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Egypt's Salafists Are Hoping To Capitalize on Morsi's Failure

The Salafist al-Nour Party is in a prime position to benefit the most from the Muslim Brotherhood's declining popularity.
A woman looks through her window above an electoral slogan for Salafi political party Al-Nour that reads, "Together hand in hand we build the country through religion" , outside a polling station in Toukh, El-Kalubia governorate, about 25 km (16 miles) northeast of Cairo January 3, 2012. Egyptians voted in the third round of a parliamentary election on Tuesday that has so far handed Islamists the biggest share of seats in an assembly that will be central in the planned transition from army rule. REUTERS/Amr

In a statement issued June 21 addressing the upcoming June 30 nationwide opposition protests, the Salafist al-Nour Party illustrated its guarded, line-straddling position in the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s liberal opposition forces.

While the Nour Party expressed support for the controversial constitution and recognition of the legitimacy of the embattled president, it inconspicuously rallied behind efforts to destabilize the current regime. It called on protesters to adopt peaceful measures to change the balance of power, criticized the partisanship of the president and rejected attempts to portray Egypt’s political stalemate as an Islamist-secular struggle. 

“They want to say they are not against secular parties,” Khaled Dawoud, a spokesperson for the National Salvation Front (NSF), told Al-Monitor. “The point that continues to cause problems between us is the constitution.” Opposition groups hold that various articles in Egypt’s constitution challenge religious and social freedoms, whereas al-Nour staunchly opposes removing the debated articles.

Al-Nour has long been wary of attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to amass power and marginalize its competition. After leaving the Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance for Egypt ahead of the parliamentary elections, the former head of al-Nour told Reuters that the group would not operate in the shadow of the Muslim Brotherhood, and spoke of the acrimonious experience of other parties in the alliance.

Al-Nour, the largest of several Salafist parties, boasts more than 180,000 registered members, and, as an organized political body, is second to the Muslim Brotherhood in size and political strength. “They have ambition to govern, banking on their wide popular base,” said Ahmad Ban, head of the Social and Political Movements Unit at the Nile Center for Political and Strategic Studies

The presence of apolitical Salafist organizations such as al-Gamaa al-Shariya and Ansar al-Sonna al-Mohamadiya, which run clinics, mosques, orphanages and a multitude of community projects, supports the image and appeal of nascent Salafist political parties. For decades, al-Nour’s mother organization, the Salafist Dawa, used informal channels to expand its constituency among those neglected by the neoliberal economic policy of Mubarak’s regime. 

This provided it with an unexpected foothold in electoral politics, an opportunity seized upon with much enthusiasm, winning al-Nour 25% of seats in parliament. Domestically, through religious rhetoric as well as political positions, al-Nour vies with the Muslim Brotherhood for public support. Both groups lay claim to the correct Islamic framework for governance and often direct accusations of transgression against each other.

Al-Nour’s expressed willingness to meet with US government representatives on a trip to the US signals the party’s efforts to establish itself as a noteworthy competitor, if not alternative, to the Muslim Brotherhood on the international scene.

President Mohammed Morsi’s failure to engage his political opponents has been a common grievance of groups across Egypt’s political spectrum. The rift with al-Nour widened when he failed to ensure promised ministerial positions for its members. Ahead of national dialogue sessions in Jan., al-Nour held several meetings with the NSF to discuss common grounds, striking a sour note with the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi later ignored an initiative by al-Nour party chief Younis Makhyoun. Makhyoun threatened in March to reveal a report that exposes a “Brotherhoodization scheme,” including the appointment of 13 Brotherhood members as governors and thousands of others in key posts across Egypt.

Despite the fierce competition with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nour’s Islamic character, as well as its burgeoning political aspirations in Egypt’s currently charged political climate, demand that it remain on the sidelines of June 30. In a telephone interview, Younis Makhyoun told Al-Monitor: “We will not get ahead of the events. We respect the president’s legitimacy. Changing the president will be through the mechanism that was chosen by the Egyptian people, which is through elections.”

The Salafist boycott of June 30 has religious underpinnings toward which the secular opposition has no illusions, recognizing that temporary alignment of interests with the Salafist movement at large belies inherently irreconcilable ideological grounds. NSF spokesperson Dawoud said, “They agree with us that no single party should dominate the political scene, but they continue to belong to the Islamic project. Al-Nour’s political and religious agenda is uncompromising.”

Makhyoun appeared to agree: “Our position is clear. We will not join an alliance with secular groups or any group that rejects Islam as its framework. If we choose an ally it will be an Islamic group.”

Morsi’s Wednesday night speech did nothing to hinder plans for widespread protests on June 30. Public dissatisfaction has been powered by months of worsening economic conditions, fuel and electricity shortages and deepening political divisions. 

A poll released on June 25 showed Morsi’s approval rating plummet from 78% to 32% in the past year. Although the majority of Egyptians have become disillusioned with the Islamist government, the secular opposition has gained little ground in widening its support base beyond urban areas.

Secularism is viewed unfavorably among the conservative masses, and because of its association with affluent liberal communities in Egypt, it is believed to produce a system that engenders unequal distribution of wealth. 

“If it continues, the declining popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood will give al-Nour, with its extensive social networks, the opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum when the time comes,” Ban stated. 

On the other hand, the expansion of the middle class and the growing number of educated youth who have espoused the ideals of liberal democracy is slowly but surely changing political discourse, limiting the view of religion as a solution to economic grievances, instead of institutional processes. Dawoud believes that the work of the youth in al-Dustour Party, to which he belongs, and other liberal groups, is changing the political landscape in Egypt.

“Mubarak froze and marginalized liberal and leftist political parties in Egypt. This for us is a new reality, and we are facing groups that have been working for decades. There is no question Salafists are popular, but we are consistently rising,” he said.

Safa Joudeh is a Cairo-based broadcast and print journalist. On Twitter: @SafaJoudeh

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