To even approach Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, you have to take off your shoes. The son of the man Americans call the Blind Sheik — Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for seditious conspiracy in a North Carolina prison — spends part of each day calling for his father’s release at a makeshift open-air sit-in outside the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. A collection of blue straw mats are spread across the concrete, ringed by about eight pairs of shoes along the edges. Several times a day, the mats become prayers rugs, so no shoes are allowed.
I went looking for him to talk about the role of Salafis — the controversial and conservative Islamists who are wielding new and often troubling political influence, in the eyes of Westerners and secular Arabs — in the new Egypt and in the Arab world after over a year of uprisings. The interview would be part of a major story by Bobby Ghosh in the Oct. 8 issue of TIME (available to subscribers here).
Sitting beneath banners displaying his father’s bearded visage, the 39-year-old Abdel-Rahman comes across as placid and pleasant. He departed for Afghanistan in 1988 at age 16 to join up with the mujahedin. “Back then, all the world was with us, especially the U.S., because we were hitting the Soviet Union,” he says. He was captured by U.S.-led forces in 2003 and says he spent a few months being interrogated at Bagram Air Base before being rendered back to Egypt, where he spent several years in jail. He was released in the fall of 2010, a few months before the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Abdel-Rahman says he participated in that uprising but that the issue of joining the protests was a controversial one within Salafi circles. Salafi doctrine before the revolution strictly forbade involvement in opposition politics. The common Arabic phrase is, “la yagouz khurooj ala al hakim,” which loosely translates as, “Don’t challenge those in power.” Says Abdel-Rahman: “Before the revolution, our sheiks would only talk about politics in an indirect way. Most [Salafis] didn’t get involved in the revolution — and then only near the end. And there were many who said at the time that the revolution was a mistake.”
After the revolution, the Salafis shifted strategies, forming multiple political parties. Their performance in the fall 2011 parliamentary elections — in which they captured 20% of the seats — was a shock to most observers. “Their popularity became evident in the elections,” says Abdel-Rahman, who insists he was not surprised. “I was expecting it because of what I know of the Egyptian people. These have always been a religious people.” In addition, he says, the Salafis — unlike the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — benefited from their lack of involvement in political and pre-revolutionary focus on purely religious outreach. “We were considered clean.”
I ask why American diplomats and Egyptian security forces have allowed him and his followers to camp out near the embassy for 13 months now. Abdel-Rahman laughs and says his group might actually be enhancing embassy security by blocking one of the roads leading to the staff entrance of the embassy. “They leave us because we’re not causing trouble,” he says. “The Americans do respect the fact that we’re here nonviolently, as opposed to those other protests. Officials from the embassy sometimes stop by and chat with us.”
He declares that he and his group were not behind the recent embassy siege, which was apparently triggered by the controversial and until then little-known film Innocence of Muslims. On Sept. 11, 2012, he was at the embassy sit-in as usual. Earlier in the day, he and his supporters had held a press conference under a banner that read, “Who are the real terrorists,” and argued that his father was unjustly imprisoned and wasn’t involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks (Omar Abdel-Rahman was convicted of conspiracy involving other plots). Then, around 5 p.m., a crowd of protesters descended on the embassy. “It wasn’t just one group, and it wasn’t just Islamists,” Abdel-Rahman recalls. “We asked them to go around the corner. We didn’t want any problems here.”
Abdel-Rahman says he briefly joined the protests but didn’t like what he saw from the crowd, so he didn’t stay long. “I could see it wasn’t very well organized. There were people who wanted to scale the walls and people who wanted to hold a sit-in. People were yelling at each other and arguing. I and my people left and came back here.” The rest was a diplomatic catastrophe for Mohamed Morsy’s government and a debacle for the Obama Administration.
Nonetheless, the new Egyptian President has pledged to work for Omar Abdel-Rahman’s freedom. “I wasn’t expecting it at all, but my mother wasn’t surprised,” Mohammed Abdel-Rahman says. “There has been an effort in Egypt to erase my father’s name from the history books. So this was a victory for reversing that effort.” He says that since then, he has been in contact with the presidential office — not with Morsy himself, but with Morsy representatives who have made similar pledges to lobby the Americans for his father’s release.
Morsy’s move may have been political outreach, but Abdel-Rahman is certain about the differences between the President and the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and himself and the Salafis on the other. “For [the Brotherhood],” he explains, “it’s optional whether to grow your beard or not. For us, there is no other option. For them, it’s optional whether women should wear the niqab. For us, there is no other option.” It’s clear that he regards these options in the Brotherhood camp as signs of weakness and moral flexibility. It all boils down to what the Salafis want. “It’s very simple,” says Abdel-Rahman. “We want Shari‘a. Shari‘a in economy, in politics, in judiciary, in our borders and our foreign relations. The internal debate among us is how quickly we want to implement it. Do we do it all at once, or do we do it gradually, so as not to shock people too much.”
“Salafis are not monolithic,” says Khalil al-Anani, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Durham School of Government and International Affairs. “They can be divided into political Salafis, who adopt political ideology and seek to implement it regardless of other views or factions, and the traditional Salafis, who are not interested in politics.”
“Political Salafis, on their side, can be divided into two main strands,” al-Anani continues. “First is the extreme or radical and violent Salafis, e.g., Salafiyya Jihadiyya in Sinai, Ansar-AlShari’a in Libya. The second is the pragmatic and more domesticated [or politicized] Salafis like al-Nour party and other Salafi parties.”
Most Salafis, says al-Anani, “treat democracy as a mere tool to implement the Islamic law. They tend to acculturate religion and pull the societies toward what they believe the ‘authentic’ Islam.” In that way, all Salafis, he says, “view the Arab Spring as a golden opportunity to impose their ideology and enforce their worldviews upon Arab societies. Moreover, they view themselves as stakeholders of the new political environment, which implies that they should have a share in the fruits of the Arab Spring. Hence, they tend not to compromise their religious ideology for the sake of politics.” And because of that rigidity, he says, “the relationship between Salafis and the [Brotherhood] is complex and variant. I see them as adversaries more than allies. Both compete over audience, influence and political interests. They occasionally cooperate, but only to hit secular and liberals.”
The push and pull and compromises of politics may not suit the Salafis. Abdel-Rahman acknowledges that the parliamentary result may be a high-water mark for the Salafis. He says it is likely that the numbers could drop in the new parliamentary elections that are to be held within the next six months. He blames this on bad press from “liberals in the media” who have painted the Salafis as both power-hungry and obsessed with inserting religious minutiae into the constitution while ignoring the massive real-world problems facing the country.
But there is also disunity among the various Salafis about how closely they will allow themselves to work with Morsy and the Brotherhood. The al-Nour party — the largest of the Salafi parties — is essentially an umbrella for a loose collection of power centers based on sheiks with different agendas. “There are some internal tensions” in the al-Nour party, Abdel-Rahman says, refusing to elaborate about an organization that he has ties to. “If there are any problems, different groups could splinter and return to their individual sheiks.” On Wednesday, al-Nour’s supreme committee voted to oust its leader, Emad Abdel Ghaffour, reportedly over a number of internecine issues, including his recent appointment to a government post by Morsy, who belongs to the Brotherhood’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party.
Around 5 p.m. on the day that I met Abdel-Rahman, one of his half-dozen followers gave the call to prayer over a loudspeaker. The group assembled in a line on the mat to perform the prayers, with Abdel-Rahman leading. At the end, he offered an appeal to the Almighty for his father’s safety and freedom, and asked for God’s protection for “mujahedin everywhere.” Tomorrow he’ll be back to sit and pray again.