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Egypt's Nour: A party reborn?

The Salafist Nour Party took a bold step in supporting the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, standing against fellow Islamists the Muslim Brotherhood. Why?

Sarah El-Rashidi, Sunday 4 Aug 2013
Nour party
An Egyptian woman walks under electoral posters with pictures of candidates of the Salafi Al-Nour party in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: AP)
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On 3 July, Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president in response to mass demonstrations that included the support of the ultra conservative Salafist Nour Party, alongside other political factions and the military. This was the first time El-Nour — the second largest Islamist party that held about a quarter of parliamentary seats — adopted an obviously opposing position to a fellow Islamist party.

Previously, during the run up to the 2012 presidential elections, Nour Party had supported — in the first round — Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, the moderate Islamist candidate formerly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the second round, the Salafist party backed the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in the face of former Minister of Civil Aviation Ahmed Shafiq, the last premier under Mubarak.

Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the surface, appeared to be collaborating closely during the early phase of Morsi’s presidency. In November 2012, they were the sole entities to draw up the contentious constitution. However, cracks in the political rapport began to emerge in January 2013.

Break from the Brotherhood

The Salafist Nour Party, still a novel player in the political arena having been formed in May 2011 following the January 25 Revolution, has been praised by analysts for their patience, pragmatism and the steep learning curve they climbed within a short timespan. 

Established as the political branch of the leading scholastic Salafist stream, Al-Dawah Al-Salafiya, or the Salafist Call, founded in Alexandria in the 1970s, the Salafists had previously shunned political life.

In little time Nour recognised popular discontent with Morsi and the Brotherhood’s performance and began disassociating itself, in order to safeguard its own ambitions. The deputy leader of the Salafist Call, Yasser Borhami, said clearly in recent statements that the former president and government’s "ill-performance" leaving the people’s basic needs "unfulfilled" were the reasons behind protests that toppled Morsi.

The resignation of leading El-Nour members appointed by Morsi was further illustrative of the rupture; they claimed they were not consulted in decision making processes and were ill-treated. Nour then formed an alliance with the National Salvation Front (NSF) to demand greater political concessions from Morsi.

“Six months ago we initiated a national initiative with alternate political forces after acknowledging the political polarisation owing to [the Muslim Brotherhood's] mismanagement of domestic affairs,” explained Nader Bakkar the erstwhile spokesman for Nour Party. The initiative incorporated three dimensions: the formation of a coalition cabinet; instating a new prosecutor general; and imploring national reconciliation to contain the deep state (a reference to the regime that outlasted the fall of Hosni Mubarak).

“We couldn’t watch our country collapse. It is our duty and responsibility. Morsi and his party refused, whilst others accepted our initiative. Hence the political shift,” said head of the party’s female wing, Hanan Alam. Party figures until now underline the numerous attempts made to reach out to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Up until 30 June, Nour insists, as per statements issued by Borhami, the Salafist party had advised Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to embrace the key dimensions of the initiative. Such prompts fell on deaf ears. Morsi obstinately upheld that the situation remained under control, confident he had the backing of the military and interior ministry.

On 1 July, Nour claimed to have contacted Morsi again, this time urging him to also announce early presidential elections in order to avoid being ousted and to minimise bloodshed. Morsi tenaciously refused. When Morsi finally conceded and acknowledged El-Nour’s proposals, in his last speech, it was too late.

The military-Salafist axis

“On 3 July, the military contacted Nour to implore our alignment to the decision to remove Morsi and instigate an interim roadmap,” elucidated Bakkar, also detailing the military’s failed attempts to get Morsi to change tack prior to his removal.

Nour is sympathetic towards the military’s recent political role, recognising its position as the most powerful institution in Egypt since 23 July 1952. It also asserts that the interior ministry not be regarded as an enemy but rather contained. While not diminishing the importance of the democratic process, the party asserts that in light of events the military, and indeed it itself, had no choice but to acknowledge the majority will of the people.

“The military supported the Egyptian people. We also owe the military for the collapse of the Mubarak regime. This should not be forgotten,” Bakkar emphasised, highlighting the respect the military showed towards the Salafist party during recent liaisons, underlining its intention to still include the Islamist stream in political decision making.

In its defence of the armed forces, Nour vouches that the military did not want to stage a "coup." Like the Salafist party, it intended only to save the country from civil war or open strife. This ostensibly explains El-Nour's decision to support the military and choose what Bakkar termed the “lesser evil.” Analysts, however, see the logic as more complex.

Markedly, when asked whether the party perceives the military intervention as a "coup," Nour refuses to answer, insisting on avoiding such definitions and instead focusing on urgent matters, saving Egypt from further crisis.

Rationale behind the shift

In terms of the party’s future political ambitions, which political analysts vow relate to its shift in position, Nour denies any intention to benefit politically in the interim period. The party recently declined four portfolios in the interim cabinet, and the vice premiership, so as to avoid giving the impression that it benefitted from 30 June. 

“We supported the military’s popularly-supported intervention so as to safeguard the reputation of the Islamist stream, to facilitate future democratic political participation, and to prevent further bloodshed,” clarified Alam.

In a statement issued by the Salafist Call 2 July, the current explained the rationale behind its political shift as follows: "A president cannot remain stably in power, even with the backing of a number of civilian supporters, in face of an angry population, the military and the police."

Analysts, on the other hand, insist that Nour calculated its moves and is using its current position opportunistically. “ Nour was moved by two motives: jumping off their alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, as it saw it as a sinking ship, and preparing to inherit the leadership of the so-called Islamic street,” says renowned political sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

Other analysts highlight the sense of betrayal the Salafist party felt vis-a-vis the Brotherhood. AUC professor and political sociologist Said Sadek, like many in his field, upholds that the Muslim Brotherhood was egocentrically using the Salafists to serve its own ends. El-Nour became aware that once the Brotherhood had used them they would eventually get rid of them. No proper ministerial offices were given to Nour, fueling further resentment.

“The [Brotherhood] wanted to be the only Islamist group in Egypt,” explained Sadek. Consequently, Nour refused to continue being their "stepping stone to power."

Another factor noted by analysts reflects the financial influence of the Arab Gulf — particularly Saudi Arabia — on the Salafists, against the Brotherhood. This also contributed to Nour’s decision to break with the Brotherhood, affirmed Sadek.

Trials and tribulations

Some Nour advocates seemingly regret — on an individual not institutional basis — the party’s decision to stand against their Islamist brothers, Morsi and the FJP. Others have criticised the army for not meeting their expectations, hence their regret.

Evidence of such regret can be seen in recent pro-Morsi rallies where Salafists alongside Muslim Brotherhood supporters vocalised their disappointment. The recent resignation of some leading party figures, such as Hatem Al-Haj, former advisor to the party chairman and head of foreign relations, may also be illustrative.

Nonetheless, the party officially denies any regret, insisting that the majority of its supporters uphold this sentiment.

“We have no regrets! Though 20 percent of our members are disappointed, frustrated, and cannot accept Morsi’s fall, 80 percent showed great understanding towards our decision,” affirmed Bakkar, identifying the initial cost-benefit analysis the party had considered, which took into consideration the price of opposing its fellow Islamist brothers.

To date, Nour remains adamant on not participating in the interim political period, declining what it terms "military appointments." The Salafist party declares it will only accept political involvement through democratic elections under a government run entirely by experienced technocrats, so as to avoid any further backlash or accusations regarding its participation in what many Islamists deem a "coup."

Observers say it is still too early to tell if El-Nour has the potential to dominate the Islamist scene in the wake of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Nour claims to be instigating a committee to mediate reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents.

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