Islamist Bloc (Al-Nour)

Egyptian Eelections Watch (Ahram Online and Jadaliyya) , Saturday 19 Nov 2011

Islamist Bloc

Coalition members: Al-Nour Party, Al-Asala Party, Building and Development Party / running under the name Al-Nour

Background and history:

The Islamist Bloc is an electoral coalition formed by three Islamist political parties with the aim to integrate their efforts in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Islamist Bloc is comprised of the Salafist Al-Nour and Al-Asala Parties, as well as the Building and Development Party, the latter of which was founded by the Islamic Group (Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya).

Some observers have dubbed this coalition the “Islamist Alliance.” The three parties comprising the alliance announced on 3 November 2011 that they would compete in the parliamentary elections under the name of the “Alliance for Egypt.”

The three parties of the Islamist Bloc were once members of the Democratic Alliance for Egypt, an electoral coalition led by the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. Like many other groups which were once part of the Democratic Alliance, they defected in protest of their paltry shares on the Democratic Alliance’s joint candidate lists for the parliamentary elections. In the upcoming elections, two-thirds of parliamentary seats will be filled through a closed party list system. The fact that each list consists on average of only seven seats makes it difficult for a large number of parties to cooperate in a single coalition. All coalitions experienced similar defections once they started forming their joint electoral lists.

A number of other Islamist parties, including Al-Wasat, Labor, Al-Fadila, and Al-Tawheed Al-Arabi, considered joining the Islamist Bloc after withdrawing from the Democratic Alliance, but ultimately decided against it.

“They did not join us because negotiations with them started too late. There was not enough time to work things out,” Nader Bakkar, a member of Al-Nour’s supreme committee and a party spokesperson, told Jadaliyya/Ahram Online. The Labor Party later rejoined the Democratic Alliance.

The Islamist Bloc announced it plans to field 693 candidates In the upcoming parliamentary polls, signaling it would contest all 688 seats available for election (498 in the lower house and 190 in the upper house). On its part, Al-Nour is contributing 610 candidates to the coalition’s electoral rosters, which includes 477 candidates for the parliament’s lower house, and 133 candidates for the upper house. Al-Asala and Building and Development are competing for only forty and forty-five seats, respectively, leaving more than eighty-five percent of the joint candidate roster to Al-Nour. Earlier in the election season, Al-Nour Party’s spokesperson once refused to specify the proportion of seats contested by each of the three parties of the coalition on grounds that Al-Nour did not want to belittle the role of its two coalition partners. The legal framework governing the elections gives SCAF the right to appoint ten of the 508 members of the lower house, and ninetyof the 270 members of the upper house.

The coalition will compete for seats in all of Egypt’s governorates, except for Sinai. The regime of former president Hosni Mubarak had previously prevented Salafist movements from operating in that region.

While the Islamist Bloc’s electoral lists include women, none of its candidates are Copts. Al-Nour once stated that it is willing to consider fielding Coptic candidates, as long as those candidates represent the party’s platform.

Al-Nour Party is the largest and the first Salafist political party to be registered in Egypt. It is linked to Al-Daawa Movement (or Al-Daawa Al-Salafiyya), a Salafist group based in Alexandria. Al-Nour’s co-founders include renowned Salafist cleric Yasser Borhami, whose stature enhanced the party’s fame and weight among the Islamists. It was widely reported that Borhami discouraged Al-Daawa Movement’s supporters from participating in the 25 January demonstrations, which ultimately escalated into the mass uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Due to the party’s strong roots in Alexandria, it is said that Al-Nour will compete for a considerable number of the parliamentary seats available in that region. Al-Asala Party previously said that it would cede all seats in the governorate of Alexandria to Al-Nour’s candidates, whereas Al-Asala’s own candidates, including its leader Adel Afifi, would contest electoral races in the Cairo area. Backed by famous Salafist preachers, such as Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Hussein Yacoub, Al-Asala is another Salafist party that came to light after the January 25 Revolution. It has attracted support from Salafists in the Cairo area.

The Building and Development Party, which will be fielding candidates on behalf of the Islamist Bloc in Upper Egypt, was formed four months after Mubarak’s ouster. It is known as the political arm of the Islamic Group (Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya). The group was committed to overthrowing the Egyptian government until its imprisoned leaders renounced violence in 2003. The official political parties’ registration committee had initially refused to license the Building and Development on grounds that it advances a religious program in violation of Egyptian law. The party appealed the decision in court, arguing that it seeks to implement Islamic law in accordance with the second article of the constitution, which states that Sharia is the main source of legislation. The court ruled in favour of the Building and Development Party, thereby granting it a license to operate.

