Opposition to presidency opens rifts in Egypt's Islamist current

Salma Shukrallah , Monday 11 Feb 2013

Islamist parties, movements appear more divided than ever in terms of their stances on Egypt's embattled presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood from which it hails

From (L) to (R) Al-Watan Party's Emad Abdel-Ghafour, Gamaa Islamyia's Tarek El-Zomor, Freedom and Justice Party's Hussein Ibrahim and Salafist Al-Nour Party's Nader Bakkar

The escalating conflict between Egypt's political opposition and the administration of President Mohamed Morsi has also led to widening gaps within the Islamist current itself. Some Islamist groups, who had backed Morsi in the past, have now begun to question the policies of Egypt's first Muslim Brotherhood president.

For example, when Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's Construction and Development Party called for mass rallies last month to support the president in response to mass demonstrations organised by the opposition, few Islamist parties answered the call.

The Salafist Nour Party, Egypt's second biggest Islamist movement after the Brotherhood, was the first to refuse the call, arguing that, "while the party supports the legitimacy of the president, it is not the right time for demonstrating."

Nour Party figures, along with those of the Salafist Call (of which the Nour Party represents the political wing), later went so far as to blame the president and the Brotherhood for subsequent political violence outside the Presidential Palace in which two people were killed.

On Twitter, Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar hastened to condemn state violence after the appearance of a video showing a man dragged naked and beaten by police, although he also condemned violence perpetrated by protesters.

Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, leading figure of the Salafist Call, was more vocal when blaming Morsi and the interior minister for the violence.

"If we condemn violence by some citizens... then we ought, more importantly, to condemn violence committed in the name of the state," El-Shahat said in a Tuesday statement, adding that it was Mubarak-era injustice that led to the January 25 Revolution.

Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Secretary-General Hussein Ibrahim criticised Nour Party statements comparing the Brotherhood's political wing to Mubarak's now defunct National Democratic Party, describing such claims as "unfair."

It was not the Nour Party's first public stand against the president and his party. The ultraconservative Salafist party recently proposed an initiative launched in cooperation with the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), in which it adopted many of the opposition's demands.

The initiative comprised eight demands, chief among which was the formation of a unity government including representatives of various opposition groups. It also demanded the dismissal of Egypt's Morsi-appointed prosecutor-general.

Numerous Islamist figures slammed the initiative – and the Nour Party for adopting it.

The Construction and Development Party described the initiative as "an attempt to circumvent the president's legitimacy and drag the judiciary into politics."

The Salafist Watan Party, meanwhile, which broke away from the Nour Party weeks earlier, also condemned the initiative and the Nour Party's role in promoting it.

Watan Party spokesman Yousry Hammad stated on Twitter that it was not possible to table an initiative that was not based on "protecting legitimacy; respecting the popular will; respecting the law and constitution; and delegitimising those working to destabilise the country and destroy its economy for narrow party gains."

He described Nour's role in promoting the initiative with the NSF as "shaking hands with those legitimising terrorism and making chaos look like a 'revolution'."

The opposition NSF has often been accused by the Brotherhood and others of legitimising acts of violence and chaos by calling for frequent protests – many of which have ended violently – against the presidency.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Watan Party spokesman Ahmed Qadry asserted that the initiative had not only been shunned by other Islamist parties, but had even been rejected by the Nour Party's rank and file.

"Nour Party leaders are not in line with the party's base," Qadry said. "The main reason why Watan broke away from the Nour Party is that Nour Party figures were taking unrepresentative decisions." 

Moreover, last month, Watan Party spokesman Hammad told Al-Ahram's Arabic-language news website that a main reason behind the resignation of Emad Abdel-Ghafour as Nour Party chairman had been alleged "interference" by the Salafist Call.

Those remaining within the Nour Party threw similar accusations at Abdel-Ghafour shortly before the latter's resignation, saying he had consistently violated party decisions. Abdel-Ghafour, they said, had accepted the post of presidential aide when the party board had decided not to accept any positions within the Morsi government.

The Nour Party board went so far as to withdraw confidence from Abdel-Ghafour, saying his position as presidential aide conflicted with his position as party chairman, hinting that he was putting the interests of the president – who hails from the Brotherhood – over those of the party.

The Nour Party had proposed five Salafist figures for ministerial portfolios, of which only one was accepted as environment minister. The Nour Party, for its part, declined the position, claiming the Brotherhood sought to dominate the cabinet.

In fact, Bakkar's recent statements suggest that the Nour Party increasingly fears that the Brotherhood is trying to monopolise Egypt's political scene, a view that Abdel-Ghafour and his 'reformist' camp – which later formed the Watan Party – do not necessarily share.

"The nation cannot develop with one sect working alone...you [the Brotherhood] cannot ignore all other political forces, including those that supported you and voted for you," Bakkar said last week in televised comments. "What is known as the 'Brotherhoodisation' of the state will end up ruining other parties' chances for fair political competition."

Qadry, however, denied the Nour Party's claims that the main difference with the 'reformist' camp had been over the party's position vis-a-vis the Brotherhood.

"I [as a Watan Party member] disagree significantly with the Brotherhood, but I won't bend my principles in the meantime," Qadry said. He went on to describe the Nour Party's decision to cooperate with the NSF on its proposed initiative as "political opportunism."

"Al-Watan can be critical of the Brotherhood, but that doesn't mean it will ally itself with those who stand against legitimacy and who aim at destruction instead of reform," he added.

Meanwhile, the Nour Party's new chairman, Younis Makhioun, has accused the Brotherhood of using the initiative to taint his party's image.

In a recent television interview, Makhioun claimed that while Brotherhood leaders said they welcomed the dialogue initiative, the group's younger cadres widely attacked it. Makhioun speculated that, since Brotherhood members never contravene the leadership's orders, such attacks on the Nour Party could not have been spontaneous.

While both the Nour Party and the Salafist Call have recently distanced themselves from the Brotherhood and its policies, the Watan Party – along with Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya – have defended Egypt's leading Islamist group.

Qadry described Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's stance on the Brotherhood as "balanced but critical" – a position, he said, shared by the Watan Party.

The Watan Party, meanwhile, has spoken of a possible electoral alliance with influential Salafist preacher Hazem Abu-Ismail and his followers, although nothing has yet been confirmed in this regard.

In 2011 parliamentary polls, the Nour Party list – which also included candidates of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and the Salafist Asala Party – won the second highest number of seats in the assembly (24.22 per cent). Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood's FJP list – which also included nationalist and liberal candidates – won the highest number of seats (47.20 per cent) overall. 

Many observers believe that upcoming elections, expected sometime in April or May, will see an even tougher fight, with new and ambitious Islamist parties – who lacked experience one year ago – able to act more independently.

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