The Salafist Nour Party has represented an interesting phenomenon in the Egyptian political arena since its inception. This is especially true considering that it finished second in the elections, winning more than 25 per cent of the seats in parliament despite its rather brief political history and inclination towards open political action.
Interest in the Nour Party has increased recently due to its participation in the July 3 coup and signing-up to a political road map set out by the army. Many members of the party considered this as a strategic step towards occupying the position held previously by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics. Others considered this an ill-fated move that will lead eventually to the decline of the party’s popularity.
What are the reasons for the party’s sudden and swift political rise? What are its prospects for the future?
The Nour Party’s second place ranking in the political scene has come as a surprise to many observers. The party did not exist prior to the revolution and, in general, the public tends to drift away from Salafist movements in the political and parliamentary domains. However, a study on the history of the “Salafist Call”, which the movement was founded on, could provide a theoretical and scientific explanation for the its ascent because one cannot differentiate between the party and the Salafist ideology on which it was founded and through which it obtains its electoral “mechanism”. This has been emphasised by Nour spokesman Abdel Moneim El Shahat on more than one occasion.
Salafist Call was founded in Alexandria in the mid 1970s. It was based on various structures and multi-representational organisations, which helped to mobilise electoral support for the new party. This base opened more doors for the party and enabled it to take advantage of a wider political range in January 2011 despite the open rejection of the revolution by several Salafist sheikhs and leaders.
The majority of the Nour Party’s political power is concentrated in the city of its origin, Alexandria, although its various institutions, both official and unofficial, have bases in all of Egypt’s provinces. These institutions functioned as the “political incubator” of the party’s success in the parliamentary elections. The Nour Party won the majority of seats in several provinces and in some places even gaining victory over the Freedom and Justice Party, which won the majority of seats on the national level.
The mosque functions as the nucleus for the Salafist and other Islamic movements. In fact, the movement began in two mosques in Alexandria before it spread to the rest of Egypt, where the Sheikhs behind the Salafist call emphasised the importance of direct relations between students of science and individuals who attend mosques regularly to benefit from the elders who have an impact on the personal aspects of religious and political attitudes and electoral battles alike.
In addition to the mosque, the Salafist initiative established an institute for the preparation of future preachers. The institute offers a curriculum of the different theological ideologies and approaches of the Salafist movement. It catered for approximately 500 students annually until the government closed it down in 1992. Its main centre, in addition to a large number of branches, was reopened after the January 25th Revolution.
The Salafist initiative paid a lot of attention to universities and had a great deal of influence on an important group of Egyptians; the university students. The initiative then launched a branch known as the “Vanguards of the Salafists’ Call” that focuses exclusively on students in the school system. This branch has approximately 1,300 individual members.
Nour Party’s founding timeline spans a period of more than three decades and the organisation’s prestigious institutions function as tools for political and electoral mobilisation for both the Islamic movement and the party. The Muslim Brotherhood is the only other party like this in Egypt.
This brief overview of the institutional framework and the Salafist preaching on which the Nour Party is based seeks to explain the rapid ascent of the party in Egyptian political life.
Since its inception, the Nour Party has been pragmatic enough to establish political alliances with various parties, and has changed its positions many times so that it has been a strong rival at certain periods and a close ally at others. This suggests that it makes its political calculations with few ideological considerations.
For example, the party established an electoral alliance that competed fiercely with the Freedom and Justice Party in the parliamentary elections and then made some compromises internally for the distribution of positions in parliamentary committees. In addition, the party endorsed the presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abou Al-Fotouh in opposition to Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party in the first round of elections; it then endorsed and supported Morsi in the second round. All of these decisions illustrated the party’s flexible political approach.
