Egypt’s Salafist al-Nour party faces tricky balancing act as it makes play for power
Al-Nour was an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is playing a crucial role in the coalition that has replaced Mohamed Morsi
When General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi announced Mohamed Morsi’s departure on Wednesday night in front of a panel of politicians and religious figures representing a cross-section of Egyptian society, there was one unlikely face behind him. It was the bearded Younes Makhyoun, chairman of Egypt’s largest Salafi – or ultra-orthodox – political party, al-Nour.
Nine months ago, al-Nour was a key ally of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Now it is the most unexpected player in the secular-leaning coalition guiding Egypt through its latest transition. In November it was seen as a crucial partner in the Brotherhood’s Islamist-slanted constitution. But since January, in a shrewd display of political nous, it has distanced itself from Morsi. This culminated in its decision, alone among Salafi groups, to fence-sit during last Sunday’s mass protests that eventually toppled Morsi from power.
By Wednesday, it was actively backing his removal – and by Saturday, it was playing a crucial role in the interim regime that has replaced him. The decision to delay Mohamed ElBaradei’s appointment as prime minister was down to al-Nour believing he is too secular for its liking.
“They essentially have veto power over the coalition,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre and an expert on political Islam. “The new government needs al-Nour, as they need to be able to point to at least one Islamist party on their side. If they lose al-Nour, they will have thousands of al-Nour party supporters joining the Brotherhood in the streets.”
Tens of thousands of pro-Morsi Islamists have protested against the ex-president’s removal since Wednesday. But while al-Nour has manoeuvred itself into a position of strength in the offices of power, it may have done so at the expense of its grassroots support. During Egypt’s last parliamentary elections, al-Nour’s bloc emerged with nearly a quarter of the vote – second behind the Brotherhood’s candidates. It was therefore envisaged that al-Nour stood to gain most from the Brotherhood’s fall – as it was seen as the clean alternative for Islamist voters who were put off by the Brotherhood’s machinations, but unwilling to reject political Islam.
But by rejecting Morsi, and by playing dirty with secular politicians, al-Nour risks alienating the very supporters who give it such clout at the top table of Egyptian politics. “They’re playing a very risky game that might backfire on them,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist politics in Egypt. “Many people are now accusing al-Nour of being a political animal, rather than a religious group.”
In a telling gesture, one of Nour’s leading figures, Sheikh Ahmed Aboul Enein, resigned from the party in protest at al-Nour’s stance on the military takeover. “Many of al-Nour party youth are at home having a crisis of confidence,” added Mostafa Sharky, editor of a Salafi news website. “The party’s recent stance has harmed them a great deal.”
“They’re in a very difficult situation,” said Hamid. “They were one of the only Salafi parties to back the coup. It doesn’t sit well with Salafi rank and file to watch a fellow Islamist deposed. So you are seeing some divergence between the rank and file and its political leadership who have proved very nimble.”
As a result, Sharky said, some young Salafis were already drifting away from al-Nour, and founding their own groups. “A lot of Salafis still have faith in the democratic process,” Sharky said, but there are still fears that the fall of Egypt’s first democratically elected president may put many off democracy. Over the weekend, hardline Islamists created the Egyptian chapter of Ansar al-Sharia – promising armed resistance against the country’s new government.