Following the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt’s political system underwent a dramatic overhaul. For the first time, any party could participate in the political process. This openness catalyzed the formation of new political parties, as Egyptians became hopeful about reshaping their country for the future.
Among these new political actors were members of Egypt’s Salafist organizations, a disparate community of Islamist groups. Salafis adhere to a strict and literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith, seeking a return to the authentic practices and beliefs of the pious ancestors, the salaf al-salih, with include the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
The strongest Salafist political party to emerge from the Egyptian revolution, with the largest independent base of support, was Hizb an-Nour (‘Party of the Light’), also known as the Nour Party. Nour is the political branch of the well-known Salafist organization al-Dawa al-Salafiyya (‘The Salafist Call’). Though its members had no political experience, the Nour Party performed relatively well in the 2012 parliamentary elections, winning about a quarter of available seats together with other parties in the Salafist Coalition, which was created by Nour. As the most organized and well-supported member of the Salafist Coalition, the Nour Party quickly emerged as the second most prominent Islamist party in parliament – after the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since the military power grab in July 2013, the Nour Party has become one of the few Islamist parties and the only Salafist party to have weathered the anti-Islamist crackdown. The flip-side of this unexpected political savvy is that Nour and Dawa are now widely seen as traitors to Islam, complicit in the government’s brutality. Nevertheless, the Nour Party has proven effective in securing its current monopoly on Islamically-inspired politics. In particular, while the party’s power has been diminished by the political upheaval in Egypt, it has survived a number of challenges to its political legitimacy from secularist groups as well as from other Salafists.
Evolving Salafist Political Activism
Before the 2011 revolution, Salafist groups in Egypt had long been committed to the quietist branch of Salafist ideology, which focuses on social welfare, education, and dawa (proselytizing), rather than political activism. However, in Egypt, remaining apolitical had less to do with theological beliefs and more to do with the fear of persecution. As Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a well-known Salafist preacher stated, during the Mubarak regime, state security officers had the ability to arrest and detain any Salafi or Islamist political activist for fifteen to twenty years. The lessening of the repressive power of the state following the revolution provided a new political opportunity, opening the door to political participation for many Salafist social organizations.
Altogether, the Islamists captured a majority of seats within the parliament, claiming more than 75 percent of the total representation. Although both the Nour Party and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party were aligned for some time, their differences eventually overshadowed this tenuous alliance in 2013.
Even before 2011, members of the Salafist Dawa had been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, “which they believed sought to destroy [the Salafis] to dominate the Islamist movement,” according to Mokhtar Awad, research associate at the Center for American Progress. In the early 2000s, the Dawa had similarly denounced the Brotherhood’s attempts at political participation, claiming the Brotherhood was contaminated by its participation in the corrupt Mubarak regime. After the revolution, the Nour Party perpetuated this narrative, pointing to the Muslim Brotherhood’s past political involvement as evidence of its corruption, while presenting itself as comparatively unsullied.
Members of Nour believed the Freedom and Justice Party was positioning itself to exploit and dominate other Islamist parties in the post-Mubarak period. Not wanting to be excluded from the political scene, the Nour Party entered into a slightly rancorous alliance with the Freedom and Justice Party, primarily to ensure the 2012 constitution would pass. Once this goal was realized, the two parties became increasingly disjointed and hostile toward one another, ultimately leading to Nour’s decision to support General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in his ousting of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.
Supporting the Ouster of President Mohamed Morsi
Notwithstanding the group’s religious foundation, the Nour Party has allowed political pragmatism to lead its endeavors. In order to gain influence, the party’s leadership has been willing to make concessions and compromise on its principles for the sole purpose of protecting its existence.
Most controversially, the party decided to support Morsi’s ouster. While almost all other Islamist groups, including the Salafist Front and the Watan Party (an off-shoot of the Nour Party) protested the military intervention, Nour stood with the current president (and then General) Sisi, a decision that inflicted a significant amount of damage on Nour’s legitimacy.
This decision was partly motivated by Nour’s desire to remain politically active and potentially “act as a balancing power in [the new] parliament” according to senior Nour Party member Shaaban Abdel-Aleem. But, the primary motivation for Nour’s support of Sisi was the party’s persistent fear that the Brotherhood was seeking to undermine both Nour and Dawa. According to analyst Mokhtar Awad from the Center for American Progress, members of Dawa believed that “the Brotherhood targeted the Salafi voter base and exploited people’s ignorance” to claim votes that would have otherwise gone to the Nour Party in 2012.
The Nour Party’s decision to side with the regime has been crucial in shielding the party, and the Dawa by extension, from the kind of witch-hunt that was unleashed against the Muslim Brotherhood and that forced the group underground. It also suited Sisi who, with Nour Party support, was able to appear moderately accepting of Egypt’s Islamists.
Because of its support for the military regime, the Nour Party has not been subject to the restrictions imposed on religious parties by Egypt’s 2014 Constitution. These include Article 74, which prohibits any engagement in political activity by religious groups or the formation of political parties on a religious basis. Although the measure is inapplicable to parties that existed before the law’s promulgation, the article allows these parties to be dissolved by court order.
In this way, Article 74 has opened the door for numerous lawsuits and petitions to be lodged against the Nour Party by secularists seeking to remove all religious influence from politics.
Challenge from the Secularists
In September 2014, lawyer and head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, Naguib Gabriel filed a lawsuit with the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters demanding the Nour Party be banned from running in future parliamentary elections. Gabriel claimed his case was justified on the basis of Article 74, although it was eventually dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Again, in November 2014, the Alexandria Court of Urgent Matters dismissed a lawsuit brought by Tarek Mahmoud, legal advisor for the Popular Front against the Brotherhoodization of Egypt, calling for the disbanding of eleven Islamist parties, the Nour Party included. The court again dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. The Popular Front appealed the decision, leading to a final decision in April 2015 in which the Supreme Administrative Court finally decided to uphold the Nour Party’s political status.