The most controversial relationship that Nour Party has is that with the Freedom and Justice Party from the start of writing the constitution until the coup. It was an alliance and strategic partnership during the establishment of the Constituent Assembly for writing the constitution. This became even stronger during the crisis of the constitutional declaration last November. The parties then worked together to vote in favour of the constitution in the popular referendum. The day after the results of the referendum were announced, the Nour Party took a completely different position, attacking President Morsi’s policies and accusing him of adopting the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology as a model for ruling the nation.
This position escalated when the Nour Party refused to participate in demonstrations in support of President Morsi who faced demonstrations organised by the opposition Tamarod Movement. The most serious turning point in the party’s history was when it participated in the coup by signing the “roadmap” on July 3rd.
One needs to pause and think about these changing political stands by the party. What concerns us here is that the Nour Party was able to take different and contradictory political positions while at the same time come up with political and ideological justifications to explain them. This confirms that the party has been able to participate in the political process in a way that serves its self-interest without making any ideological justification consistent with a realistic political approach.
This analysis becomes more obvious based on the Nour Party’s position from the June 30th demonstrations and the July 3rd coup and what followed them with minimal losses at the political level. However, the party’s image as an Islamic political party has been tarnished. Having taken purely pragmatic positions, the Nour Party’s ideological justifications did not succeed in convincing a wide swath of the Islamic movement’s supporters of the validity of its political and constitutional stances.
There have been many articles in Arab newspapers discussing the Nour Party’s ascent in the aftermath of the Egyptian coup. In many ways, the party serves as a substitute for the Freedom and Justice Party after the effective demise of the latter and given that Nour is so pragmatic in its policy-making. However, these articles all overlook an important fact and that is that this party is not merely a political party, it is an extension of a community, which advocates the Salafist movement and ideology. The Nour Party was established with the intention of implementing an Islamist ideology through political participation. This means that the trial and error phase of the Nour Party’s political experience is not limited to a specific type of political outcome or reality, but that the party is linked ultimately to ideologies and philosophies that adhere to an Islamist viewpoint in politics.
Perhaps many of the comments made by Islamists, regardless of whether they affiliate with political parties or remain independent, are based largely on the belief that the Nour Party’s trial period is based largely on moral, religious and ideological grounds without giving weight to the greater political situation in the country or the Nour Party’s stance.
In addition to the “Nour crisis”, the Islamic political trend following the coup places both the Nour Party and the Salafist ideology in a rather difficult situation. They are getting weaker and it is expected that the Party’s popularity will be jeopardised in the future should it be forced to justify why its leaders chose to participate in the coup.
Many supporters of Islamic political movements and ideologies have criminalised the Nour Party and its actions. They view its leaders and members as traitors who have undermined the country’s Islamic authority. This may pose many problems for the Nour Party in the future, as many are not pleased or satisfied with the party’s justifications for its recent political decisions. Not only is the political party being criticised for its support of the coup but also because the idea that Egyptian blood should be protected has virtually disappeared as the parliament and various parties disagree on which amendments should be made to the constitution.
Any attempt to extrapolate the Nour Party’s political trajectory should take into account the party’s ideology and politics. These two factors suggest a decline in the Nour Party’s popularity because of the negative image they have formed among the Islamist public, regardless of whether this image is valid or not. Furthermore, one must also take into consideration the negative effects that the party has had on the political arena, which resulted in poor political management during the transitional period that followed the coup and its direct targeting of the Islamic movement as a whole.
Perhaps a close reading of the Salafist ideology could indicate whether the Nour Party’s future can be extrapolated or not. From its inception until the fall of Mubarak, the Salafist ideology preferred that its supporters refrain from open political participation because, according to the movement’s most important figure, Sheikh Yasser Brahimi, the price of political participation is bigger than the fruit.
It remains possible that the Salafist movement will take this stance in the near future. By believing that the price one must pay to participate openly in politics is greater than any potential fruits it can bear could lead the party to boycott political action once again. If this were to happen, we shall soon be reading the Nour Party’s obituary.
Translated from the Arabic text which appeared on Al Jazeera Net on 5 October, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.