Egypt’s Salafis – ultraconservatives who believe the state should be guided by a strict interpretation of Islam – are scrambling to reorganise as parliamentary elections approach.
“The next parliament is the most critical legislative body in Egypt’s history. It will be assigned the task of implementing the constitution of the revolution,” Younis Makhioun, the new leader of the Al Nour Party, told an audience at his inauguration address early this month.
Makhioun wanted to energise and unite his party ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections after some of its most senior officials – led by its former president, Emad Abdel Ghafour – defected days before and announced the formation of a new party, Al Watan.
A date for new parliamentary elections has not been set, but preparations are expected to begin on February 25.
The split raised major questions about the future of Salafis in Egyptian politics.
After the defections, Al Nour was quick to select a new president and emphasise its strength.
“Al Nour Party is the official body representing the principles adopted by Al Dawah Al Salafia throughout its history … we have more than 180,000 associated members,” said Nader Bakar, an Al Nour spokesperson, to party leaders at the same gathering.
Bakar was trying to stress the link between Al Nour and the tightly knit network of Salafi scholars associated with Al Dawah Al Salafia, the main Salafi religious group in Egypt and the ideological parent of Al Nour.
Makhioun, the new leader of Al Nour, is a senior official in Al Dawah Al Salafia’s executive and shura (consultative) councils.
But the new Salafi party, Al Watan, is also making sure Egyptians know about its Salafi credentials. “We follow the same Salafi approach,” Yousi Hamad, a vice president of Al Watan, told Al Jazeera. “But we don’t restrict ourselves within the limits of any specific group.”
Hamad asserts that the main difference between Al Watan and Al Nour is not ideology, but the way ideology is being used. He praised what he described as his new party’s less partisan and more open approach. “We will open up to all those qualified and [who] don’t object to the Islamic project, the Islamic view of the state. We reject partisanship which divided the nation ideologically.”
When asked about his readiness to enter into an electoral coalition with liberal and secular groups, such as the Constitution Party led by former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamad said: “They don’t share our orientation.”
Numbers and alliances
Hamad declined to specify how many Al Nour leaders defected to join Al Watan. But Tamer Meky, a leader of Al Asalah Party – one of about five Salafi parties now taking part in Egyptian politics – told Al Jazeera that about 20 former Al Nour MPs have joined Al Watan. Al Nour had held 112 seats in the dissolved parliament’s lower house.
To increase its political clout, Al Watan announced an alliance in upcoming election with Hazem Abu Ismail, a Salafi presidential candidate who was disqualified from running when the elections committee discovered that his late mother was an American citizen.
Salafist media’s growing influence in Egypt
Nevertheless, Abu Ismail, a charismatic and populist Salafi leader whose father was a known Muslim Brotherhood parliament member during the 1970s, has been able to attract a large audience among Salafis and especially among the youth.
His political rise has represented a serious challenge to Al Nour’s dominance among Egyptian Salafis.
Ayman Elyas, who worked on the media committee of Abu Ismail’s presidential campaign, told Al Jazeera that Abu Ismail is about to announce his own political party, building on the buzz and political machine created during his presidential campaign.
“We have offices in every province around the country and in every town. We are working now on [opening offices in] villages … Hazem Abu Ismail’s page on Facebook has 861,000 followers. We can reach a million followers in a less than a month once we announce the establishment of the new party.”
Elyas says Abu Ismail is engaged in talks with several Islamist parties to join a coalition during the House of Representatives elections expected to be held in two or three months.
He said that in addition to Al Watan, some parties have already agreed to join the coalition – including the Al ‘Amal Al Jadeed (“New Labour”) Party, Al Fadila (“Virtue”) Party, and Al Shaab (“The People”) Party.
“We are working to build a coalition with all Islamist political forces that exists in the field. The Muslim Brotherhood and Al Nour will not be part of the coalition. Their views are different from ours,” said Elyas. “Our approach is based on the views of Hazem Abu Ismail, who wants to implement sharia in all aspects of life.”
Magdy Hussein, the president of Al Amal Al Jadeed, says his party based on “Islamic principles” but has socialist leanings. “Our understanding of Islam is that social justice is the core of the economic and social system concept in Islam,” he said.
He explained that he joined the coalition with Al Watan after he was approached by the new party, complaining that the Freedom and Justice Party and Al Nour neglected his interest in working with them.
“Our differences with the Muslim Brotherhood are growing. They are no longer interested in sincere cooperation with the other Islamist forces. Al Nour refused to cooperate with us. Every group wants to raise its own banner only. They only want to promote themselves.”
Meky, of the Al Asala Party, says the claimed electoral coalition between the Al Watan, Al Amal Al Jadeed, and Abu Ismail is a just an idea at the moment. “On the ground, there is no real coalition yet. We did not take [a] final decision regarding our electoral coalition yet,” Meky said, adding that his party is still open to entering into a coalition with the Freedom and Justice Party or Al Nour.
Gamal Sultan, the editor-in-chief of Almesryoon, an online news site popular among conservatives in Egypt, told Al Jazeera that Al Nour “is still number two in Egyptian politics. It has [a] large number of religious scholars who sponsor it, and they have [a] large number of followers.”
Hisham Jaafar, an expert in Egyptian religious movements, told Al Jazeera that Egypt’s polarised political atmosphere hurts the chances of parties such as Al Watan, which tries to take more moderate positions.
“Al Nour is clearly weaker today,” he declared. “The question is to what extent. It is too early to speak about the relative power of various political parties,” he said, given that democratic elections in Egypt are a new phenomenon.