Do Salafi Splits Signal Weakness or a Different Kind of Strength?
The Nour Party, the political flagship of Egypt’s burgeoning Salafi movement, is in full damage control over scores of member defections to the new Watan Party. This is appropriate, as the damage is substantial.
But Yasser al-Borhami, founder of the Salafi Call of which Nour is the political arm, said resignations from the party equal only half of one percent of its membership, which remains strong in the grassroots. Five thousand members were required to form a political party; regular membership may be as much as 300,000.
Tarek Fahim, Nour Party secretary in Alexandria, elaborated. “Watan is just another party on the scene. It is based only on a few names and figures,” he said. “Nour is an institutionalized party that is not built on individuals like most of the parties on the political scene.”
If true, its institutions will be put to the test. According to Ahmed al-Qadri, the English language spokesman for the Watan Party and former vice-president of Nour’s energy committee, the resignations affect the great majority of leadership positions. Besides former party president Emad Abdel Ghaffour and spokesmen Mohamed Nour and Yousry Hammad, nineteen regional offices resigned collectively.
Furthermore, Qadri explained, every single member of Nour’s technical committees has resigned. Including the economic, political, agriculture, energy and other committees, these groups of experts facilitated the work of Nour’s members of parliament. Of Nour’s 107 MPs, 52 have joined Watan, along with sixteen current members of the Shura Council.
At heart, the differences were purely administrational. “We do not want to be a toy for any stream, even the Salafi stream,” said Qadri. “We want to be an umbrella for all Salafi schools, and not just the Salafi Call.”
The conflict between political leaders such as Abdel Ghaffour and religious leaders such as Borhami goes back several months. During internal elections Abdel Ghaffour noted irregularities in establishing which members had the right to vote. For a while reconciliation patched over these disputes, which have finally exploded.
“Some people wanted to assign positions based on proximity to leading religious figures,” said Qadri. “One of Nour’s mistakes was that the Salafi Call had the right to interfere in the party and change job descriptions. We want to work to unite all Salafi schools but have a legitimate and independent political party.”
Qadri claims 99 Salafi sheikhs have blessed their efforts, including one of the founding members of the Salafi Call, Sa’id Abdel Azim. Another is Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, whose brother Adel Afifi was recently unseated as president after internal elections in the Salafi Asala Party. The winner, Ehab Shiha, tried to downplay the importance of this split.
“When you bring different parties together it brings different visions for the work, and this will enrich politics in the coming period, if God wills,” he said. “If the political divisions between Islamists were going to hurt us it would have hurt us already in previous elections.
“This is a positive development that we have different visions on how to work, it is not a battle.”
Qadri agreed, “We want to make a union of all parties that have Islamist backgrounds to have one list for the parliamentary elections. Asala agreed, and negotiations are progressing well with the Reform and Development Party of the Islamic Group.” These parties joined with Nour on one party list for the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections. Hazem Abu Ismail has also pledged to cooperate with his mass Salafi street appeal, but yet unformed political party.
“Discussions are also ongoing with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and maybe we will give a call back to Nour eventually,” Qadri added.
Qadri’s comment on the Nour Party provides a window into the wounds caused by these disagreements. Abdel Ghaffour also expressed his frustration while announcing the formation of the party. “We want the Islamic Sharia to be a reality we can live in, no longer a rhetoric.”
In fact, outright competition is expected by Mohamed Nour, now the official spokesman for Watan. “The coming parliamentary elections will show the real weight of each party,” he stated.
“There are disagreements and struggles for leadership between the politicians and sheikhs over the distribution of positions, said Osama al-Qusi, a rare Salafi sheikh who favors the liberal trend. “Salafis are not strong or established like the Muslim Brotherhood, so it is easy for them to break apart over issues like these.
“They have an idea, but not an organization. Despite their great following they are weak.”
Hesham al-Desouqy, an FJP member has stated that they do not intend to join a joint party list with the Salafis. These divisions worry the outgoing party president of Asala.
“The opposition thinks that as the number of Salafi parties increase it will scatter our votes and they will be the beneficiaries,” said Afifi. “But we remain united in our doctrine and God has commanded we cooperate.
“So I call on all the Islamists to form an alliance and the greatest responsibility lies with the biggest and oldest party, the Freedom and Justice Party.”
Qadri, however, like Shiha, sees the value in multiplicity. “If the main figures of a party make a mistake, it may cost them votes, but if we have variety in the Salafi trend then those votes can simply shift to another party,” he said.
“If you are only one party you will be too sluggish to promote yourself because there is no competition.”
Qadri indicated these divisions simply reflect a lack of awareness among Egyptians – and especially religious Egyptians – about political science. He also tentatively believed they would signal an end to the politics of religion.
“You cannot simply say ‘sharia’ or ‘Islamic state’ because we all believe in this,” he said. “The Egyptian people have learned that no one will any longer give their vote to a flag, but only to those who offer them solutions.
Jayson Casper is a writer with Arab West Report, Christianity Today, and Lapido Media. He blogs on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging, and can be found on Twitter at @jnjcasper