Nour Party, Egypt's political Islam sole survivor, left with dim election hopes

Sherif Tarek , Sunday 20 Sep 2015

While Nour is Egypt's largest remaining Islamist party after two years of security crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, its political and electoral aspirations are limited

Nour Party
A file photo of a Nour Party meeting (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Vociferous and recurrent at the Muslim Brotherhood-led Rabaa Al-Adawyia sit-in were chants calling on the Nour Party to join in when the Cairo protest camp was first staged to counterbalance looming nationwide protests starting 30 June 2013 against Egypt's then president Mohamed Morsi.

For a few days it was not clear whether the Nour Party was giving its fellow Islamists the cold shoulder, until the Salafist party on 3 July showed beyond doubt the deep rift with Morsi's Brotherhood and its allies by publicly endorsing the roadmap that saw the Islamist president ousted and detained incommunicado.

The roadmap, which was backed by a number of political forces and state institutions, wiped out the results of political Islam in Egypt over two and a half years. Next to Morsi's toppling, it dismantled the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council (parliament's upper house and the only house operating at the time) and froze the 2012 Constitution (drafted mainly by Islamist figures).

The Nour Party cited the same reasons that prompted non-Islamist political forces to call for the downfall of Morsi, who Nour said was an autocratic president that only abided by the Brotherhood's agenda at the expense of democratic and constitutional values.

"A president cannot remain stable in power, even with the backing of a number of civilian supporters, in face of an angry population, the military and the police," read a statement released by the Salafist Call, which spawned the Nour Party in 2011, one day before Morsi's ouster.

The decision was deemed staggering — especially among the Brotherhood and Islamists — considering the common grounds they ostensibly share with Nour Party: visions to impose Islamic Sharia law, complete rejection of secularism, and a political scene that brought Islamists from obscurity to ubiquity.

After decades of suppression under former president Hosni Mubarak, the 2011 uprising that toppled him enabled for the first time in Egypt Islamist groups to be politically represented through official parties. While the Brotherhood launched the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafist Call — Egypt's largest Salafist organisation — established the Nour Party.

Unlike the Brotherhood who comprised the main opposition power during Mubarak's reign, the full extent of the Salafist Call's resources and political credentials were not immediately clear. The ultraconservative group — established in the 1970s and based in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria — showed no clear political agenda until the 2011 revolution, despite its notable expansion across Egypt.

The 2011-2012 parliamentary elections indicated the respective weight of participating political players, with the FJP and the Nour Party seizing the largest two blocs (around 46 and 24 percent of seats respectively) in the People's Assembly, the more significant parliamentary house. Political Islam thrived for a few years afterwards.

Nour, Brotherhood, never on the same page

It was immediately clear, however, that Egypt's then largest two political powers were more fierce competitors from the same political current than close Islamist allies.

During the 2011-2012 elections, the FJP and Nour briefly joined one electoral alliance under the name "The Democratic Alliance for Egypt." In protest against paltry shares, Nour soon parted company with the FJP-led alliance to form its own, the Islamic Bloc, which was joined by a number of Islamist parties.

Leading two vying electoral alliances during polling, Nour and FJP slammed each other with accusations, such as leafleting, bribery and even forgery, to tarnish what was initially thought to be a long-term relationship in the making between the two sides based on common interests.

After the People's Assembly was dissolved by order of the High Constitutional Court in 2012, fresh parliamentary polls were set to take place the next year. The Nour Party was mulling a possible electoral alliance with several Islamist forces. A deal with the FJP largely seemed off the table after disagreements between the parties grew more obvious.

"We are not seeking to rule the country, but we want to manage it," said then Nour Party spokesperson Nader Bakar early in 2013, while Morsi was still in power. "I think the state lacks management in this critical phase [of political turmoil and economic difficulties], and thus we will contest 100 per cent of parliamentary seats."

With Morsi toppled months later, before the Brotherhood was declared by the government a terrorist organisation and the FJP dismantled, the second post-2011 uprising parliamentary elections, which were widely expected to once again be dominated by Nour and the FJP under Morsi, did not take place as scheduled.

Instead, an unprecedented sustained security crackdown on political Islam and its figures following Morsi's ouster started to quickly overturn the Islamists' domination of the political landscape.

The Nour Party has remained unscathed thanks to its supporting stance on what most Islamist forces have described as a "coup." The fall of Morsi and the Brotherhood has left Nour the only potent Islamist political party in Egypt.

Today, the Salafist Call's political wing is preparing to run for parliamentary elections set to start in October. Yet its political and electoral aspirations are not nearly as high as under the Muslim Brotherhood.

The build-up to Morsi's ouster and the ensuing crackdown witnessed public wrath against political Islam and what was widely seen a theocratic rule under the Brotherhood's Morsi.

For over two years after his removal from power, constant have remained the attacks on Islamists by the public and media, and from across the political spectrum.

Nour Party feels the heat

Despite having supported the ouster of Morsi, with the heat increasing on already outcast Islamists, the Nour Party has not escaped unscathed.

Two months ahead of elections, a campaign named "No to Religious Parties" was triggered to call for the dismantling of political parties based on a religious outlook, deemed unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Backed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the campaign was launched by Tamarod (Rebel), a signature drive initiative that played a leading role in ousting Morsi, and political activist Hamdi Al-Fakharani. It has largely targeted the Nour Party.

"The Nour Party espouses the same ideology as the Muslim Brotherhood and all other extremist Islamist jihadist organisations like Daesh (the Islamic State group) and it is very bad for political life in Egypt that members of this party could gain seats in parliament," said Al-Fakharani.

Doaa Khalifa, a member of Tamarod in charge of collecting signatures for the No to Religious Parties campaign, echoed similar sentiments. "I think everyone in this country knows quite well that Nour is a religious party and that its ideology stands on discrimination among citizens on religious and sectarian grounds, and as a result it should not be allowed to exercise any political activities."

On 12 September, a court in the administrative circuit of the State Council accepted a lawsuit from lawyer Essam El-Islamboly, who supported the No to Religious Parties campaign, to oblige Egypt's Parties Committee to dissolve 11 Islamist political parties, including Nour.

No to Religious Parties said it went to the committee's headquarters to ascertain the possibility of it issuing its decision before the coming parliamentary elections, saying the coming parliament might be annulled should it rule religious parties unconstitutional later than the poll. The committee is yet to announce its decision.

Nour leading member Salah Abdel-Maksoud said they are not worried over the constitutionality of the party, saying its legal status is impeccable. He reiterated the same arguments frequently used to defend religious parties whenever their constitutionality is questioned, saying the Nour is a civil party and noone can legally prove it is religious or Islamic.

El-Sayed Khalifa, a vice president of Nour Party, stressed the party has no qualms about the lawsuit. "As long as it's legal then we're fine with it," he said. "It's anyone's right to question the constitutionality of the party and we hold the right to respond through legal avenues whenever necessary."

Reduced electoral target                                                    

Khalifa did not deny that following the ouster of Morsi and the crackdown on political Islam, the Nour Party was greatly affected in terms of popularity and presence on the political scene and street.

"We had nothing to do with how things went bad, but we were affected of course," he said. "The party's positions over the past two years helped us gain some public support, but overall we lost a lot."

The Nour Party significantly reduced its electoral target compared to under Morsi by announcing it is running for only two party-based electoral lists in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

It will run for the electoral district of Cairo, South and Middle Delta, which carries 45 seats in total and includes six governorates, and in the district of West Delta, which represents three governorates and contains 15 seats.

The party reasoned that its decision to run for two party based districts only, instead of four, was to "establish the principle of real partnership between all national forces, especially in the critical time that the country is in."

Egypt's new parliament will comprise 596 MPs, with 448 independents and 120 party-based deputies. Twenty-eight MPs will be appointed by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

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