Egypts ultraconservative party chooses new leader

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Egypt’s largest ultraconservative Islamist party, which has emerged as a potent political force in the country, elected a new leader Wednesday after the previous head broke away to form his own political group following months of infighting.

Younis Makhyoun, a 58-year-old cleric and trained dentist, was selected in a consensus vote to lead the Salafi Al-Nour party, one of several religion-based parties to take root after the 2011 Egyptian uprising. His election marks the consolidation of power within the party of the religious clerics who co-founded Al-Nour and successfully faced down a challenge to separate the group’s political and religious leadership.

The infighting could cost the Salafis in upcoming parliamentary elections as they compete with fellow Islamists for seats in the legislature and try to shape Egypt’s future in a political struggle with secular-minded political groups.

Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi is expected to set a date soon for the elections. His spokesman, Yasser Ali, told reporters Wednesday that preparations for the vote would begin Feb. 25.

In taking the reins of the party, Makhyoun immediately turned his sights Wednesday to the elections. He described the next parliament as “the most dangerous and the most important” in Egypt’s history because its mission will be “to purify all laws from whatever violates Shariah,” or Islamic law.

Makhyoun was a member of the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly that wrote Egypt’s new constitution. The document deeply polarized Egyptians and sparked deadly street protests, but passed by a 64 percent “yes” vote in a referendum in which around 33 percent of voters participated.

Islamists perceive the constitution as the first step toward redefining Egypt’s identity to conform to Islamic law.

“We want to liberate Egypt from slavery and submission,” Makhyoun said Wednesday, while also trying to assuage fears of women and Christians by saying Shariah would “liberate even Western women from the West’s moral decay.”

Al-Nour was founded by a group of influential hardline Salafi clerics shortly after the 2011 Egyptian uprising that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak. Their single-minded dedication to applying Islamic law sets them apart from Egypt’s strongest Islamist force, the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares many of the Salafi fundamentalist beliefs but also has a history of political pragmatism to achieve its ends.

Salafis follow the Wahhabi school of thought, which predominates in Saudi Arabia. They promote a strict interpretation of Islamic law which mandates segregation of the sexes, bans banks from charging interest and punishes theft by cutting off thieves’ hands.

Al-Nour made a surprisingly strong showing in the country’s first parliamentary elections last year, capturing 25 percent of the seats and trailing only the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s best-organized political force. Their success reflected years of grassroots organizing throughout the country, giving them a ready-made network of support when they entered politics.

That parliament was disbanded by a court order last year.

The party has been riven by internal feuds over the past year as it struggles to reconcile political maneuvering with religious ideology. It was not immediately clear how the power struggle would affect the Salafis’ popularity at the polls.

Al-Nour’s founder, Emad Abdel-Ghafour, broke away earlier this month to form a new party over disagreements tied to the role of a body of clerics in the group’s politics.

Some of the divisions were also linked to concerns with the Brotherhood. Some Salafis fear the Brotherhood is too willing to compromise in pursuit of an Islamic state. During last year’s parliamentary elections, Al-Nour split from an electoral alliance with the Brotherhood after complaining of the group’s attempt to monopolize the alliance.