoming parliamentary elections. The Dawa’s efforts highlighted in an earlier section to force the Matruh chapter to follow its orders have largely failed. The public move to denounce political participation ironically borrowed from the Dawa leaders’ own rhetoric in the past discouraging political participation. The Dawa’s chapter in Matruh has not mobilized in a meaningful way over the past year during the 2014 constitutional referendum and the presidential election. The rejection of the political process from Sheikhs such as Ghalab, who called for rebellion following the coup, sends an unsettling message of Brotherhood involvement in playing on Salafis’ religious emotions to persuade them not to support the current anti-Islamist order. In response to this unanticipated development, Burhami claimed it to be a pity move and promised that the Dawa will expel any member sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood across Egypt.
What remains as the Dawa’s biggest adversary, however, is the very state it supports. The Ministry of Religious Endowments has recently challenged Salafi control over mosques, stressing that it will implement long-ignored laws enforcing state control of Egypt’s mosques. The ministry has also drafted a preacher code of honor that forbids the discussion of politics by preachers. The zeal in the ministry’s moves come from its new post-coup minister, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, who has repeatedly said in public that no group will be exempt from the recent directives. The most important one permits only licensed preachers to climb the pulpit. He has played a game of chicken with the Dawa, effectively daring its largely unlicensed and non-Azhari leaders to disobey the directives.
Despite some rhetoric of defiance by Dawa cadres, their leaders largely conceded. In the most important holy month in Islam, Ramadan of this year, many Dawa Sheikhs did not preach to avoid a confrontation with the state. Despite the Dawa signing a protocol with the ministry to license preachers, it did not expect the ministry would move to enforce its directives this fast nor did it anticipate the daring rhetoric of its minister. Even though the Dawa has sided with the state, the state’s own religious establishment still distrusts the Salafis who, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, discredited al-Azhar and the ministry of religious endowments for decades by deriding them as the “Sheikhs of the Sultan.”
In a telling move for what to expect in the future, Burhami caved to the ministry’s demands and humiliatingly accepted that he and the other Sheikhs must take licensing tests to prove their knowledge and compliance with government standards. Although it will largely be seen as the biggest sign of Dawa weakness in the face of the new regime, the Dawa defends their actions. It claims that had it not negotiated with the minister, who initially insisted that only al-Azhar graduates be allowed to preach, then Dawa cadres would have been forbidden to preach even with a license. Importantly, it is a lesson for the Dawa that it cannot count on the military to step in on issues such as this, and it is unclear if the military would care to do so. The post-coup regime that the Dawa has helped grant legitimacy to is still very much unpredictable. And now, after it received the necessary support from the Salafis early on, the regime may be itching to find an excuse to drive them underground.
For all its liabilities and vulnerabilities, the Dawa is far from dead. It relies on its core of dedicated followers who see in their Sheiks no wrong. In my interviews with Burhami, he was always keen to explain that the Salafi dissenters the media often cites are not “ours.” In Egypt’s current political environment, success should not be measured against the former organizational might of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Dawa’s al-Nour party is the political arm of a three-decade-old religious and social movement that is operating all across Egypt. The Dawa lacks the discipline found in the pre-coup Brotherhood. But the dedication of its core followers surpasses the organizational capacity of Egypt’s other non-Islamic parties as was evident during Sisi’s presidential campaign. Dawa cadres, even if only in the dozens, walked the streets and energetically campaigned for Sisi. This latest effort showed the Dawa’s desire to continue to remain relevant and strike back at critics who claim the Dawa has lost its cadres and support.
Burhami’s dominance in the Dawa will likely continue for the long term. Sheikhs Ahmad Fareed and Abu Idris are squarely on his side as was evident in their voting for Sisi. Sheikh El-Moqadem and Hotayba have largely stayed quiet, likely because they object to some of Burhami’s decisions. But they will keep out of the way to guarantee the greater maslaha of Dawa unity. In the process of its political evolution, the Dawa under the leadership of Burhami has defied long-held presumptions about Salafis’ acceptance of change. Its many enemies, both perceived and real, help guarantee a continued sense of purpose and unity as it cautiously seeks to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the alienated Brotherhood. To Burhami, the Dawa represents the legitimate manifestation of an Egyptian-born religious movement with a mission to bring an Islamist state to a society whose values and practices are a still long way from meeting Salafi standards. The experience of the Brotherhood enabled Burhami to realize the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the larger population. The Dawa’s relationship with the military and full embrace of Sisi’s roadmap may have alienated Islamists. But the Dawa now can look to develop its own cadres and to the larger task of winning over ordinary, pious Egyptians.
The author wishes to thank Alexandrian journalist Abdel Rahman Youssef for his assistance and insights, and Nathan J. Brown for his mentorship and encouragement to pursue this topic.