Salafist al-Nur Party Stuggles to Keep Political Islam Alive in Egypt

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2014

With former president Muhammad Mursi in prison and the Muslim Brotherhood declared a terrorist organization, political Islam is struggling to survive in Egypt today. With the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) expelled from the political scene, the Islamist torch has passed to the Salafist Nur Party, led by Younes Makhioun. The party, established in 2011 by Egypt’s Dawa al-Salafiya (Salafist Call) movement (a Salafist rival to the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1970s), took nearly a quarter of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections after forming a coalition with three smaller Salafist parties, making it the second-most powerful Islamist party in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP. The party endured a bitter split in December 2012 over the role of al-Dawa al-Salafiya clerics in daily decision-making in the Nur Party (see Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013).

Nur Party leader Younes Makhioun

During the short rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP, the Nur (“Light”) Party did not provide the automatic support to the Brotherhood’s initiatives that many expected, preferring to set its own course to avoid being too closely identified with the Brothers. The party was prominent in its support of the military takeover in July 2013, a move taken to avoid political isolation. This political strategy effectively saved the Nur Party from the fate that met the Brotherhood. Party leader Makhioun believes the Brotherhood’s confrontational approach propelled its downfall:

I think that what they did was suicide. They chose the path of confrontation and used     violence. They have not been committed to their ethics, offending many with accusations of apostasy, slander, and indecencies in all forms. There is no doubt that it has become very difficult for them to return to political life, unless they reevaluate themselves and apologize to the Egyptian people for what they did. They must reevaluate their approach and their ideology (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 29).

The Nur Party joined the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and Coptic Pope Tawadros II in calling on Egyptians to participate in January’s constitutional referendum, saying it served “the interests of the homeland and the goals of Islamic law” (Daily News Egypt, January 11). Though the referendum approved the new constitution with an astonishing 98.1 percent of the vote, turnout was only 39 percent, too low for the vote to be regarded as a firm endorsement by the Egyptian people. Campaigning for a “no” vote was officially discouraged and a “yes” vote was presented as the only way to restore stability to Egypt. The vote was boycotted by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and turnout by Nur Party loyalists was low in support of a new constitution that has discarded most of the Islamic language that the party had lobbied for before the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Nur Party support for the new constitution seemed surprising, given that one of its articles bans religion-based political parties, but Yasser Borhami, deputy head of al-Dawa al-Salafiya, insists that the Nur Party is protected by the second article of the constitution, which states that Shari’a is the main source of legislation in Egypt (al-Arabiya, January 9).

Approval of the new constitution is widely viewed as being the first step in a run for the presidency by armed forces commander-in-chief Field Marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. The Nur Party is not expected to field a candidate for the presidency, citing the Brotherhood’s “failed experiment,” though the party is not prepared to support al-Sisi’s candidacy until “fuller explanations” are given of the public bloodshed that followed the military coup, particularly the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at northern Cairo’s Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque (Reuters, January 23). The government established a commission to investigate the incidents on January 6, though it is not expected to report its findings for six months.

The Nur Party publicly rejects partisan politics and prefers the establishment of strong state institutions over the creation of strongman figures who will inevitably disappoint. Makhioun condemns the Brotherhood’s attempt to monopolize power, favoring a more inclusive style of government:

We have always stated that we will not rule, but we will help govern. After any revolution, no one faction should ever bear the responsibility of all. All who participated in the revolution and the undoing of the former regime should take part in rebuilding the state. Nor should one faction rule alone because it obtained a majority of the vote. All the people must be included in building the state, in case an uprising should take place. Our policy is that we govern, we do not rule. And the difference between ruling and governing is that governing takes advantage of everyone’s talents and expertise; that the right man is put in the right position regardless of ideology or party affiliation (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 29).

The Party avoided any sign of support for Mursi after he was deposed last year and appears to be shifting slightly towards the political center, though such a move risks losing the party’s highly-conservative core supporters. According to Yasser Borhami, deputy head of al-Dawa al-Salafiya: “We have won respect from the people for our moderate positions… Maybe we lost some support from within the Islamic movement, but many have admired the party’s policies” (Reuters, January 23).

Nur Party leader Makhioun nonetheless believes that there is still a potential pool of support for political Islam in Egypt despite the performance of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party:

We felt that we should not employ religion as a tool in a political conflict or frame what was happening as a religious conflict between Islamists and non-Islamists, because that simply was not true. Using religion in this way is unfounded and will lead to conflict, causing us to lose the faith of the Egyptian people… Those who came out [to the mass anti-Mursi protests] on June 30 were not against Islam, religion, or the rule of law, nor were they against the Islamist vision, for they have never truly seen the Islamist vision actually play out (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 29).

This article first appeared in the February 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.