As the Egyptian state hammers away with its clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, another key Islamist player is betting on its stark choice of a former army chief who toppled its sometime ally to be the next head of state.
The Salafist Nour Party, Egypt's second biggest Islamist party after the Brotherhood, remains undaunted that it will face a similar fate as the once-ruling group, most of whose leaders are now in jail. Instead of the Brotherhood's defiant stance, Nour has decided to throw its weight behind the retired field marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi – with an eye on the executive, namely the parliament seats, to help serve the party's religious dogma of societal reform.
Younis Makhyoun, head of the Nour Party, said in an interview with Ahram Online that their "strategic" backing of El-Sisi is meant to side with the people and dodge a “collapse of the state."
The Nour Party refused to take part in the massive protests that culminated in the army's overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last summer, but gave its blessing to the transition plan unveiled after he was deposed.
If the party had not stood behind the interim leaders and approved the course they have charted, Makhyoun explains, they could have risked alienating Islamists from the millions of Egyptians who rallied to drive Morsi out of office.
Now, Makhyoun says they fear "a scenario of chaos and further division" should another divisive leader be elected into office in Egypt – a country already in the throes of political upheaval and polarisation since Morsi's removal.
El-Sisi's years in officialdom, where he also served as former head of military intelligence under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, appear to be a principal asset.
Citing El-Sisi's stint in the corridors of power as well as his military and security credentials and his much-lauded sense of morality, Makhyoun, a bespectacled Islamist who wears a shaggy greying beard with a prayer bump on his forehead, views the retired army chief as a bulwark of stability.
"If another president comes, he might be regarded as a 'foreign body' that should be ejected or he might be feared to bring about dramatic change to state institutions that might lead to their collapse," Makhyon told Ahram Online in an interview at his party's headquarters in Cairo.
The Nour Party lent its support to Morsi in the 2012 election, largely contributing to the Brotherhood's rise to power.
As a man of pious standing, El-Sisi's mild demeanour and the devout tone he often strikes have earned him the support of puritanical Muslims, namely the hardline Salafist group.
El-Sisi's religious zeal had originally prompted the Brotherhood to believe he could be a trusted ally, with Morsi choosing him as his army chief.
But almost a year later, it was the general who led the ouster of Morsi amid mass protests. The Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters of Morsi have slammed El-Sisi as the orchestrator of a bloody coup that sabotaged democracy.
But the Salafist group – which has been reviled as "traitors" within the broader Islamist base for supporting Morsi's removal and, more recently, backing El-Sisi for the presidency – takes issue with the accusations.
Makhyon, 58 and a dentist by trade, says El-Sisi sought to warn Morsi about his fate in the days leading up to his removal and – as disenchantment with his rule increased – scrambled to forge rapprochement between Morsi's Brotherhood and disgruntled political forces.
"If [El-Sisi's] intentions were to betray, he would not have attempted to advise, guide or seek reconciliation," a composed Makhyoun said.
Since Morsi's removal, hundreds of the Brotherhood's members and sympathisers have been killed and thousands others thrown behind bars. A burgeoning Islamist insurgency has also taken its toll across the country, leaving hundreds of police and army troops dead.
Many fear a return to the rule of military men who had successively been at Egypt's helm since the downfall of the monarchy in 1952.
Several old allies and cronies of Mubarak have made no secret of their support for El-Sisi, further adding to scepticism and anxiety over a slide back into tyranny witnessed during the former president's 30-year reign.
But Makhyoun, who was jailed several times under former military strongmen, appears quite unruffled.
Describing such backers as opportunists climbing on the bandwagon, the Islamist leader believes El-Sisi "is not to blame" for being supported by a detested figure, saying that the former defence minister "has evidently won the support of most of the people."
"When we asked him, he affirmed that the return of those who ruined political life and played havoc with the country is impossible," he says.
El-Sisi's win in the May 26-27 vote is seen as a foregone conclusion, being that he has received cult-like veneration from large swaths of the public amid a media blitz of nationalist fervour that has left no room for criticism.
But despite being behind El-Sisi, Makhyoun is still critical of Egypt's media.
"The media performance is bad. The bickering, lack of impartiality and shutting out the opposing voice is a big mistake," he says.
A key player?
The Nour Party, more radical political neophytes compared to the 85-year-old Brotherhood, was founded in the wake of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak as a spin-off of the Dawa Salafiya, an ultra-orthodox Islamist movement. It won the second-biggest parliamentary bloc, after the Brotherhood, in the 2011-2012 vote.
Nour has repeatedly said it has no intention of taking up roles in a non-elected government, with its leader spurning the model of Islamist rule offered by the Brotherhood.
"They [the Brotherhood], with their extremist rhetoric, have done a great disservice to Islam," Makhyoun said.
Setting its sights on the parliamentary poll that will follow the presidential election, the Nour Party – which has communal reform at the core of its doctrinal foundations – believes the executive post is the only gateway to faith-based community dynamics, Makhyoun explains.
But a troubled year of Brotherhood rule that left many Egyptians disillusioned with Islamists could hurt Nour's electoral prospects.
Still, Makhyoun has his eye on a sizable quota of parliamentary seats.
"Maybe the sympathy with the Islamist movement at large has been affected. But that is offset by the people who know we work for the common God and that we don’t seek personal interests. They know we haven't clashed with any side or been involved in violence."
In a sideswipe against its once key lynchpin, Makhyoun says the Brotherhood – the largest and best organised political group in the Middle East until Morsi's removal – sealed its own fate with a series of costly blunders during its brief stint in power, which he says eventually spawned the military's return to the political scene.
Morsi was accused by opponents of usurping power, sending the economy tumbling and saddling Egyptians with Islamist views along the lines of the Brotherhood's ideology.
But El-Sisi has cast himself as a strong-minded religious reformer in the face of his Islamist adversaries, blaming out-of-date religious discourse for hindering Egypt and purportedly arguing in favour of apolitical Islam.
"El-Sisi is trying to offer a practical version of Islam away from the repelling radical rhetoric. He wants people to see justice and hard work as the bedrock of the state. He believes in work more than talk," Makhyoun says.
While El-Sisi and his only other rival in next week's presidential poll, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, have vowed to finish off the Brotherhood – already driven back into shadows after Morsi was swept away– if they are elected, the Nour Party has no qualms about facing the same grim fate of its political nemesis.
"We are not anxious at all. The constitution is the governor. We are a political party that was founded under the charter. We do not have any personal gains and primarily work for the common good," the party's head says.