Egypt’s Salafist* Party Returns to the Wilderness
By J. Millard Burr and Rachel Ehrenfeld
Sunday, October 25th, 2015 @ 7:48PM
“Running for the Salafi Party was a loss…I regret it. [My] popularity in the constituency was very strong, but joining the party caused it to decline.” – Daily News Egypt, October 24, 2015
Results from the first round of phase one of Egypt’s parliamentary elections earlier this month show that the pragmatic “For the Love of Egypt” — a movement that managed to create a coalition from a number of “secular” political entities — “emerged victorious.” However, “the Nour Party’s defeat contrasts sharply with its strong performance in 2011’s parliamentary elections, where it came second to the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of the number of votes and seats.”
According to Aharm Online, al-Nour’s “big loss in the first round in the first stage led to internal divisions, with many of the party’s officials urging its chairman – Younis Makhyoun – to “save the party’s face” and withdraw from the race.”
Founded in 2011 by the Salafist Call (Al-Dawaa Al-Salafiyya) movement, the al-Nour serves as its political arm. In the first phase of the October election, the Nour Party chose to meet its political opponents head-on in its Nile West Delta (Alexandria) stronghold, only to suffer a humiliating defeat. In addition, the Egyptian daily, al Ahram, reported that, “almost none of al-Nour’s 160 candidates who ran as independents” succeeded, although, “some press reports suggest, however, that as many as 30 of its independent candidates have qualified for the first stage’s run-off round,” a week later.
The Nour was one of a number of movements created following the January 25, 2011 uprising” and it was the first to be based on Salafist principles. The Ansar al-Sunna Association created the al-Nour after urging the creation of an alliance of all Islamist political groups vying for power in Egypt. It announced it would take part in the parliamentary elections, which were then scheduled for September. A month later, Emad ad-Din Abd al-Ghofour, the al-Nour’s president, requested official recognition, which was granted on 12 June 2011.
In effect, the al-Nour became the first Salafi political party to gain official recognition. It calls for the implementation of the Sharia (Islamic law). But unlike other Islamist movements it recognized the right of Egypt’s Christian Copts to be governed by their own creed with regard to their personal affairs. Initially, the Nour formed part of the Democratic Alliance, but left soon after “secular” entities joined a movement led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The Nour then created a Salafi electoral grouping that included the Assala, and Construction and Development parties. United, the Salafist movement would win a quarter of the seats in the first post-Mubarak elections to the People’s Assembly.
“Hardliner [Nour] Salafists are unwilling to tone down their views, despite fears over the dominance of Islamists in the coming parliament,” – Ahram Online noted on December 2011.
Still, in the January 2012 elections to Parliament, al-Nour was second to the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-al-Muslimun) both in terms of the number of votes received and seats obtained. The Ikhwan won 43 percent of the seats, and with Nour and its allies the Islamists held more than 70 percent of the seats in parliament. However, the October 2015 parliamentarian elections marked a sharp decline in al-Nour’s popularity.
The Ikhwan Background
Immediately after the 2011 elections, the Ikhawn threw caution to the winds. Rather than working to gain a modus vivendi with the Egyptian military, it chose to antagonize what had been for more than a half-century its most dangerous enemy. But that was predictable because in the Ikhwan’s internal elections, held during 2008-2010, the “conservatives” (influenced by Sayid Qutb, the Ikhwan’s own Salafist ideologue) had assumed command. Previously, the movement had been dominated by a pragmatic Salafism first espoused by Islamist intellectual Rashid Rida and later by Hassan al-Banna, the Ikhwan’s founder. Banna had recognized the Salafist appeal to many Egyptians and made use of it in the Ikhwan outreach. But it had never achieved a dominant role within the movement.
Following the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamist radicals with former ties to the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood leadership cautiously reentered the political stage (See Galal Nassar, “Down the Salafi Road,” Al Ahram, Cairo, Issue No.. 1027, 16-22 December 2010, and the analyses of Hassam Tammam). And, ironically, at the time of Egypt’s Arab Spring outbreak in January 2011, the Ikhwan was in the midst of a major reorganization.
