A Salafi way out?

After almost two months of ultimate solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Nour Party turned against its Islamist peers amid one of the severest political crises facing Egypt since the ascent of Mohamed Morsy to power.

The party’s recent realignment is widely seen as an attempt by the newly politicized Islamists to groom themselves as a potential alternative to the Brothers. But the extent to which it can remain on the negotiations table with secularists is questionable. 

While street violence was brewing, claiming dozens of lives and warning of a potential collapse of the public order, Nour Party spokesperson Nader Bakkar appeared on a satellite television channel last week accusing the Brothers unequivocally of seeking to stretch their hegemony over all state institutions and hence sowing the seeds of political congestion.

Shortly after, his party launched an extensive initiative to end the turmoil. The initiative called on all political factions to hold a dialogue and find a way out. Yet this was not the highpoint of the initiative.       

The party had dropped a bombshell by expressing its support of secularists’ demands to get rid of the prosecutor general, who was appointed by Morsy in late November, in an act of defiance to judges. Judges had perceived the move as a flagrant infringement from the executive on the independence of the judiciary. The party suggested that the Supreme Judicial Council nominates three judges for the post from whom the president could select.

Besides, the Nour Party called for the sacking of the inept, Morsy-appointed Cabinet and the appointment of “a national coalition” government, a demand made by several secularists.

This initiative marked a major departure from the party’s earlier positions. Since Morsy issued his controversial constitutional declaration whereby he sacked the former prosecutor general and claimed sweeping powers for himself in November, the Nour Party had backed the Brothers and the president. It had even joined Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored rallies supporting Morsy. 

However, the content of the Nour initiative was not the only source of surprise. On Wednesday, the party’s president, Younis Makhyoun, made headlines as he walked into the Wafd Party’s headquarters to discuss his party’s blueprint with leaders of the secular National Salvation Front.

A tactical move

The latest move of the Nour Party is pretty much related to the competition with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Khalil al-Anani, a political scientist with Durham University.

“I don’t see the Nour initiative as a political concession to appease secularists, but as an attempt to achieve several political gains,” he added.

“[The initiative] will boost the popularity of Nour Party outside its core base. It shows Nour Party as a mature political player that seeks to act beyond partisan politics,” Anani argued. “And most importantly, if the initiative succeeds, it will improve the chances of Nour in the upcoming elections.” 

Bakkar did not challenge such a reading. Asked whether the move aims at grooming the party as a rational Islamist force and hence at attracting Islamist votes that the Brothers might have already lost due to their failure to contain the deteriorating situation on the street, Bakkar responded: “The national interest is our vantage point, but to be honest, this reading is correct to a great extent.”

However, Ali Abdel Al, an expert on Salafi groups, ruled out that the Nour Party could outbid the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party in the upcoming parliamentary vote.

“The FJP will remain the most important party in Egypt,” said Abdel Al. “The FJP has a robust hierarchical organization that acts on the ground and mobilizes electoral support.”

“The Salafi movement is bigger than the Muslim Brotherhood, but this movement is divided among several parties,” he added.

In the meantime, he ruled out that the Nour Party could attract Islamist votes that the Brothers might have lost arguing that these votes could be split among a plethora of Islamist parties.

So far, the Egyptian political spectrum disposes of three strands of Islamist parties: Salafis, the Brothers and moderate Islamists. Under the Salafi category, there are at least five parties. The moderate bloc is led by two prominent parties: Wasat and Strong Egypt. All these groups are competing with the FJP over Islamist votes.

The Nour Party might have incurred more losses than gains with its new initiative, held Abdel Al, referring to reports about Nour members walking out of the party in objection to rapprochement with the NSF. However, the Nour Party had denied these reports.

A rift beyond repair?

Although the initiative was celebrated by some NSF representatives, it is hard to assume that it is capable of healing the rift between the two blocs over one of the most controversial matters: the content of the constitution.

The Salafi document envisaged the formation of a committee consisting of legal experts and politicians to aggregate suggestions for articles that need to be amended in the new Constitution.

In fact, Salafis were the driving force behind the inclusion of incendiary clauses that stretched the role of religion in politics and ultimately forced secularists to walk out of the assembly that drafted the Constitution.

Bakkar had declined to specify the articles that his party might be willing to make concessions on and hence bridge the gap with their secular peers.

“It is too early [to specify the articles]. Let people approve of the initiative and sit down for talks first,” he said.

In the meantime, Bakkar ruled out that any amendments could be adopted until the new parliament is elected.

“It is impossible for us or for the president to change something that people had approved of in a referendum,” said Bakkar.

In December, the Islamist-sponsored Constitution was passed with 64 percent approving the document in a poll that election monitors deemed was marred by several irregularities and a turnout of 33 percent.

“The articles that need to be amended shall go to the Parliament. Political parties shall promise to discuss them in Parliament and then refer them to another public referendum,” added Bakkar. 

In the lead to December referendum, secular parties had turned down a similar suggestion put forward by the president’s former vice president, Mahmoud Mekky. Secular groups argued then that there is no guarantee the new parliament, which is expected to be Islamist-dominated, would revise controversial clauses in the Islamist-designed Constitution.

For Abdel Al, the Nour Party might be willing to endorse any amendments that would not undermine Sharia.

For example, Salafis might support demands made by leftist and democratic groups to make the constitution amenable to social justice and to alter clauses that grant the president sweeping powers, said Abdel Al.

 Old rivalries aroused

As to the significance of the Nour’s recent position, Abdel Al contended that it marks no turning point in the Muslim Brotherhood-Nour relations. It is not the first time that Salafis clash with the Brothers, he explained.

“The Nour Party did not hide its wrath toward the FJP when the latter ignored it in the cabinet make-up and in the governors’ shuffle,” Abdel Al said.

Although the Nour Party had formed a solid bloc with the Brothers on several critical matters since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Salafis had expressed on several occasions their fear that the Brothers might stretch their hegemony on the state and society.

This fear stems from an old animosity between the two Islamist players who had fought for decades over conservative constituencies. Although Salafis never engaged in politics under former President Hosni Mubarak, their control over mosques and the wide outreach of their media had posed a real challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last year, this deep-seated rivalry came to the surface after the Nour Party had decided to endorse the presidential bid of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood dissident, and to abandon Morsy in the first round of the presidential vote. Party leaders expressed fears that the Brothers, who already dominated the parliament, would grab all branches of government.

Yet, this rivalry would never prompt Salafis to invest in further ties with secularists at the expense of the Brothers.

“The Nour Party still sees the FJP as part of the Islamist project that it shall not abandon,” said Abdel Al.

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