The Nour Party’s Dilemma

An accusation leveled at strict Salafist groups in Egypt, especially among political Islamic parties, has been that they are keen to maintain good relations with any government in power in order to maintain their presence, particularly in the mosques where they preach. This was the case, in particular, under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. While armed militants and Muslim Brotherhood leaders were under tight control, several major Salafist groups were allowed to thrive and grow without harassment, with many activities centered around the mosques they controlled.

The privileges Salafists have clearly enjoyed, despite their extreme teachings on women, Christians and public freedoms, seem to be waning amid a general anti-Islamist atmosphere in Egypt following the army’s removal of former President, and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, a year ago.

In late June, the Ministry of Endowments announced that prominent Salafi preachers, Sheikh Yasser Borhami and Abdel-Monem al-Shahat, both key figures in the Salafist Nour Party, would no longer be allowed to deliver the weekly Friday sermon in mosques controlled by the Salafist Da’awa Movement in Alexandria. The decision came after a decree was issued by the minister allowing Al-Azhar University graduates alone to preach in mosques in Egypt. This condition allows only a minority of Islamist leaders in both the Muslim Brotherhood and the dozens of Salafist groups to continue preaching. Shahat is an engineer, while Borhami is a medical doctor. A top Nour Party delegation including its president, Younes Makhyoun, met with the Minister of Endowment, Mohamed Gomaa, several times to discuss removing restrictions on its leaders in delivering speeches at mosques. The ban, however, remains in place.

The decision to name Borhami and Shahat among those banned from delivering Friday sermons came as a shock to the Nour Party and its dwindling followers, considering their position in support of ending Brotherhood rule.  When Egyptian President, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, announced the removal of Morsi on July 3, 2013, at the time in his capacity as defense minister, the presence of the Salafist Nour Party’s Secretary-General, Galal al-Murra, in the audience was crucial. The meeting was meant to send a message that the majority of Egyptians from all political trends, and representatives of key institutions supported a quick end to Brotherhood rule.

Yet, Murra’s participation, a strict Islamist himself who calls for the implementation of Sharia, defied the core of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rhetoric in its fight against Morsi’s removal: the claim that keeping him in office meant preserving Islam in Egypt. The Nour Party also supported Sisi is his recent election campaign to run for president, which he won on June 3, with a 96 percent majority.

Muslim Brother top leader, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, now sentenced to death three times in separate court cases, repeatedly called upon his followers, during a 48-day sit in Raba’a Square in Cairo that police forcibly ended on August 14, to keep up the fight to protect the legitimacy of a freely contested election that brought Mursi to the presidency in June, 2012. However, more important, he promised them that if they died in the battle with army and police, they would be martyrs who died for the sake of defending Islam. At least 1,000 civilians were killed in Raba’a, according to credible human rights groups, while the National Human Rights Council, appointed by the president, put the figure at 640.

The key argument by Nour leaders was that maintaining the unity of Egyptians, and preventing a civil and religious war was more beneficial to Islam and its message than fighting to keep Morsi in office. Their stance was attacked by the majority of Islamists, particularly after the bloody dispersal of the sit-ins in Raba’a and Nahda squares, as they faced accusations of treason and working as agents for the army.

Supporters of the Brotherhood regularly attack public events in which Nour leaders take part, whether a wedding, funeral, or a sermon at a mosque. Many supporters of the Nour Party also defected and joined more extremist groups that call for taking the revenge of those killed in Raba’a. The Nour Party’s Borhami, known for his controversial fatwas, or edicts, that ban greeting Christians on their religious holidays and reducing the age of marriage for girls to as low as 9, has been repeatedly attacked in recent months by Brotherhood supporters, and is under police protection. 

There were also splits within the party’s leadership. Last month, Salafist religious leaders of Nour in the coastal town of Marsa Matrouh announced they decided to boycott politics and would not take part in any upcoming elections. They said they would prefer to concentrate on preaching Islam at this stage. Matrouh Salafists have defied orders issued to them by the Nour leadership in all recent public voting events: the January referendum on the Constitution, and the May presidential elections. On both occasions, voter turnout in Marsa Matrouh, known as a Salafist stronghold, was very low, despite the party’s official stance in favor of both the constitution and Sisi’s presidency.

Secular parties who maintain a hardline in attacking Islamists have also been adamant to weaken the Nour Party ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, due before the end of this year. A number of lawyers have gone so far as to file cases demanding the party’s dissolution. They argue that the new Constitution Egyptians approved in January bans the creation of religious parties, and that the Nour Party was as strict as the Brotherhood in seeking to impose their views on the public, only playing politics until they gained wider control. While the Nour Party, like the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, is threatened with dissolution because of these lawsuits, it is highly likely that the Salafi party will survive. While the constitution bans religious parties, Nour’s ideology is not explicitly religious, and the party has consistently said that it would welcome Christian members, even saying some of its founders are Coptic. Whether or not this is true, or whether they would join, is another issue altogether.  

To make things worse for Nour, the parliamentary elections law, approved two months ago by former Interim President Adly Mansour reduces the party’s chances in winning as many seats as it did in early 2012. Like other secular parties, Nour wanted the majority of the seats to be determined through the party list system, giving parties more power in naming candidates. However, the law states that nearly 80 percent of the seats will be filled by individual candidates, while the remaining 20 percent should be made up of lists that must include women, Coptic Christians, youth, workers, peasants, Egyptians living abroad and people with disabilities. In 2012, the Nour Party had only a few women as candidates for parliament—only because of a stipulation in the parliamentary elections law at the time. Due to its strict interpretation of Islam, the party did not display women’s photos on election posters, using a flower to represent them instead. And hardly any prominent Christians, if any, would be willing to run on a list made up by a Salafist party that considers greeting them on Christmas a sin.

Despite facing all these obstacles, it remains difficult to claim the Nour Party would not succeed in winning a reasonable number of seats in the next parliament. “Nour and the Salafist Da’awa movement have been working for decades through a network of mosques and social services in many poor Cairo neighborhoods, and several Egyptian cities in the Delta, Marsa Matrouh and Upper Egypt,” says Rami Mohsen, an elections expert. “Their supporters know and trust their Salafi sheikhs more than anyone else, and would always vote for the candidates they direct them to support. Maybe they will not win as many seats in 2012, but they will be there,” Mohsen added.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: 2013Younes Makhyoun, the head of the Nour party, speaks during a news conference about constitution in Cairo December 5, 2013 (Mohamed Abdel Ghany/Reuters)