In late October, the Islamist Bloc announced  plans to wage its electoral campaign under the slogan, “Together, we will build Egypt: A modern identity and state built with Egyptian hands and minds.” Al-Nour had pledged to refrain from using religious slogans, or from campaigning inside mosques, in the lead-up to the parliamentary polls, although one party official was recently quoted as telling supporters that voting for Al-Nour candidates represented a form of almsgiving that would someday be rewarded in heaven. During last Eid holiday, moreover, Al-Nour activists competed with those of the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party over control of public prayer venues and spaces, as both parties sought to keep their names in the spotlight in religious forums convened during the Muslim holiday.

Al-Nour spokesperson Bakkar said that Al-Nour’s campaign motto and its emphasis on “identity” reflect the raison d’être of the Islamist Bloc’s parliamentary bid, namely “the application of Sharia [Islamic Law] in a gradual way that suits the nature of society.” Bakkar’s statement implicitly refers to a common belief among many Islamist activists that Egypt’s journey to the complete application of Sharia should be slow and gradual so as not to alienate people. The term “modern state,” Bakkar added, signified neither a secular state based on conventional Western understandings nor a fundamentalist religious state, but rather a modern state that relies on science in pursuing progress and prosperity.

The Islamist Bloc’s parties’ position on women’s rights has attracted much attention in recent months. While Al-Nour’s platform states that men and women are equal with respect to human dignity, it underscores “the importance of maintaining differences in their human and social roles.” At a press conference announcing the Building and Development Party’s formation, an Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya spokesperson told reporters: “Islam guarantees women their appropriate and sufficient rights. [Former first lady] Suzanne Mubarak gave women [in Egypt] more than their lawful rights and that is not acceptable.”

The Islamist Bloc’s announcement that it would field sixty female candidates in the upcoming elections became the source of considerable controversy, since many Salafists do not believe that women should vote, let alone run for office. In response, Al-Nour leader Emad Abd Al-Ghafour stressed that the party was committed to the principle that men and women should not mingle, and that the decision to field female candidates had been a necessary measure aimed at winning as many seats as possible, given that the law stipulates a set quota for female candidates on party lists. Al-Ghafour went on to note, however, that female candidates would remain at the tail end of the list and would therefore have very little chance of securing representation.

Al-Nour Party, the largest group in the Islamist Bloc, tried to repair its image vis-à-vis women’s rights by convening a convention for its female activists. The party’s detractors, however, cynically mocked this initiative, pointing out that none of the speakers at the event were women, but rather a handful of old men lecturing female attendees about the nature and scope of their political rights.

More recently, Al-Nour was criticized for refusing to include photos of its female candidates alongside those of its male nominees in its electoral flyers, simply inserting the image of a flower above the names of women running on the party’s lists.

Spokesperson Bakkar said that the Islamist Bloc would rely on an international marketing company to design its campaignads, stressing that none of the candidates affiliated with the coalition would spend more than the legally mandated campaign-spending cap of 500,000 EGP.

The Islamist Bloc is likely to face stiff competition in Upper Egyptian governorates from affiliates of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) and its offshoots, particularly those hailing from powerful and well-connected Upper Egyptian families. Thus, Al-Nour has unveiled plans to launch voter awareness campaigns and mount legal challenges against those candidates once tied to the former regime. Nonetheless, Al-Nour said it does not anticipate large gains in Upper Egypt’s southern governorates.

Observers believe the Islamist Bloc will end up competing with the MB for votes cast by pro-Islamist constituents, particularly in Alexandria. Notwithstanding its frequent criticism of the MB, the Islamist Bloc may coordinate its electoral strategies with the MB’s FJP.

Bakkar told Jadaliyya/Ahram Online that the Bloc and the MB had agreed to avoid competing for the same single-winner seats, though FJP officials have denied that such an agreement has occurred. The final candidate rosters of both parties in Alexandria suggest that they might indeed end up competing over single winner seats.

Moreover, the Brotherhood and Al-Nour signed a joint document committing both sides to “clean and fair competition” in their electoral faceoff, though it is unclear why other parties were not included in the agreement. Nevertheless, the two Islamist coalitions are expected to compete fiercely in party list races over votes cast by Islamist constituents who had previously had little choice but to vote for the MB.



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