Two and half years ago, when Egyptians revolted against the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, Salafis hardly had any political voice. In fact, they refrained from political participation altogether. Today, Al Nour, Egypt’s most powerful Salafi party, is a kingmaker.
Al Nour took part in a political coalition that supported the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and used veto power against appointing Mohamed ElBaradei – the former UN nuclear chief, and a leader of Egypt’s main secular opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front – as an interim prime minister.
“ElBaradei is not just someone who belongs to a political party. He is the leader of one of the polarisation camps that tore Egypt apart. To remove a pole and replace it with [the] opposite rod is pouring oil on fire,” said Bassam AlZarka, the deputy chairman of the Al Nour party, explaining why his party blocked ElBaradei’s premiership.
The revolutionary rise of Al Nour, and thus ultra conservative Salafi political power, has earned the party praise in some quarters, but did not come without a cost.
“The Salafis have improved a lot, ” AbdelFattah Mady, a political science professor at Alexandria University, told Al Jazeera.
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“Salafis have not been engaged in politics for a long time. But they change and improve every time they gain new knowledge and experience. The more they open up to politics, the more they learn more about democracy and get closer to society. Their latest positions show a clear sign of pragmatism. They call it realism.”
Still, the Salafi’s support for Morsi’s ousting put them “under severe psychological pressure,” says Kamal Habib, a political science professor and an expert in the politics of Egypt’s religious groups.
“It was expected that Al Nour will have a deputy prime minister in the interim cabinet,” Habib said, “But, Al Nour gradually withdrew from participating in [the] new cabinet to the extent that it no longer exists in the interim government. They want to wash their hands from carrying the sin of participating in the coup. The coup scene is rejected by all Islamists.”
Al Nour’s AlZaraka echoed this sentiment, saying that his party’s support Morsi’s of overthrow was not political.
“We don’t care about gaining popularity. We care about two things; preventing bloodshed and avoiding a civil war,” AlZaraka told Al Jazeera.
Al Nour was established in May 2011 by one of the main associations of Salafi scholars in Egypt, called Al Dawah Al Salafia or “The Salafi Call”. Founded in Alexandria in the late 1970s, Al Dawah Al Salafia refrained from political participation for decades under the 30-year Mubarak regime for two main reasons.
First, the group thought the Mubarak regime and the country’s constitution were not compliant enough with Islamic Law; political participation in this context would mean giving up fundamental Islamic values and principles.
Second, the group thought the regime and its international allies wouldn’t welcome their participation in politics. They believed political engagement would have come at a steep price, such as the persecution, imprisonment, and torture of their members. Due to these fears, Al Dawah Al Salafia opted to focus instead on religious teaching and charity work.
When Mubarak stepped down after the January 2011 revolution, Al Dawah Al Salafia was quick to amend its teachings and reverse its long held stand against political participation. It formed the Al Nour party in the hope of helping to shape Egypt’s new regime and constitution in terms more compliant with their puritanical interpretation of Islamic law.
Al Nour occupied about a quarter of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, and was – along with the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood – instrumental in writing Egypt’s new constitution in late 2012.
By the beginning of 2013, however, the coalition between Al Nour and the Freedom and Justice Party had begun to deteriorate. Senior Al Nour members appointed as advisors by Morsi resigned from their posts. They said the president did not consult them in decision-making, and that they were mistreated.
Al Nour then joined Egypt’s main secular opposition group, the National Salvation Front, in demanding more political concessions from Morsi, such as the formation of a national coalition government.
Analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera at that time said Al Nour felt politically betrayed by the Freedom and Justice Party, expecting more in return for backing Morsi during the presidential elections.
Since January, Al Nour and Al Dawah Al Salafia have been careful to walk a fine line between Morsi’s opponents and his supporters. As of mid-June, Al Dawah Al Salafia had refrained from endorsing Morsi’s opponents’ calls for him to step down.
“President Morsi has been elected president for four years. The constitution has listed the cases in which a president could be removed from power and they don’t apply to president Morsi,” Al Dawah Al Salafia said in a June 17 statement.
Al Dawah Al Salafia also refused calls to join pro and anti-Morsi protests ahead of June 30, citing fears of further escalation and possible clashes and violence.
Still, the group continued to call on Morsi and his political coalition to make concessions and to listen to calls for political change, which were increasing each day.
“The negative practices by the government, some unacceptable positions by the presidency, and people’s unfulfilled basic needs are the reasons driving the majority of protests, which we will not participate in, and we will not accept to remove the president through, unless he agrees to hold early presidential elections,” Yasser Burhami, the deputy leader of Al Dawah Al Salafia wrote on June 21.
However, on July 2 Al Nour and Al Dawah Al Salafia’s position changed. In a joint statement, they called for Morsi to announce a date for early presidential elections.
Al Nour is trying to introduce itself as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and it is being supported by regional states such as Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.
Al Dawah Al Salafia also issued its own statement explaining the shift.
“We don’t think a president can remain stably in power, even with the backing of a number of civilian supporters, regardless of their number, in face of an angry population, the military and the police.”
Other statements published by the group show a desire to avoid bloodshed and confrontation between religious groups and security forces. Al Dawah Al Salafia also emphasized that if a confrontation took place, it would be a bloody and unfair battle between the armed security forces and the civilian supporters of Morsi, and that such clashes would hurt the image of all religious groups.
On July 3, military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that Morsi had been removed from power, after serving just one year in office. He suspended the constitution and called for early elections, following a transitional period.
On July 5, Abdel Monem AlShahat, the spokesperson for Al Dawah Al Salafia, published an article explaining why his group sided with the military coup.
“Al Nour offered its advice to the president. Thanks to God, we did that sometimes in public and many times in private. The answer was always that: we know better… This is until it all happened, until the president was actually removed, until he became unable to order the police to protect his closest followers, and until he became unable to issue an address without the military’s approval… Al Nour participated [in the ousting of Morsi] in order to protect the constitution, in order to help keep the Shura Council in power with its Muslim Brotherhood majority, and in order to impose a national reconciliation agenda and prevent revenge against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
But behind these justifications, analysts say there may be political ambitions.
“Al Nour is trying to introduce itself as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and it is being supported by regional states such as Saudi Arabia and Gulf states,” political scientist Habib said.
Analysts believe it is too early to tell if Al Nour can play such role, however. At this moment, Al Nour and Al Dawah Al Salafia are facing internal strife over their role in ousting Morsi. They are also facing competition from several Salafi parties established since the revolution.
Moreover, Al Nour and other political religious groups are facing public backlash in reaction to the mistakes committed by the Muslim Brotherhood during Morsi’s presidency.
“There is large amount of discontent with the performance of the Islamist current in politics. They are people who gave up political Islam in general. Large segments now believe that such trend is a political failure,” says political science professor Mady.
For now, Al Nour’s AlZarka says his party “is outside the roadmap” announced by the interim president; it will not take part in the interim government, and has stopped communicating with the interim president.
AlZaraka seems to primarily object to the amount of power the roadmap gives the interim president, including amending a new constitution and shaping the interim period. He believes that power should be transferred as soon as possible to an elected parliament, instead of remaining in the hands of an appointed president.
He wants to see parliamentary elections “that will produce a parliament that can say it represents the public will and can lead us out of this crisis”.
AlZaraka says that his party is working hard to set up a reconciliation committee to help bring the Muslim Brotherhood and the party’s opponents to the negotiating table as soon as possible.
For now such an effort at reconciliation has yet to kick off, and as the interim government begins to implement its political roadmap, Al Nour is feeling the pressure.
Follow Alaa Bayoumi on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi