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Risky game as Islamist party finds its footing with Egypt's military

The Nour Party initially backed the military's ousting of Morsi. But its bid to have a political role has alienated supporters, while some predict a new constitution could ban religion-based parties.

By Correspondent / July 26, 2013

An Egyptian military helicopter flies over Egyptians protesting against the ousted President Mohamed Morsi during a demonstration at the presidential palace in Cairo, Friday, July 26.

Hassan Ammar/AP

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Cairo

When the head of Egypt's armed forces announced on state television early this month that the military had removed president Mohamed Morsi from office, among the political and religious figures flanking him was one important face: a leader of the conservative Islamist Nour Party.

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By backing the military's coup, the party was making a bold play – one that could grant it a larger political role as the only Islamist party participating in the transition. But the party also risked a backlash from its base – something that has become a reality as Egypt's military has moved to crack down on the Brotherhood.

After soldiers and police fired on a crowd of Mr. Morsi's supporters on July 8, killing dozens, the Nour Party announced the withdrawal of its support for the military's transition plan. And this week, when Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Egyptians to protest Friday to give the military a popular mandate to fight “terrorism,” understood as a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, it again put the Nour Party in a precarious position.

Today, the party is sitting out the rival protests called by both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, choosing not to participate in the Brotherhood's demonstrations against the coup or the military's show of popular support. 

“They're playing a risky game that might backfire on them,” says Khalil al-Anani, a scholar on Islamist movements at Durham University in Britain. “On the one hand, they backed and supported the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood with the hope that they can replace the Muslim Brotherhood on the political scene. But on the other hand, they lost a lot of their credibility and image with young Islamists particularly, and among the public they are [seen as] opportunistic.”

The Nour Party rose after the 2011 uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak. It was founded by the Dawa Salafiya, an organization that until then had mostly focused on preaching and charity. Salafis, who emulate the earliest followers of the prophet Muhammad, preached obedience to the government, and stayed out of politics.

But after the 2011 uprising, many reversed course and formed political parties. Nour, which supports establishing an Islamic state based on sharia, or Islamic law, surprised many people by capturing about a quarter of the seats in parliamentary elections. After Morsi's election, it worked hard to place its stamp on Egypt's new Constitution, including a reference to Islamic law and the blocking of a provision protecting women's equality.

'Please compromise'

Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar says that in the runup to last month's protests, when millions of Egyptians poured into the streets to ask Morsi to step down, party leaders tried to convince Morsi to compromise and issue concessions. Discontent was growing as Morsi failed to fix an ailing economy while also managing to alienate all but his most loyal supporters.

“We advised [him] not to gather all your enemies into one corner, don't give your enemies the justification, the space, the chance to hate you and to try their best to make you fall,” says Bakkar. A week before the June 30 protests, the Nour Party urged the president to appoint a new government and remove the controversial prosecutor general, says Bakkar.

But Morsi refused, and, aware of the military's plans, the party decided to choose “the lesser of two evils,” says Bakkar. “We realized very early that the train has moved already.”

He says that party leaders decided to support the military's move to ensure that Islamist parties were not altogether excluded from political life. Others see the move as opportunism, however, an attempt to cash in on the Brotherhood's loss.

“I spoke with many young Salafis, and they said that they don't anymore respect the Nour party because they think that they are opportunistic and they sacrificed the Brotherhood to get political gains,” says Anani, the Durham University scholar.

Using its leverage, the party vetoed Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei for the post of prime minister of the new interim government. According to Mostaga Higazy, adviser to Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour, Nour Party leaders and former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim AboulFotouh were the only figures who requested to see a draft of the constitutional declaration – outlining the steps of the new transition back to elected leaders – before it was issued. Nour made sure the document, which serves as a temporary constitutional framework, retained the reference to sharia.

The Nour party's participation in the process allowed the military to argue that the coup was not targeting Islamists. But after the military and police shot into a crowd of Morsi supporters on July 8, anger at the military exploded among Islamists, and Nour announced its withdrawal from the military's “roadmap.”

Bakkar, however, later referred to the announcement as a "step back" to express anger at the killings, and says the party is still involved in the transition. The party continues to meet with the military and the interim government, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bakkar says party leaders were in a meeting with interim cabinet members when Sisi gave a speech this week calling Egyptians to protest Friday to give the Army a mandate to confront “terrorism.” “All of us were surprised by his words,” he says.

The speech once again put Nour in an awkward position.

“Now they are breaking everything,” Bakkar says of the military. “They are making us very frustrated and disappointed.”

Is party losing the people?

Some young Salafis say the party is paying a price in popular support. Ibrahim Khairallah, an analyst in the stock market, is not a member of the Nour party but considers himself a Salafi. He says he was not a Morsi loyalist before the coup, but now he's protesting at Rabaa El Adawiya square, the site of a monthlong pro-Morsi demonstration. “Here in Rabaa, there are a lot of people from Nour. They are against their leaders,” he says. He calls the party “naive,” and predicts it will soon leave politics and go back to religious teaching.

Sherif Shaker, a former Nour member, is also protesting Morsi's ouster at Rabaa al Adawiya. He says the Nour Party should have learned from the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood, which allied itself with the military, only to see the military turn on the organization.

“The Nour party is doing the same fault again,” says Mr. Shaker, an engineer. “In my opinion, the military used this party in order to show … the Egyptian society that this military coup is not against the Islamists. And after they finish their role they will throw them away, the same way they did with the young people of the revolution.”

Shaker predicts that the military, and the coming governments, will eventually ban the Nour party. Anani says this is a real possibility. A new constitution could include a clause outlawing religion-based parties, he says. “Now the winner is imposing the rules of the game … Nour did not get any guarantees that their party would not be banned.”

But Bakkar says party leaders do not regret their decision, even if Sisi is now “making a great shift from the initial roadmap we agreed upon.”

Every decision has its “opportunity cost,” he said before Sisi's speech.

“So of course before making the decision, we were quite sure that we should pay the price for that, the price of some people who will not be convinced with our decision, and this is their right," he says. "We tried our best and I can tell you honestly that 80 percent of our grassroots or our members are totally convinced with our point of view."

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