Egypt: Salafist Split helps Muslim Brotherhood

Article Summary
The schism between al-Nour and al-Watan, two Salafist parties in Egypt, may help the more moderate Islamists that make up the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Mohammad Hisham Abeih.

It is a paradox that Egypt’s liberal parties and movements have decided to run for the next parliamentary elections with one electoral list, while the Salafist Nour Party has split into two parties; one of which will stand for Parliament separately, and the second of which has forged an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, where does the Muslim Brotherhood stand on this matter?

In addition to several internal factors, the Muslim Brotherhood intervened forcefully through its powerful Deputy Leader Khairat El-Shater to speed up the split between the prominent figures of the Salafist movement. In order to better understand the Muslim Brotherhood’s crucial role in such a rift, it is necessary to mention some important events that occurred several years ago.

Like many other Islamic movements, the Salafist Call group started in the 1970s, supported indirectly by Egypt’s former President Anwar al-Sadat. After emerging victorious from October 1973 war, Sadat resorted to Islamic movements to fight Gamal Abdel Nasser’s parties. During these years, the first organized activity of the Salafist Call was conducted in the coastal city of Alexandria, under Mohamed Ismail al-Muqqadam. Muqqadam, who is a physician from Alexandria, has always kept a low profile and has avoided press conferences and interviews. In fact, it is hard to find in any published press an interview with him. Yet, Muqqaddam has substantial influence over Salafist prominent figures and supporters.

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In 1977, the Salafist Call group gained ground outside Alexandria. Muqqaddam helped other prominent Salafist figures to lay the foundation for the Salafist Call. Among such figures, we cite Yasser al-Barhami, who is also a physician from Alexandria. Before the January 25th revolution, Barhami was a prominent figure in the Salafist call. However, after the revolution, he has become an important political leader of the Salafist Call. In fact, he is described today as the driving force behind Nour Party, which is the first political body to include Salafists in Egypt.

The Nour Party was established in May 2011, just three months after the revolution. Imad Abdel Ghafour, who is also a physician from Alexandria, was appointed the head of the party as per an internal agreement, according to which Abdel Ghafour is to act merely  as the face of the party. In fact, Barhami has the final say in any matter related to the party, mainly since he is considered the most important figure in the Salafist Call and is seen to have the most political savvy.

However, Abdel Ghafour was not satisfied with such limited powers. Therefore, he tried to act as the effective president of the Nour Party, mainly by depending on his good relations with the party’s prominent cadres. Consequently, several disputes within the party emerged for the first time after the presidential elections. Following these disputes, Barhami was determined to disqualify Abdel Ghafour and lead the party on his own. However, he refrained from taking such decision, or more accurately, he postponed such decision to maintain the party’s good image.

Further disputes arose between the party’s main figures, mainly after Abdel Ghafour was appointed by President Mohammed Morsi to be his assistant in charge of public communication. Following Abdel Ghafour’s new appointment, Khairat el-Shater was keen to nurture the disputes between the Nour Party’s members. According to Salah Laban, an expert in the Salafist movement’s affairs, the main dispute between the party’s two key figures is related to the definition of the term “Salafist Purity”. According to this definition, the Salafists should not enter into alliance with any other Islamic movement that follows different methodology and jurisprudence, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Salafists were fierce rivals to the Muslim Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections. They even managed to disqualify several important Muslim Brotherhood figures in their historic strongholds, such as Dakahlia, Al Sharqia and Matrouh governorates. In Matrouh, the Salafist movement’s candidates won all four seats.

The “Salafist Purity” party is headed by Barhami and several leaders of the Salafist Call movement. This party categorically refuses to enter into alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. It even officially supported the candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who defected from the Muslim Brotherhood, in the first round of the presidential elections against the official Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi.

As for Abdel Ghafour, he was keen to enter into alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood based on a political and doctrinal vision. Following his defection from the Nour Party, Abdel Ghafour established another Salafist party, al-Watan (Motherland). Al-Watan comes under the umbrella of another Salafist authority, the “Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation” (ILBRR). The ILBRR includes several prominent figures of the Salafist Call, mainly the President of the ILRR and Professor of Jurisprudence at Shariah faculty, Qatar University, Ali Salous; the current Minister of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) and the prominent Salafist reference, Talaat Afifi; the popular Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, and Khairat el-Shater.

Shater has played a major role in convincing the recently-established ILBRR to support Morsi in the presidential elections. He also helped Abdel Ghafour and the extremist Salafist leader Hazem Abou Ismail establish al-Watan Party. Although Abou Ismail attended the constituting convention of the Salafist al-Watan Party,his role in the party is still ambiguous and undefined.

In any case, Abou Ismail’s attendance at the convention provides enough support to the leaders of the new al-Watan Party. In fact, Abou Ismail’s supporters call themselves the “hardline Salafists,” and indeed, they are the most violent members inside the Salafist movement, verbally and in reality. Those fierce supporters will naturally back up the recently-established al-Watan Party, which announced its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood at the beginning of the next parliamentary campaign.

It seems Shater has intentionally established the ILBRR to achieve his goals. In fact, he has succeeded in sowing divisions within the Salafist movement, mainly after the latter began to pose a real threat to the political existence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, Abdel Ghafour forged an alliance with 50 former MPs from the Nour Party out of 140 MPs who won seats at the dissolved Parliament. This alliance might be a real political treasure that should not be wasted, mainly ahead of fierce parliamentary elections in which all movements mobilize their resources. According to many observers, this electoral campaign decides the political and socio-economic future of Egypt. In fact, the future parliament will be charged of promulgating laws extracted from the Islamic constitution passed by the Muslim Brotherhood a matter of weeks ago.

Does this mean the Salafist Nour Party is living its last days? According to observers, the answer is no. Although the party has been seriously shaken up, it still stands tall. The General Assembly will be held in five days. It will include many prominent Salafist figures and around 54 MPs who went through this electoral experience and gained supporters. The assembly will surely define the future of the Nour Party, which still heavily relies on the doctrine of the “Salafist Call purity” and its stronghold in Alexandria, to conduct its political campaign on a religious basis. This means the new parliament might include divided Islamic blocs, leading us to ask ourselves the following intriguing question: “Who will benefit from such divisions? Could such divisions benefit the secular parties and movements or the Muslim Brotherhood, which usually emerges victorious from similar rifts?”

This article was translated by Stefany Karam.

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