Egypt's Salafist Nour Party post-Brotherhood

Hicham Mourad , Sunday 7 Jul 2013

The Nour Party has adopted an intermediate position between the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals. This stance, however, has brought the party fresh predicaments

As the tension was at its height between the two main camps of the political scene, the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the liberals, led by the Tamarrod ('Rebel') movement and the National Salvation Front (NSF), only one political party remained outside of the acute conflict. This is the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, the second political force in the country after the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Brotherhood.

The Nour Party initially refused to participate in the two large popular mobilisations organised, on one side, by the Islamists, in support of (the deposed) President Mohamed Morsi, and, on the other side, by the liberal opposition to demand the holding of early presidential elections. The party chairman, Younis Makhioun, justified his position by the desire "to avoid clashes that would lead to the collapse of the state."

But the reality is that Nour, which has shown maturity in its political actions and manoeuvring in recent months, is trying to position itself as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, in decline and facing a growing and pronounced popular disaffection. So should be interpreted the policy and positions of the party, which aspires to supplant FJP as a leading political force, or at least increase its role in the political life of the country so as to become key player.

Nour feels able to climb to the top spot on the political spectrum. It won, to everyone's surprise, 24.7 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly (the lower house of parliament, dissolved in June 2012) during the first post-revolution legislative election in November/December 2011, just behind the FJP, which obtained 47.2 percent.

This desire to rise to the rank of the first Islamist party of Egypt is rooted in the fierce rivalry, if not the acrimony, which is installed between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party since the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 for various reasons.

There is first the political marginalisation of Nour made by the regime run by the Brotherhood, the latter policy aimed to sow division within the Salafists of Nour to weaken them and, finally, the theological and doctrinal differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Call, the parent religious organisation at the origin of the creation of Nour in May 2011.

For these reasons, Nour has distanced itself vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood and joined the opposition of the NSF to force the FJP to make concessions and stop its domination of the political scene. Without, however, going to participate in street protests demanding the resignation of the President, who hails from the Brotherhood.

Although the Salafist party hoped that the battle would weaken its main rival, the Brotherhood, it decided not to participate in protests to avoid being affected negatively.

In other words, to avoid being accused by the Islamist electorate of having contributed to dividing the religious camp in favour of the secular liberal opposition, a charge regularly addressed by the Brotherhood to Nour.

In refraining from participating in the secular opposition protests, the Salafist party expects to keep its chances with the Islamist electorate, which had allowed political parties belonging to this current to dominate the three-quarters of the lower house of parliament.

It is aware that much of the voters who had voted for the FJP in 2011 and its presidential candidate in June 2012, are now disappointed by the failure of the Brotherhood to improve their living conditions. This explains why Nour is calling today for early parliamentary elections; the winning parties will form a new government.

The median path taken by Nour, between the Brotherhood and the NSF, is not without problems and require some balancing games. It is supposed to weaken the Brotherhood without being accused by Islamist voters of betraying the cause of the religious camp for political interests.

This difficulty explains the Nour position on the protests of 30 June and the claims of the opposition, where it has sought to hold the bar in the middle.

The party has refused to endorse the holding of early presidential elections, as demanded by the opposition, but supported the idea of a referendum on the organisation or not of an early presidential poll, after calling for the president to complete his four-year term. It finally agreed, reluctantly, to hold early presidential polls when it found the Muslim Brotherhood regime collapsing.

The above does not mean that the party, since it took its distance from the Brotherhood, has generally taken a clear critical stance against the regime. It called, like the NSF, for the dismissal of the government, which it accused of failing to address the multifaceted problems facing the country, and denounced the hegemonic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, responsible for the serious political crisis facing the country.

This position was designed to exert pressure on the Brotherhood to make concessions and to prevent the latter from dominating the political scene, without going so far as to bringing down the regime. Meanwhile,  Nour considers as positive and wants to deepen the steps that have been made under the Muslim Brotherhood, in the direction of the Islamisation of the state and society.

This is mainly related to the new constitution, approved by referendum in December, which allows a wider application of Sharia and gives Al-Azhar an important role to declare whether the laws comply or not with it. This is why Nour rejects the drafting of a new constitution, as demanded by the NSF, and proposes instead the amendment of certain provisions in accordance with the (restrictive) mechanisms defined by the constitution.

The party was able to impose this vision during the drafting of the political roadmap, announced on 3 July by the defence minister, to run the transitional period. Its participation with the other protagonists of the political scene to define the steps of the new transitional period, despite its disappointment with the fall of the Islamist regime of the Brotherhood, demonstrates its willingness to remain an active political player.

By adopting an intermediate position between the two sides in the conflict, Nour also sought to give an image of a moderate party, able to win the support of a growing electorate. It thus refuted the thesis spread by the supporters of the presidential camp, making the conflict between them and the liberals that between those who support Islam and the infidels.

By adopting such weighted positions, Nour is also working to gain the trust of foreign partners of Egypt. Thus, the party prepares visits to the United States and Russia to correct the widespread negative image abroad of an extremist religious party with an obscurantist doctrine.

Party leaders have toured Western Europe, including France, Germany, Austria and Belgium, and plan to travel to Britain and Spain. They sought to persuade their interlocutors of their faith in democracy and the fundamental rights of citizens.

But they have to work hard to convince the public, especially on their discriminatory vision against women and Copts. The party also suffers from a doctrinal rigidity imposed by the sheikhs of the Salafist Call, the parent organization behind the creation of Nour.

This dogmatic inflexibility, despite taking skilful political positions, should pose real problems if the party participates in power in the future. There remains finally to be seen whether the fall in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood does not also affect the entire Islamist current, including the Salafist Nour Party.

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