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Egypt's Salafist party plays neutral amid anti-Islamist wave

The Nour Party, the last major Islamist party in Egypt, is sticking to pragmatic neutrality in an attempt to keep the Islamist current alive in Egyptian politics.
Nour party spokesman Nader Bakkar (L), chats with a party member next to Younes Makhyoun (R), the head of the party, during a news conference about constitution in Cairo December 5, 2013. The Islamist party that backed the army's ouster of President Mohamed Mursi urged Egyptians to vote in favor of a new constitution in an upcoming referendum, saying that would spare the country more turmoil. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany  (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION) - RTX164ZM

CAIRO — The ambitions for the Nour Party, Egypt’s remaining Islamist political faction, today appear more volatile than ever. Since Mohammed Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s subsequent fall, negative sentiments toward Islamist parties have filled Egyptian streets, amplified by the rise in related terror attacks. Anti-Islamist policies expressed by the popular presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who holds 76% of the constituency in the latest Baseera poll, further reflect the general climate of disdain surrounding Islamist parties. During his first televised appearance, Sisi reasserted his hard-line policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood and militant Islamists and his intent to apply legislation, namely Article 6 of the 2014 constitution, prohibiting the formation of a religious-based party.

Political Islam’s evident regression has caused the Salafist Nour Party to pay heavily in its reputation and constituent support, and explains its political detachment from the Islamist current.

“We are not a religious party. We are complying 100% with the constitution,” Amr Farouk, Nour’s assistant chairman for foreign affairs, told Al-Monitor, affirming that a religious party would divide Egyptians, which contradicts Nour’s principles.

The party’s pragmatism and newly extended support for Sisi’s presidential run is paramount for its survival, say observers. In a statement published on the party's Facebook page, party Chairman Younes Makhion revealed that Sisi was voted for by an overwhelming majority of members. Despite the party’s declared support, some key members, namely Nour’s co-founder Nader Bakkar, have not shied away from discrediting Sisi’s presidential campaign.

“What I want to focus on is Sisi's lack of an overall strategic vision with a clear timeline for his four-year presidential tenure, and another plan that would have a timeline of at least 10 years,” Bakkar wrote in an opinion piece for Ahram Online on May 13.

Whether intended as constructive criticism or a show of internal differences, mixed messages illustrate Nour’s attempt to constantly purport neutrality, so as to prevent further backlash related to its involvement in what most Islamists deem a “coup.” Its apparent neutrality is further illustrated by its shared condemnation of fresh attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood, state security and secular movements.

Other indications of its astute political malleability are reflected by the clear ideological shift from the traditional Salafist philosophy that previously frowned upon any form of political deviation toward the state. As well as the party’s pragmatic rupture with the Muslim Brotherhood, its former Islamist ally, opting to back the popularly supported removal of Morsi. This marked a significant tactical divergence, following Nour’s support for former Brotherhood candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, later backing Morsi’s candidacy against Ahmed Shafiq in the second round. In its defense, the party credits its digressions as a vital measure to safeguard its Islamist compatriots. 

“Nour supported Morsi’s removal to protect the Islamist current’s reputation, enable future political involvement and avert further turmoil,” Hanan Alam, the head of the party’s female wing, told Al-Monitor.

Such paradigm shifts have consequently led to confusion and distrust regarding the orthodox party’s ideological practices and, above all, its future political intentions and survival. Political experts associate such shifts with the party’s political ambitions and the sense of betrayal it felt by the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to allocate the party any appropriate ministerial posts while in office.

“Nour seeks political dominance and is content that the Muslim Brotherhood, its former political Islamist rival, has fallen,” Said Sadek, a political analyst and professor at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, citing its chameleon-like behavior in its enduring alignment with state security and previous collaboration with the Brotherhood.

This argument is entirely disputed by the Salafist party, which continues to reinforce its aim for political inclusiveness, not dominance or a cabinet majority. Farouk highlighted the party’s support of current Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, despite ideological differences, as an example of its all-inclusive agenda. He also drew attention to the party’s participation and sanctioning of the 2014 constitution, regardless of its contentions with various articles, namely Article 6 and Article 219, which explicitly defines Sharia as the main source of legislation.

The party concurrently acknowledges its uncertain political future, given its evident constituent loss following the Brotherhood’s demise.

“We have lost a large support base. It is impossible to predict what will happen in parliament, but it is paramount that we rebuild trust, which will require time,” Farouk said.

Such admission is a hard knock for the party that had made fast gains after the January 25 Revolution, becoming the second-largest democratically elected political party in 2012, holding about a quarter of parliamentary seats. Official figures on Nour’s popular support base have yet to be released for 2014, but polls undertaken by Zogby in September 2013 indicated that 86% of Egyptians were not confident in the party’s political capabilities, including among Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

In its attempt to regain its support base, the party continues to focus its energies at the grassroots level in tandem with its work with state authorities. Fundamental to its popular recovery, Nour refers to the need for political participation in the next parliament via democratic elections, a prerequisite stipulated by the party since Morsi’s removal.

Its refusal to participate in the current interim government was perceived as a strategy to protect its projected independent status and guarantee future participation. Successful administration of Nour’s suggested initiatives covering nuclear and solar power, wind, energy, health care and education is also paramount in the recovery process, asserts the party.

While political analysts acknowledge the necessity of Nour’s active presence in the coming government as a demonstration of political inclusiveness, they equally recognize its limitations. Undisclosed financial assistance from the Gulf to the party, particularly Saudi Arabia, which Sadek estimates to be in the millions, will contribute to the party’s endurance — but also will not by any means guarantee its success. Ultimately, public opinion suggests that the Brotherhood’s failed rule has had a long-standing detrimental effect on the entire Islamist stream.

“Political Islam’s future has been undermined. It will never be the same. It needs a new generation requiring substantial time,” Sadek said, drawing parallels between the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and political Islam’s present disarray.

While the jury is still out on the Nour Party’s potential to dominate the Islamist scene in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political descent, its pragmatic political neutrality is clear.

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