The support of the Salafist Nour Party for the military coup against President Mohammed Morsi has stunned many people inside or outside Egypt. Not only did the ultraconservative Islamic party back the removal of Egypt’s first Islamist president, it also blessed the road map imposed by the military junta for Egypt’s torturous, ongoing transition. Therefore, the important, acute questions are why did the Nour Party choose to take part in the coup and what were party leaders thinking during the decision-making process? Even more important, what will the consequences be for the party's future?
Three primary factors drove the Nour Party's calculus in the military-Muslim Brotherhood standoff. First is the long-standing feud and tension between the Salafists and the Brotherhood that intensified after the latter took power. Over the past year, Nour’s leaders perceived the Brotherhood — rather than liberals and secularists or the military — as their main adversary. True, both parties have occasionally cooperated, particularly during the period of hastily writing the new constitution, but it has been for tactical purposes. Thus, after passage of the constitution, the Nour Party became sharply critical of the Brotherhood-led government. The relationship between the two organizations peaked in antagonism in February, when Morsi sacked Khaled Alam Eldin, his Salafist advisor and senior member of the Nour Party, following allegations of corruption. After that, the party became the main opposition to Brotherhood rule.
Second is Nour's desire to tame the Brotherhood and defuse its growing political power. Like other opposition movements, Nour was willing to do anything to stop what its leaders perceived as the Brotherhood's ruthless attempt to monopolize power and dominate Egypt. In March, Yasser Burhami, the most influential leader in the Salafi Call (Al-Da‘wa al-Salafiyya), a Nour Party patron, harshly attacked the Brotherhood for its “hegemonic” tendencies and its strategy of dominating the “Egyptian state.” Moreover, Burhami, alongside other Salafi figures, rebuked Morsi and his organization for not applying Sharia or following Islamic teachings in their governance.
The Salafists also expressed their frustration and despair over the poor performance of Morsi’s government. Not surprisingly, Nour Party leader Younis Makhyon was the first politician to raise the issue of “Ikhwanization” in the media and threaten Morsi and the Brotherhood by exposing their endeavor to take over state institutions while marginalizing other forces. Furthermore, for six months this year, both parties, Nour as well as the Brotherhood, engaged in notorious media campaigns to distort and discredit each other.
Third is the utter pragmatism and political savvy of the Nour Party. To its leaders, the removal of Morsi was inevitable. “It was only a matter of time,” a senior party leader told me a few days after Morsi’s removal. Since they plunged into politics after the January 25 revolution, the Nour Party’s leaders have exhibited remarkable political astuteness coupled with a cautious mindset and self-restraint. Indeed, they abandoned Morsi because he was the losing horse. “The balance of power wasn’t in favor of Morsi or the Brotherhood. Morsi was confronting many foes at the same time: the military, judiciary, media, intelligence and police. He was alone in the face of the state,” the Nour leader said.
The military coup reflected a convergence of different forces and interests, and Nour Party leaders found themselves in the middle of the drama. They firmly convinced themselves that Morsi’s ouster was the only way to stem the Brotherhood's growing clout. They also believed that the Brotherhood's downfall would secure them a good place in the new political order of the post-Brotherhood era and position them to lead the Islamist camp. The party aspires to enhance its share of seats in the next parliamentary elections at the expense of the Brotherhood, whose political future is uncertain in light of the brutal crackdown against it and its leadership that could negatively affect the organization for years to come.
Although Nour Party leaders realize that the Brotherhood's exclusion from politics is far-fetched and that their organization cannot simply inherit the Brotherhood's place on the new political scene, they also think that removing a disgraced Morsi so swiftly struck a major blow to the Brotherhood.
The Nour Party's decision to side with the winning horse, the military, represents a political gamble that could significantly affect the party’s image and have serious consequences going forward. On the one hand, its credibility has been considerably damaged with the removal of Morsi, particularly among Islamists. As one Islamist leader explained, “The Nour Party has betrayed the Islamic project by its complicity with the military against Morsi.”
Even among Salafists, the party appears to be losing considerable ground. When I spoke with some young Salafists, they were greatly disappointed and angry about the way the party handled the crisis. “They sacrificed Islam for political gains. I would not trust them [Nour Party leaders] anymore,” one of the Salafists said. Despite an attempt by Nour to explain, or justify, its position during the Morsi crisis, many Islamists continue to believe that the party was driven only by opportunism. Unsurprisingly, many Salafis have decided to join the Brotherhood’s sit-in in Rabia al-Adawiyya to maintain their credibility.
The Nour Party’s bet on assuming a larger political role in the aftermath of the Brotherhood’s turn in power is a fantasy. The new secular-military alliance that rose from the ashes of the June 30 protests will likely marginalize other political forces to tighten its grip on power, and in doing so, ban religious parties and defuse their political and electoral capabilities. Moreover, since Morsi’s ouster, many secular and liberal figures have exhibited cruel streaks in excluding and humiliating Islamists. In addition, the Nour Party did not play a role in developing the new interim regime and has rejected the evolving political process, both of which might encourage Egypt’s new rulers to keep it marginalized.
To conclude, whereas the cautious calculation of the Nour Party in Morsi’s ouster reveals political maturity, it also entails numerous risks that put the future of the party at stake. Its leaders may in the end pay a high price for their political gamble on the military.
Khalil al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East studies at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is the author of the forthcoming Unpacking the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (tentative title). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Khalilalanani