Mohammed Zawahiri, center, the brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri,… (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP/Getty…)
CAIRO — The brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri is an unflinching man with a graying beard whose aim, as a Salafi, is to impose Islamic law on the divided country that has emerged since the overthrow of secular autocrat Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
Seated at a rooftop cafe as dusk draped the Nile, traffic screeching and lights flickering in the ancient city below, he wagged a finger in the air and spoke of an "epic battle" to scour Egypt of corruption and immorality.
"God's teachings must be carried out," said Mohammed Zawahiri, an engineer who was acquitted by a military court last year after being imprisoned for more than a decade on charges of attempting to overthrow the state. "The secularists have stopped us from fulfilling God's law for hundreds of years."
Once at the edges of Egypt's political spectrum, puritanical Islamists known as Salafis have been emboldened by the nation's revolution. While the Muslim Brotherhood, now the nation's dominant political force, is monolithic and relatively moderate, Salafis include militants fighting for an Islamic caliphate in the Sinai peninsula as well as the Nour Party, which has spliced religion with shrewd political pragmatism.
The Salafis represent a volatile force in the struggle within Islam over how deeply to impose the tenets of the Koran in the face of a backlash from secularists, Christians and other minorities. The same dilemma is radiating across much of the Arab world, including in Syria, Tunisia and Libya, as radical Islamists, whether fighters in Damascus or holy men in Tunis, maneuver to exploit national upheavals.
The Nour Party, Egypt's most popular Salafist organization, won more than 20% of the seats in the now-disbanded parliament by tempering its religious rhetoric and cooperating, to a certain degree, with other factions. But uncompromising Salafi leaders, such as Mohammed Zawahiri, seldom equivocate. His Egypt would crush liberal tendencies, shrink a woman's space in public life and counter what he sees as generations of manipulation by the West.
He professes nonviolence and blames Washington for portraying conservative Islam as a primitive creed espoused by terrorists. But his imagery can be confrontational: He condemned France's recent military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali, telling a TV station that Paris "lit the fire. It started the war, and if this continues, the first to burn will be Western people."
Zawahiri, who belongs to a branch known as Salafist Jihadists, is one among an array of sheiks whose influence, while still limited, has steadily sharpened amid Egypt's political and financial turmoil. And despite his roots, he is less publicly aggressive than Morgan Gohary, who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and other Salafis returning home after years as warriors in a shifting international holy war.
"I reject all political parties," Gohary said. "Having a parliament is blasphemy. Egypt needs someone like Osama bin Laden."
Militant Islam bloomed in Egypt in the 1950s, culminating in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 after he instituted a cold peace with Israel. That was followed by Mubarak's crackdown, which included the torture and jailing of thousands of Islamists. Bombings and militant attacks in cities and resorts shook the country into the early 2000s as Islamist militants sought to weaken Western influence over Egypt's government.
The uprisings that swept the Arab world over the last two years altered the landscape. The relatively peaceful revolt here brought down Mubarak in 18 days, a goal Islamist militants had failed to achieve by themselves in 30 years. Yet the unsteady political climate that followed brought President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power amid deepening divisions over the goals of political Islam.
Many Salafis regard Morsi and the Brotherhood as opportunists willing to appease secularists at the expense of an Islamist agenda, notably by supporting a constitution not explicitly rooted in sharia, or Islamic law. Although Salafis were allies of the Brotherhood during the initial postrevolution election, those bonds have loosened amid increasing mistrust and a struggling secular opposition.
"The secularists want Egypt to look like Europe and America," Gohary said. "But only Islamic rules should apply. God is the ruler, not the people. We battled Mubarak over this for years and this is why we killed Sadat."
Gohary pulled back his prayer cap and showed a shrapnel scar from what he said was a U.S. rocket attack in Afghanistan. He fought for the Taliban for years and said he killed American soldiers. He recently startled Egypt by calling for the destruction of the pyramids. He called them idols forbidden by Islam, much like the Buddhist statues the Taliban blew up in 2001.