What makes Egypt’s al-Nour Salafists tick?

Realizing that al-Nour was grooming itself to replace it at home and in the West, the Brotherhood got locked in an open showdown with the party

Abdullah Kamal
Abdullah Kamal
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In principle, the Salafist al-Nour Party’s declared support for Egypt’s draft constitution raises major questions among backers of political Islamism. These questions, regardless of their answers, trigger doubts, which are by no means in favor of Islamists. Such a conclusion is anybody’s guess.

But what strikes attention is that al-Nour is aware that it stands to lose many followers, given the ongoing campaign that has targeted the party since it announced backing the June 30 revolution that deposed president Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, if not even earlier. Al-Nour’s detractors accuse it of betraying the so-called Islamic project. This campaign has put al-Nour on the defensive, prompting it to issue political fatwas or edicts to advocate its stand and absolve it of the betrayal accusations.

With al-Nour unlikely to win over non-Islamists, the conclusion in terms of votes is that the party is losing ground and faces a major challenge in vindicating its Islamist credentials.

Al-Nour also faces the threat of legal action requesting its disbanding based on an article in the proposed constitution banning political parties on religious grounds.

In fact, al-Nour’s recent support for the charter and its call for Egyptians to give a “yes” vote to it are as significant as its public backing to the transitional roadmap laid out following the army’s July overthrow of Mursi. There is still a small difference: al-Nour did not play a direct role in the June 30 revolt to make it a full-fledged partner. Rather, the party has claimed partnership by lending backing to the act.

On the other hand, al-Nour was directly involved in drafting and endorsing the new constitution, which will be put to a public vote soon. However, al-Nour did not do the same to the June 30 revolution. Sometimes, the party reacted angrily to calls to be a direct partner to the roadmap. On several occasions, it threatened to quit the process. Yet, it has never made good on its threats, simply because it wants to keep engaged.

Al-Nour’s pragmatism is worth considering not only in Egyptian politics, but also elsewhere. The party’s creation and evolution, since Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, prove that al-Nour sets a precedent for all other parties, mainly those of Islamists.

In early 2011, al-Nour appeared a sworn adversary of the Church, with which it later joined hands in drafting two constitutions-- first the one crafted when Mursi was in office and the second this year. While it lagged behind the Brotherhood during the anti-Mubarak upsurge, al-Nour emerged as a key ally of the Brotherhood in the run-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections and in the mid-2012 presidential vote.

Realizing later that al-Nour was grooming itself to replace it at home and in the West, the Brotherhood got locked in an open showdown with the ultra-conservative party

Abdullah Kamal

Realizing later that al-Nour was grooming itself to replace it at home and in the West, the Brotherhood got locked in an open showdown with the ultra-conservative party. The Brotherhood went so far in the confrontation that it set up al-Watan Party to replace al-Nour and undermine Salafists’ coherence. In June this year, al-Nour politically espoused an anti-Brotherhood campaign, but without making direct involvement. When millions of Egyptians took to the streets demanding an end to Mursi’s rule, al-Nour became sure it did the right thing by walking out on the Brotherhood.

Over the past three years, al-Nour has basked in political spotlight and become a full-fledged group, which no longer acts at the Brotherhood’s command. The party has also got the chance to be in touch with state institutions, foreign embassies and the media. all these interactions have somewhat induced al-Nour to break free from its seclusion and change its perception of the outside world. A leading politician in al-Nour , who once prohibited handshakes with Christians or attending their celebrations, is now the very same person who appears all smiles in photos with them. He is also seen attending mixed meetings with women. This U-turn has crossed the line set for Salafists by the Brotherhood, who used to project itself as a moderate Islamist group. In fact, al-Nour, whose name means light in Arabic, has walked into the light and come to know firsthand the civilization it used to disparage.

Remaining questions

All the same, the question remains: What does al-Nour expect to get in return for all its post-June 30 stances? The following may help provide an answer:

1. One possibility, albeit without tangible evidence, is that a secret deal has been cut whereby al-Nour will have a certain role in the new political process in exchange for its continued support for the roadmap. Nonetheless, there is no-one who can guarantee al-Nour specific gains in view of the fact Egypt’s political scene is too uncontrollable.

2. Another possibility is that al-Nour strives to keep foothold in an overwhelming political realm. If so, there are some observations:

a) Al-Nour is worried it will eventually meet the Brotherhood’s fate and fall from grace of the public seething with anger at Islamists over the Brotherhood’s inept rule of the country. The Brotherhood is widely accused of jeopardizing national security. That said, al-Nour’s responses at least spare it the possibility of being packaged together with the Brotherhood outlawed by a recent court order;

b) At the same time, al-Nour sees a chance at hand to present itself to the state authorities, public opinion and the West as a viable alternative to Islamists. After all, Egypt’s politics cannot do without Islamists.

c) Al-Nour is aware of radical changes in attitudes of its Gulf supporters.

d) With this all in mind, it becomes clear that at heart al-Nour targets civil society groups, state institutions and opponents of political radicalism rather than Islamists’ backers, who mostly view it as a traitor.

e) Al-Nour hopes, if not expects, that this strategy will secure it enough votes in the upcoming parliamentary polls to ensure it will have an influential say in the country’s future. Al-Nour builds its calculations in part on the religious sentiment of Islamist voters, who at the end of the day would not favor secular rivals.

Al-Nour’s credibility is definitely at stake. The party also faces uphill challenges compounded by its seemingly abrupt stances. Yet, the party could fall into limbo and meet the Brotherhood’s fate if it acted otherwise. This pragmatism, which appears to have saved the day for al-Nour so far, involves harsh tests. Al-Nour will find itself in the future under enormous pressure to take more pronounced and well-defined stances rather than beating about the bush as it is doing now. The bigger the gains it eyes, the tougher the tests al-Nour will be put to.

Accordingly, it may be impelled to take stances that would radically change its public image of which only the trademark beards of its politicians would remain.


Abdullah Kamal is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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