Hardline Salafist Nour Party takes coalition gamble in Egypt

Party has found itself centre stage in the machinations that have followed the removal of president Mohamed Morsi

With an empty coffin representing some of those killed on Monday, pro-Mohamed Morsi supporters rally in Cairo yesterday.

With an empty coffin representing some of those killed on Monday, pro-Mohamed Morsi supporters rally in Cairo yesterday.

Wed, Jul 10, 2013, 13:37

When the hardline Salafist Nour Party first emerged after Hosni Mubarak’s ousting in 2011, many Egyptians did not take them seriously. Those who make up Egypt’s sizeable Salafist stream, a large proportion of which is based in the coastal city of Alexandria, had previously eschewed politics, preferring instead to focus on building charitable networks and proselytising.

While members of the Muslim Brotherhood were jailed for their political activism under Mubarak, Salafists were allowed to flourish, allegedly with financing from Gulf donors, because of their supposed quietism (some Salafist currents forbid challenging rulers).

Thus it came as a surprise when Nour not only entered the political fray but garnered almost one-quarter of the vote, second behind the Brotherhood’s candidates, in post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. Since then Nour – which means “light” in Arabic – has proved that not only does it have a significant support base, but it can play politics just as well as veterans of Egypt’s political landscape.

The party has found itself centre stage in the machinations that have followed the removal of president Mohamed Morsi at the hands of the military last week. Nour, a key ally of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood last year, had in recent months sought to distance itself from the floundering president.

Having supported his overthrow, the party is now revelling in its role as key player in the unlikely coalition steering the post-Morsi transition. Nour has vetoed two prime minister nominees, including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, in recent days, apparently because it considered them too secular. Yesterday the party said it would accept former finance minister Samir Radwan in the role.


Popular disaffection
In joining the military-backed coalition, Nour is hoping to capitalise on the wave of popular disaffection with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that contributed to his fall last week, and position itself as Egypt’s leading Islamist movement. Nour’s role in the new dispensation challenges those who were quick to declare that Morsi’s eviction heralds the demise of political Islam in Egypt. Its secular-leaning partners need Nour to give the impression their coalition is inclusive and not bent on excluding Islamists from the new order. But all indications suggest this marriage of convenience is likely to be short-lived.

Nour’s vision for Egypt could not be more different to that of those it is negotiating with.

Salafists are more conservative than the Brotherhood. They practice an ultra-orthodox form of Islam and seek to emulate the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Many look to gender-segregated Saudi Arabia as a model. In Egypt and other countries where Salafists have emerged as a political force, they often portray themselves as more principled – that is more rigid – than the Brotherhood.


Islamist-tinged articles
The new constitutional declaration announced on Monday night demonstrated Nour’s leverage, with Islamist-tinged articles liberals objected to in last year’s controversial constitution remaining.

But Nour’s strategy in engaging with secular elements after Egypt’s first Islamist president was brought down is a risky one. Already, there are signs that its leadership might be alienating those within its grassroots who were drawn to the party because it was perceived as “clean” and uncompromising.

A leading figure, Sheikh Ahmed Aboul Enein, quit the party in protest at its stance on the military takeover. There are reports of younger members splitting off to establish their own groups. Brotherhood whispering campaigns accuse Nour of selling out its fellow Islamists to join an unholy alliance of military and secularists. Nour may well have gambled too far.