Egypt’s hardline Salafist Nour Party recently decided to join the 50-member committee selected to propose amendments to the 2012 constitution, which was suspended after the removal Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July.
"We initially said we would not participate in the interim government or the drafting of the new constitution, given the current undemocratic conditions,” says Ashraf Thabet, Nour Party spokesperson and former MP.
The party criticises the committee's undemocratic selection process, in which candidates were chosen by the interim president. And Amr Farouk, assistant chairman of the party's foreign affairs committee, castigates the entire process, predicting it will contribute to continued instability, which will propagate one party rule and ongoing mass protests.
Rationale behind the shift
However, Nour says greater dialogue and collaboration is one the major incentives behind its recent decision to participate. The party maintains that due to institutional influences over the constitutional committee, without its participation the results would be detrimental to Egyptians.
"The constitution should not reflect institutional interests and should be entirely independent, integrating all political currents," Farouk states. Through participation, Nour hopes it will have greater influence to prevent injustices and rights violations.
Furthermore, another motive, highlighted in a statement on 25 August, concerns its determination to protect key Islamic articles in the constitution. The reincorporation of Article 219 - also mentioned in Article 2 - which defines Sharia (Islamic law) as the main source of legislation, remains a key objective. Nour criticises the recent removal of Article 219 by a technical committee which altered the constitution prior to entrusting it to the 50-member committee.
Focus on religious articles
Article 219 was included in 2012 constitution by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, which included Nour representatives. The article states: "The principles of Islamic Sharia include its commonly accepted interpretations, its fundamental and jurisprudential rules and its widely considered sources, as stated by the schools of Sunna and Gamaa."
When asked whether the Brotherhood’s waning popularity was likely to affect Egyptians' support for the article, Nour appears unperturbed, counting on Egyptians' inherent religiousity. Furthermore, the party warns that the article’s elimination would damage Egypt’s ‘Islamic identity’. Farouk claims that even minorities had previously agreed upon the controversial article as they acknowledged its protective benefits.
"We were the sole party to request the incorporation of Article 3 to protect non-Muslims in Egypt: Christians and Jews," Farouk adds, referring to the suspended 2012 constitution. A lack of constitutional protection for other minorities in Egypt, such as Shia and Bahai, remained a concern for many observers.
Evidently, Nour remains unhappy with the two consitutional committees appointed by the interim government, the technical committee comprised of legal experts and the second committee composed of civilians and bureaucrats. Despite its consent for the transitional roadmap, which incorporated constitutional amendments, Nour appears increasingly uneasy about the committee’s agenda, which it fears is innately secular.
Thabet refers to the technical committee’s proposal to return to the Mubarak-era single candidacy electoral system. He emphasises his party’s desire to ensure that a candidate list system is retained.
Nour claims to be focusing equally on all articles in the constitution, but the articles which engage religion clearly remain its primary concern. Thus Article 6, which prohibits parties based on religion, is top of its list of priorities given the party's Islamist ideology.
"We trust that Egyptians' religiosity will ensure religious parties remain part of the democratic process," Thabet says.
Article 6, according to the party, was used by former regimes to sideline Islamists.
A clear decision on election monitoring and whether international observers should be allowed is yet to be taken by the party. However, Farouk supports calls for international monitoring due to the increased polarisation of the judiciary, which has monitored previous polls.
Nour maintains it has had no recent dialogue or negotiations with the Brotherhood, given the limited channels. Its public condemnation of recent violence, which it blames equally on the Brotherhood and the security services, may have further alienated the former allies.
Farouk openly denounced the uses of firearms by both the police and the Brotherhood during the clearing of pro-Morsi sit-ins on 14 August, and during subsequent clashes.
Nour’s decision, as Egypt’s second-largest Islamist party, to support Morsi’s deposition, which was criticised by other Islamist and Salafist groups, also contributed to its estrangement from the Brotherhood.
While Nour suggests such criticism is a secondary concern given the current political crisis, it also seeks to defend its patriotic objectives, which it says supersede its loyalty to the deposed Islamist president.
"Our main concern remains our responsibility towards the people and our adherence to Islamic Sharia in all that we do," Thabet assures.
He adds: Nour's decision to break with the Brotherhood has no connection with our position towards the old regime, which we still hold in contempt.
Many political analysts, however, suggest Nour’s decision to disassociate itself from the Brotherhood has little to do with patriotism and more to do with its own political ambitions.
Dr Saadeddin Ibrahim, a sociologist, defines it as a strategic move to ensure Nour replaces the Brotherhood as Egypt's leading Islamist political faction. Its participation in the constitutional committee is thus perceived as a further attempt to secure its leading status.
On the nationwide violence, particularly in Sinai where militant Islamist factions have committed ongoing atrocities against security forces since Morsi’s deposition, Nour blames Mubarak regime figures.
"The ‘felool’ [old regime] are causing problems in Sinai. We are trying to help manage the crisis through broad discussions," Thabet says.
When asked about the party’s current weight and future prospects in the post-Morsi political arena, Thabet refuses to give a clear answer. "We will see in the next elections," he replies.
Regarding the amended charter, whose future will be decided in a national referendum, Farouk gives a similarly vague and optimistic response.