Tilt towards military unbalances Egypt's ultra-conservative Salafists

Salafist politicians who supported the military-led overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi, their former ally, are flailing as security forces extend a crackdown on Islamists.

Soldiers in military vehicles proceed towards the al-Jura district in El-Arish city from Sheikh Zuwaid, around 217 miles northeast of Cairo, May 21, 2013.

When Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a televised address last July to announce the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, he was flanked by a coterie of the country’s most powerful religious figures.

To his right sat the Pope of the Coptic Church and the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning. Neither was a surprise to Egyptians. Less expected was the third religious leader: Galal el-Morra, a prominent member of Egypt’s Salafist movement, which espouses a puritanical vision of Islam.

Just months earlier, the ultra-orthodox Salafists had been a crucial ally of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Now they were shoulder-to-shoulder with the Army against fellow Islamists. 

This appearance may have been the high tide mark for the Salafists, who have been fractured and dislocated by the post-Morsi political shakeout that has undone much of the 2011 revolution's achievements. The weakening of this Islamic political movement could have significant implications for the future strength of religious conservatives in Egyptian politics.

Ultra-conservatives in parliament

Although Salafists have traditionally taken a quietist approach to politics, after 2011 they changed tack and created al-Nour, an ultra-conservative political party that aimed to protect Egypt’s Islamic identity. It surprised many by winning a quarter of the seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 2012. Then, when Egypt wrote a new constitution, it managed to insert an article that emphasized the importance of sharia, or Islamic law, to secularists' dismay.

But since Morsi’s ouster, the Nour party has become one of the coup’s biggest political casualties. And, say some Egyptians, it only has itself to blame for its own cynicism in siding with the military when it moved against Mr. Morsi.

Not all Salafists took this route: splinter party al-Watan and a number of other Salafist factions have condemned the coup and what many see as the naked political maneuverings of Nour and its leading preacher, Yasser el Borhamy. 

These critics say the party's decision to go it alone, without backing from other Islamist political groups, was based on a strategic view that it could gain ground from a military crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

But the deal always looked sweeter for the government. Nour's support has offered political cover for a systematic crackdown on most Islamists, not just the Brotherhood, while allowing the authorities to deny any anti-Islamic political agenda.

“The Nour Party is playing a risky game that might backfire and affect its political gains,” says Khalil al-Anani, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on political Islam.

He warns that Nour has jeopardized its credibility among the wider Islamist movement, and will struggle to fill the political void left behind by the Brotherhood, which has been banned and classified as a terrorist group.

It also remains vulnerable to the possibility that the next government, expected to be led by Mr. Sisi, will turn against it.

Rank-and-file frustrated

Among the Nour party’s grassroots supporters, there is anger at a leadership they say has sold out the movement.

Two years ago, Mohamed, a young Salafist, voted for Nour in the parliamentary elections. “Back then, I was proud to give them my vote. We always said that the party was above political maneuvers, and that it really worked for its people,” he says. “The situation is very different now.”

Despite Nour’s official support for Egypt’s military-backed authorities, an aggressive state-led crackdown on dissent has netted many of its rank-and-file members. State media has issued calls for citizens to report neighbors whom they suspect of belonging to the Brotherhood.

For Salafists, who wear their beards in a distinctive manner for theological reasons, this adds to the sense of unease and confusion.

“It’s hard for me to walk in the streets these days,” sighs Mohamed. “People see my clothes and know I’m an Islamist – I have to be on my guard.”

Loyalty test

In the past two months, three of his friends – all Salafists – have been arrested. His brother was killed in August, when security forces forcibly dispersed a camp of tens of thousands of Morsi supporters in Cairo.

After nine months of upheaval, the loyalty of Nour’s members was put to the test in January, when the party threw its weight behind a new constitution. The document was put to a popular vote that was widely regarded as an endorsement for the military-backed authorities, rather than the document itself.

Salafists did not turn out in large numbers, a sign of how disillusioned many have become since the coup.

According to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Nour’s decision to back Sisi’s power grab has been a “major miscalculation”.

“They’re hemorrhaging support, there have been numerous defections, they can’t mobilize their own supporters – the list goes on,” he says.

Balancing act 

The Nour party is not the only loser in the Salafist camp. Salafist party El-Watan, which split from Nour over personal and political differences in January 2013, has also been forced to tread the thin line between opposing the coup and siding with the Brotherhood, a perilous position in post-Morsi Egypt.

This balancing act is reflected in the careful rhetoric of the party’s leadership. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, leader Emad Abdel Ghaffour condemned the government’s crackdown, saying “there has never been a time more violent in Egypt’s modern history”.

“We criticize the situation, but our words have a blunt edge,” he said. “I'm not going to say Sisi is a murderer, but I'm not going to say he is the prophet.”

Although he shied away from criticizing Nour, a party he once led, he described Sisi’s advisors as “fools”, suggesting that the former strongman defense minister should be counseled to take steps towards reconciliation, not repression.

According to Hamid, the key problem facing both Islamist and liberal parties lies in the illiberal nature of Egypt’s post-coup politics.

“You have political parties pretending to play normal politics when everyone knows this is not a normal political situation,” he says.

“The regime needed al-Nour after the coup in order to present a picture of unity and consensus, but the military also wanted to fracture the Islamist scene and undermine the legitimacy of al-Nour in the eyes of many of its supporters.”

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