According to Hossam Tammam, the Ikhwan’s internal elections of 2008 had led some members to express concern that their organization was being “hijacked” by the radical “Qotbi current.” Their fears soon materialized. By January 2011, the Supreme Guide and two of his three lieutenants were considered ultra-conservatives.
Shortly before President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Tammam argued that the Ikhwan was, “becoming too conservative to be inclusive.” A resurging Salafism, “with its obsession with outward piety,” estranged many intellectuals because of its abhorrence for modern art, theater, dance, cinema, the modern novel and Western dress. In effect, its critics claimed the Brotherhood was undertaking a new metamorphosis.
It had begun as a group that had “wished to reclaim Islamic identity from the Wafd Party in the 1930s and 1940s.” But in the 1970s, thanks in large to the input of Egyptian exiles living in Saudi Arabia, the Ikhwan adopted “the concept of hakimia [theocracy] in the face of state and society.” In the 1990s, after years in a political wilderness, the Ikhwan chose to be the defender of public morality and, tangentially, engaged in myriad social service outreach programs. In the 2000 elections Ikhwan members, led by Mohammad Morsi, ran for Parliament as political independents, winning seventeen seats. In 2005, that number increased to 88 seats, representing twenty percent of Parliament. That dalliance with parliamentary democracy lasted only until 2011, after which it had projected itself as “a proponent of exclusive orthodoxy.” And as such, its newly created Freedom and Justice Party challenged the primacy of the emergent al-Nour party in that realm.
Nour in the Wake of the Arab Spring
Having surprised most analysts with the widespread support among the Egyptian populace, the Nour party almost immediately set out to destroy that support. Yasser Borhami, the deputy leader of the Salafist Call movement – a cleric known for his anti-Semitism and religious bigotry and also one of the founders of al-Nour – was an outspoken critic of the secularists.
Despite efforts of al-Nour Party President Emad al-Din Abdel Gafour to show a moderate face to the world, little could be done to reduce the damage caused by such outspoken clerics as Borhami and Hazem Shoman. Indeed, there was little he could do as Borhami himself had warned, “we would never give up our thoughts for politics.” The al-Nour certainly wasn’t helped by Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, an al-Nour candidate for parliament who urged the destruction of the pyramids (or somehow concealing them). Shahat also wanted to ban the works of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
In April 2012, the first split in Nour ranks had occurred as members who objected to the dictatorship of a small ruling minority left to form a new movement. Confusion resulted when the Nour announced in August 2012 that it favored a $4.8 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. Its leadership had previously denounced the IMF, considering that IMF loans qualified as usury, and since sharia prohibits the collection and payment of interest, such a loan was prohibited (haram). To quash such sentiments, Nour party chief Emaad Abdel-Ghafour claimed that, “Economists told us that this loan and its interest rates need not be regarded as usury,” and Nour Party members who rejected that view were expressing “purely a personal view.”
In the end, the expected Ikhwan-Nour alliance that some predicted in 2011 did not occur. Instead the Nour chose an independent path. So much so that it either joined the insurgents or remained neutral during the 30 June 2013 nationwide protest that presaged the demise of the Islamist and Ikhwan president Mohammed Morsi. Meanwhile, as the Islamist parties were losing strength the liberal and secular entities were active. And in September 2012, in anticipation of elections to be held once the new constitution was approved, they created the Conference Party, uniting ten small liberal and secular entities.
The Nour party members, particularly those in its Alexandria-Beheira nexus, were greatly dismayed by the result of the this October election. The “No to Religious Parties” movement, which was supported by the Sisi government, played a major role in the election and caused “a humiliating defeat for the political Islam movement as a whole.” As one Nour spokesman put it, the vote would cause, “not just isolation for Nour but for political Islam as a whole.” The same spokesman predicted, “The tide against political Islam in Egypt has reached its height. It began with expelling the Muslim Brotherhood from power in a popular uprising in 2013, and now comes the tragic turn for another Islamist force — Nour — in just two years.” This move is seen as a government effort to dissolve the Nour itself, given that Article 74 of the constitution bans the formation of political parties upon religious foundations.
The Ikhwan, which the Sisi government outlawed in December 2014, will undoubtedly take comfort in the plight of the Nour and would relish in its demise.
*Note: Salafism means reverting to the mores of the “pious founders”, the Salafi, who were the close companions of the Prophet Mohammed.