NAHIA, Egypt » Abboud al-Zomor, the former intelligence officer who supplied the bullets that killed President Anwar Sadat and is Egypt’s most notorious newly released prisoner, waxes enthusiastic about ending the violent jihad he once led.
"The ballot boxes will decide who will win at the end of the day," Zomor said during an interview in his large family compound in this hamlet on Cairo’s western edge. "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."
In its drive to create a perfect Islamic state, his Islamic Group and other groups like it were once synonymous with some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Egypt. But they 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.
The public approval of the constitutional amendments 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.
Al-Zomor, 64, with his bushy gray beard and nearly 30 years in prison, has emerged as a high-profile spokesman for that sea change since he was released March 12.
He 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.
Several reasons lie behind this remarkable turnabout, according to senior religious sheiks, junior members and experts.
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. The parliament to be elected in September will guide the drafting of a new constitution.
"If the constitution is a liberal 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!"
Second, the Salafis arrived late to the revolution, with many clerics emphatically supporting President Hosni Mubarak and condemning the protesters.
Young Salafis rebelled — extremely rare for a group that reveres tradition and hierarchy.
"The majority of the Salafi youth were the people who actually said, ‘No, this is impossible, we have to be part of this, it is a just cause,"’ said Sherif Abdel Naser, a 24-year-old Egyptian-American who now attends political classes three nights a week at Shahat’s cramped mosque.
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-Qaida. Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s No. 2, is an Egyptian Salafist.
Some Egyptians are convinced that the government released the likes of al-Zomor as a kind of bogeyman — to frighten the country about the possible downside of democracy. Al-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.
Some famous Salafi clerics have been preaching national unity and have said they would preserve the peace treaty with Israel. But more exclusionary thinking also emerges in sharp relief.
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.
He later claimed he was joking, but such attitudes are easy to find among Salafi foot soldiers. At the University of Alexandria, within sight of the sparkling Mediterranean, five bearded Salafi students set up a small table at the Faculty of Commerce on Tuesday to advocate the benefits of an Islamic state.
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 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.
Alarmed by the violence, Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s grand mufti, is planning a conference of spiritual leaders in mid-April to try to establish consensual guidelines for separating religious and political discourse — for both Muslims and Christians.
Some experts hope the emergence of the Salafis will create a healthy attempt to reconcile Islam with democracy.
"The Salafis have realized that the only way for them to survive is to be politically engaged," said 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."