In October 2015, Moataz Abdel Fattah, professor of political science at Cairo University, stated that religious groups should be excluded from politics in Egypt, and called on the Nour Party and Dawa to extricate themselves from the political landscape. Even just one week before the parliamentary elections of 2015, leaders of the “No to Religious Parties Campaign,” which launched sometime in August 2015, held a press conference announcing they had collected 1.25 million signatures on a petition to boycott all religious parties, including the Nour Party, in the upcoming elections. The group’s efforts were supported by the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, suggesting possible links with Egypt’s largely military-controlled government. A similar petition, calling exclusively for the dissolution of the Nour Party, was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in July 2015.
While no lawsuit or petition has yet to lead to the Nour Party’s dissolution, these events illustrate a collective anxiety among secularists about the political role for Islamists in the country. Many Egyptians remember the political manipulations and violations of power that marked the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and worry that Salafists will follow the same trajectory, if given the opportunity.
The Salafist Challenge
The earliest and most notable challenge to the Nour Party’s legitimacy and stability came from within the party itself. In 2013, after negotiations over cooperation broke down between the Nour Party and the Brotherhood, Nour’s previous president and founder, Emad Ghaffour, left the party in frustration and formed an offshoot, which he called the “Watan” or “Nation” Party.
The split within Nour generated scandal, with about twenty former Nour Party MPs defecting to the Watan Party, which also took over former Nour Party offices and even the official Nour Twitter account. Claiming to follow the same Salafist creed as the Nour Party, Ghaffour touted his new group as less partisan and more open to working with non-Salafis and non-Muslims.
Since Morsi’s ouster, the Watan Party, like the Brotherhood, has been excluded from Egyptian political life (though, unlike the Brotherhood, the Watan Party was not designated a terrorist organization). In response, the party joined the ranks of the Anti-Coup Alliance, which included another, less prominent Salafist group, the Salafist Front.
The Front was formed after Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, as “an association of Islamic and Salafi figures as well as groups from different governorates who proselytize for the Salafi interpretation of Islam,” according to Nouran El-Behairy, a reporter for Daily News Egypt. In late 2012, disappointed with the choice of Islamist parties running in the parliamentary elections, the Salafist Front launched the short-lived Hizb al-Shaab (the People’s Party), “a pro-civil state party with an Islamic reference,” as proclaimed by party spokesman Ahmed Mawlana at a conference to announce the party’s formation in October 2012.
From its inception, the party sought to give “attention to cases that were abandoned by other Islamist parties,” such as “workers’ and farmers’ rights, as well as the rights of minority groups in Sinai and Nubia regions,” as explained at the group’s initial press conference. The party ran on a borderline socialist economic platform, aiming both to maintain Egypt’s Islamic identity while protecting religious freedom for non-Muslims.
After Morsi’s ouster, the Salafist Front refused to participate in what they perceived to be an illegitimate regime, and joined the Anti-Coup Alliance. The Alliance was relatively inclusive, welcoming all Muslims, not just Salafis, in its aim to confront the Sisi regime.
Opposed to both the military regime and the Nour Party’s self-serving betrayal, the Front called for a “Muslim Youth Uprising” on Nov. 28, 2014. This call, endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood and denounced by Nour and other Salafist groups, prompted thousands of Egyptians to rally in the streets of Cairo in a demonstration that eventually turned violent.
While neither the Salafist Front nor Watan has posed an existential threat to the Nour Party, their competing Salafist identities have ignited internal strife within both Nour and Dawa, weakening Nour’s base of support. Even independent Salafist sheikhs, such as Nageh Ibrahim and Osama el-Kousy, have called upon the Nour Party and Dawa to move away from politics and keep to social activities, highlighting a disjointed and debilitated base of support for the group.
Prospects for the Nour Party’s Political Future
As the only Islamist contender, the Nour Party fielded independent and party-based candidates in the 2015 parliamentary elections. It won only a scant number of seats – twelve in total compared to the 111 it obtained in 2012. Unfortunately for the Nour Party, overall voter turnout was incredibly low for these elections, especially amongst the Salafist constituency; many of these voters stayed home because of perceptions Nour had betrayed the Islamist cause.
Although the Nour Party’s voice in the new parliament will be limited, a low profile may actually help Nour survive and find a new balance with its opponents. As observed by political science Professor Abdel Fattah Mady from Alexandria University, the Salafis have already improved a decent amount. Although they have only been participating in the Egyptian political landscape since 2011, “they change and improve every time they gain new knowledge and experience,” gradually attempting to be more inclusive of the wider Egyptian public.
After the Egyptian Electoral Law of 2014 was passed in June 2014, it required that parties maintain candidate quotas for women and Christians, in addition to farmers, youths, and citizens with disabilities. In response, the Nour Party quickly invited candidates from these communities to join the group, including Coptic Christians. Some observers, who are perhaps more hostile to Islamist groups, claimed the alliance was purely opportunistic. However, according to Nader al-Serafi, head of the Copts 38 Coalition for divorce rights, and a Christian who ran on Nour’s electoral lists for West Delta, “there was no discrimination between Christians and Muslims inside the party,” which he acknowledged has become a more flexible organization open to different groups.
The Nour Party is still relatively new to politics, but has proven its ability to change and moderate its platform. For this reason, its position seems to be secure for some time to come.