When Egypt’s military intervened last summer to oust Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, al-Nour party was widely seen as a kingmaker.
Al-Nour, Egypt’s largest Salafi political party was the only religious party to support the military-backed move. It also played a decisive role in selecting Egypt’s first interim prime minister as it vetoed Mohamed ElBaradei, the Noble laureate, for his partisanship. ElBaradei was later appointed as vice president and another more acceptable candidate to al-Nour, Hazem Beblawi, was named prime minister.
Al-Nour was also part of the 50-member committee appointed by interim President Adly Mansour to amend the constitution. It campaigned for a successful yes vote in the January constitutional referendum and announced in early May its support for former defence minister and presidential contender Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Yet, despite such prominence, the party seems to face growing political isolation and an uncertain future.
It appears to have been deserted not only by coup opponents, including many Salafis, but also by fellow coup supporters and even by Sisi himself.
“The majority of the members of the al-Dawah al-Salafyia (the Salafi call) thought that Sisi could secure Egypt during this period,” Khaled Alam al-Deen, a senior leader of al-Dawah al-Salafyia told Al Jazeera. He justified his group’s decision to support Sisi’s presidential bid by saying: “Egypt is facing international conspiracies. We fear that Egypt could be another Syria or Libya if state institutions or central authority collapse. Sisi will be the most capable to lead state institutions and to assure foreign countries willing to continue their aid,” al-Deen, a former Morsi adviser, said .
In statements to the media, al-Nour officials provided many reasons behind their decision to support Sisi for president. Mohamed Salah, a member of al-Nour’s media committee, told a local TV station that Sisi has the advantage of not belonging to any specific political party or ideology, hence making him more acceptable to many Egyptians and “less ideologically Salafi”. Salah also thought that Sisi has better “understanding of foreign dangers threatening Egypt”.
Younis Makhyoun, al-Nour’s president, told local media that his party supported Sisi because of many reasons, such as his “strategic vision” and “administrative experience within the military”. Makhyoun also thought that Sisi was “humble, committed, controls his anger, does not like to show off, speaks with logic, and [is] a practical man”.
Al-Dawah al-Salafiya is a network of prominent Salafi scholars who set up the al-Nour party, after the uprising in 2011, to represent their views in Egyptian politics.
The group continues to play a prominent role in guiding al-Nour policies although it repeatedly stresses on its organisational independence from al-Nour. Yet, it often meets ahead of major political events, such as sponsoring a presidential candidate, and its vote consistently matches that of al-Nour’s.
Analysts like Abdelfattah Mady, a political science professor at Alexandria University, believe al-Nour’s backing of Sisi’s presidential bid was expected. “Right from the beginning, al-Nour has been supportive of the transitional roadmap and all of its details,” Mady told Al Jazeera.
Others beg to differ. Hesham Jafar, a close observer of Egypt’s political religious movements, thought that al-Nour’s support for Sisi was a strange decision.
“Al-Nour had other options. Some liberal parties, such as the Social Democratic Party, refrained from supporting Sisi and gave their members the freedom to choose.”
Jafar thought that al-Nour went too far in supporting the military-backed regime in Egypt at the expense of deepening its isolation among a large and growing number of Salafi and religious voters angered by the coup and ongoing human rights abuses.
“Many of al-Nour’s members have deserted it,” Jafar said.
Jafar thinks that al-Nour is too preoccupied with its political rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood and with attempts to repackage itself as the alternative to the Brotherhood. “Al-Nour suffers from a deeply rooted Salafi intellectual tradition that has tolerated authoritarian leaders in order to avoid their wrath,” Jafar told Al Jazeera.
This view is further confirmed by what al-Deen said: “Rationalism and realism are part of the Salafis’ teachings. We believe that during turmoil we can choose the bad to avoid the worst.”
Yet, despite all of these reasons, al-Nour seems to be facing more internal divisions and external pressures.
Internally, al-Deen admits that “many Salafis have refrained from taking part in any political activity and from voting. They are shocked by the current political conditions. Some of them are very angry with al-Nour’s political positions.”
Jafar believes that Egypt’s Salafis are becoming more “politically pluralistic” as many new Salafi parties and political groups have emerged since the January 25 uprising.
In early 2013, some of al-Nour’s top political leaders defected from the party to form a new one called al-Watan. A prominent religious leader who is very popular among Salafi youth, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, set up a new party called al-Raya.
“It is difficult to estimate the political weight of each Salafi party except through free and fair elections,” Jafar said.
Still, Makhyoun , al-Nour’s president, has said that his party is looking forward to participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
“We will field candidates and compete in all electoral districts,” he said.
Al-Deen sounded less optimistic. “I expect that ahead of parliamentary elections, there will be a vicious media campaign against al-Nour,” he said.
But experts, like Jafar, believe that an alliance between Sisi and al-Nour will last for some time.
“One of the strategies adopted by the current regime is ‘Islamists without the Muslim Brotherhood’. They will need al-Nour on their side to say that the Islamists are represented in the new regime.”
As a result, Jafar thinks that al-Nour will end up winning a good number of seats in the parliament, although the party may not be able to match the 20 percent it won in the first parliamentary elections in 2011, following the uprising.
What makes al-Nour’s future fraught with uncertainty is partly to do with Sisi’s views of Egypt’s religious parties. In a recent TV interview, Sisi launched a strong attack against the country’s political religious groups, including al-Nour, considering their rhetoric and ideas as outdated and a threat to societal cohesion. He even threatened to ban the religious party based on the new constitution.
“Egypt’s fabric over the last 40 years was not able to stabilise because some people are talking in a way that does not match the circumstances of the society,” Sisi said. “They consider themselves a different category of people. This is why we are unable to live together. There is a new constitution, in which they (al-Nour) were present in drafting. The new constitution mandates that there should not be any religious parties.”
In response, al-Nour’s leaders were quick to assert that their party “is consistent with the rules of the constitution and political parties’ law”.
Still, experts like Mady think that in the near future, the challenges parties like al-Nour will face could be bigger than originally expected.
“The idea that political parties will have a role in the post presidential election order is unforeseeable. We are not at the beginning of a pluralistic political system that has a role for political parties. Al-Nour thinks it will have a role in the future. Some of them spoke about occupying a majority in parliament. Others believe that whole Islamist trend may not be allowed to politically exist,” Mady said.
Salafi leaders like al-Deen are aware of what lies ahead. “We are back to conditions that are worse than that which existed before Jan 25 uprising. There is nothing assuring on the horizon.”