Salafist splits bring new choices, complications for voters

Zeinab El Gundy , Wednesday 23 Jan 2013

The Salafist political scene has witnessed a number of party splits, defections and new alliances, reshaping potential voter allegiances for this year's parliamentary elections

Salafist Parties
Al-Nour Party (Photo: Ahram Online archive)

Unlike other political players, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and many liberal groups, Salafist organisations are relatively new to Egyptian politics, having first taken part in the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution.

Yet in just two years, the Salafist political scene has undergone dramatic changes, with regular reports of splits, defections and mergers.

In the 2011/2 parliamentary elections, the Salafist Nour Party surprised seasoned observers by winning nearly 25 per cent in Egypt's lower house of parliament, coming second after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

The Nour Party's membership database apparently numbers 180,000, with members spread across the country. Some speculate that with the decline in popularity of the Brotherhood, Nour may gain more seats; but with the current splits and the creation of new Salafist parties, things may not progress as Nour officials hope.

Nour Party leader Emad Abdel Ghafour resigned a few weeks ago, along with a group of members, to create new party called 'Al-Watan' (the Nation).

The resignation of Ghafour was not a major surprise, considering the internecine struggles within the party in September last year between what were then known as Abdel Ghafour's front and Yasser El-Borhami's front.

"Yes, it goes back to September 2012, to the different views we had with Dr. Emad Abdel Ghafour. We tried to solve the problems internally through negotiations and the general assembly reached a decision that Abdel Ghafour would continue as the party's leader until the next parliamentary elections, but things did not go as we hoped. He resigned from his position," Nader Bakkar, Nour's official spokesperson, told Ahram Online. 

"I believe the party has a better chance now; in fact we have gotten rid of several problems that we faced in the past and now that both camps are officially separated, it is easier for us to hold the party together," Bakkar added.  

Sheikh Yasser El-Borhami, the co-founder of Nour Party as well a co-founder of the conservative Salafist Calling group, has been accused by Abdel Ghafour's front of interfering in the political affairs of the party. 

"There is no group of five or six sheikhs controlling Al-Watan Party; we are not a political arm of a religious movement like the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party or the Salafist Calling's Nour Party. We are a political party whose main reference is the Quran and Sunnah," Al-Watan Party spokesman Ahmed Kadry told Ahram Online, arguing that this will attract voters to the new party.

The split in the Nour Party is not the first to happen in the Salafist political arena over the past two years.

In July 2011, the Fadila (Virtue) Party, the first Salafist party in Egypt, split in a similar way. Then-leader of Fadila Adel Abdel Maqsoud and members of the party's political office declared their resignation and defection from the party and founded the Asala (Authenticity) Party.

Recent reports suggest that the Fadila Party and the Shaab (the People) Party entered negotiations with disqualified Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail and his soon-to-be-formed party to merge into a single unit, but now the two parties have decided to merge together without Abu-Ismail, unable to wait until the official formation of his party.

The official establishment of Abu-Ismail's party is being awaited with anticipation in Egypt, given Abu-Ismail's own considerable following.

Although some observers believe Abu-Ismail's popularity will be a challenge for the Nour Party, Bakkar is not concerned.

"When we ran in the last parliamentary elections in 2011, people expected that we would get 3 per cent, but we managed to get 25 per cent," he said, adding that people will choose between parties based on their platforms and what they have achieved and proposed in terms of initiatives for the economy and tourism. 

Nour has presented several initiatives to help the country over the last two years, but the party faces many challenges.

"The Salafist voter may find himself confused now; he faces a choice between two competing Salafist sides... Currently you have both competing teams from the same camp, and you are no longer speaking about Islamist parties versus secular parties, but rather Salafist versus Salafist," researcher in Islamist movements Ahmed Samir told Ahram Online.

There may also be competition for the endorsement of famous Salafist clerics and preachers, in contrast to the 2011 election campaigns, when Nour and its electoral alliance received widespread Salafist endorsement.

"This Salafist competition will lead to less focus on sharia implementation talk and more focus on criticism of Islamist parties, who will swap accusations of being ultra-conservative or not conservative enough. There will be more focus on political stuff and this will confuse the Salafist voter," Samir explained, arguing that this will be to the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The Brotherhood will find this a good opportunity to gain more support from the Salafists by presenting themselves as a unified party… appealing to Salafists in the same way as in the first round of presidential elections in 2011, when they presented Mohamed Morsi as more Islamist conservative candidate than [rival] Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who was endorsed by the Nour Party in the first stage of the elections,” Samir elaborated.

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