After decades of condemning parliamentary politics, Salafis have created political parties for the first time in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, even as Salafis in Morocco and Gaza attempt to do the same. Salafi political parties are not unprecedented in the Arab world -- Bahrain and Kuwait have had Salafi political blocs for many years, and there was a Salafi-dominated party briefly in Algeria in the early 1990s that successfully contested parliamentary elections until the Algerian government cancelled the poll results. But the phenomenon is unusual. Before the Arab Spring, the majority of Salafis, or Sunni Muslim puritans, condemned parliaments as sinful because they usurp God’s role as legislator. Salafis also condemned party politics as divisive, and thus against the Quran’s condemnation of factionalism.
Many Salafis have swallowed their ideological objections to party politics because they want to nudge the new regimes in the post-Arab Spring countries closer to their own vision of an Islamic state -- namely, one that implements their ultraconservative vision of Islamic law. Salafis also want to protect their institutional interests, such as religious endowments, from encroachment by others, whether political stakeholders or competing Islamic currents. In other words, politically active Salafis do not want their Islamist and liberal competitors to achieve political objectives at the expense of the Salafis. In the early 1980s, for instance, Kuwaiti Salafis’ wariness of both liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood was behind their decision to field candidates for parliamentary elections, with the approval of powerful Saudi clerics. Partly for the same reason, Salafis in Egypt recently founded several political parties.
Understanding why Salafis form political parties does not tell us what they will do after electing candidates to office, however. For that, we need to look at historical antecedents as well as the new parties’ size and organization, their popular appeal, their constituencies, the nature of their respective governments, the demographics of their home countries and their competitors.