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Egypt's religious hardliners make a rocky debut in Parliament

CAIRO — Only five weeks into their historic foray into Parliament, Egypt's ultraconservative Salafists have earned a reputation as loose cannons for a series of actions that critics might dismiss as comical if it weren't for the group's deep grassroots support.

Newly elected Salafists — who are Islamic fundamentalist rivals of the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood — showed their rogue spirit at the new Parliament's very first session when they tweaked the official oath of office so that it invoked Islamic law. Salafist politicians or their affiliated clerics have since taken aim at bikinis, alcohol, pornography, and even the teaching of English in schools.

Such holier-than-thou posturing made the latest scandal even sweeter for the movement's many critics: Earlier this week, a Salafist legislator was caught lying about his bandaged face — the result of a nose job, not the vicious attack he'd described to police.

Nader Bakkar, the media-savvy spokesman and public face of the Salafist Nour Party, didn't bother with spin when asked point-blank whether the debut so far was disappointing or embarrassing.

"Yes, and yes," he said with a heavy sigh.

Analysts said the missteps might be considered just a part of the maturation of any new political force — if the Salafists didn't hold such an outsized influence on Egypt's political process since the ouster last year of former President Hosni Mubarak.

The Nour Party was the surprise of the parliamentary election, capturing a quarter of the seats and coming second only to the Brotherhood, which has spent decades preparing for its ascension to power.

Salafists also are a wild card in the presidential election set for May. Thousands of followers who boycotted legislative polls because they don't believe in man-made laws are expected to turn out for the general election. And political observers are paying close attention to Salafists' demands in the drafting of a new constitution; the group seeks stronger wording about the role of Islam.

So far, the powerful military establishment and the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood have tempered the Salafist influence. But the balance of power could change with the election of a new president and the appointment of a brand-new Cabinet.

"If there are no checks or counterbalance, they can be very dangerous," said Omar Ashour, a specialist in militant Islamist movements with the Brookings Institution and director of Middle East Studies at Britain's Exeter University, who's currently in Cairo for research.

Whether merited or not, fears abound of the Salafists foisting their austere, Saudi-style brand of Islam on Egyptian society. The recent gaffes haven't eased concerns.

Influential youth groups born of the uprising have vowed to fight any Islamist initiatives that run counter to revolutionary values, including gender equality and freedom of speech. Artists, playwrights and novelists have united to form a new commission to protect freedom of expression from expected Salafist attacks; the group includes volunteer attorneys ready to defend any artist accused of blasphemy.

"The biggest thing that shocked me was the guy who said we shouldn't learn anything but Arabic. That's someone without a brain," said Ahmed el Zuhairy, 21, who supports more moderate Islamists.

"They've only been in office 40 days, and they already got into an argument and had to be told you can't upset the business of the nation to pray in the middle of Parliament."

Aware of the fears, Nour Party leaders have made overtures to more moderate rivals and seem serious about focusing on timely national issues of security and the economy rather than pushing for, say, gender-segregated classrooms or mandatory headscarves for women.

But the party still suffers guilt by association for the behavior not only of its own members but also of independent Salafists — such as the one who interrupted Parliament by bursting into the call to prayer, or the one who pursued blasphemy charges against a business tycoon who depicted Minnie Mouse in a facial veil.

Bakkar, the Nour Party spokesman, said Egyptians shouldn't be surprised that a movement based on a literalist reading of the Quran acts accordingly in office.

"What you see is what you get," Bakkar said, a wide smile visible from under his bushy beard.

Ashour, the researcher of Islamist movements, said the fuss over the Salafists' individual peccadilloes overshadows some of the movement's more progressive initiatives, such as pushing for discounted bread and cooking gas.

Far from closed-off, he said, the Salafists have made overtures to virtually every other bloc. The Nour Party, he noted, voted to include two Coptic Christian women on a state fact-finding panel.

Their rivals, Ashour added, could learn from the Salafists' efficient charity networks, which were instrumental in the election.

"The Nour Party leadership is trying to moderate the behavior, to update their worldview, and to understand the process of political strategizing," Ashour said.

But first, Ashour added, the politically astute crop of Salafists must stop being undermined by "the porn guy, the nose-job guy, the prayer-call guy."


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