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Salafi members of Egypt's parliament

Salafi members of Egypt’s parliament



Originally published in The Independent, 7 July 2013

As Egypt’s latest power brokers were busily coming to terms with the new revolutionary order, word emerged on state television that Mohamed el-Baradei, the Nobel laureate and liberal figurehead, had been selected as Prime Minister.

Shortly after the announcement had been made, however, reporters were summoned to the presidential palace in eastern Cairo for a midnight press conference. Mr el-Baradei had not been made Prime Minister, said a spokesman for the new interim president – the post was still very much vacant.

It later transpired that the appointment of Mr el-Baradei had been blocked by the Al-Nour Party, a fundamentalist Salafi movement which has formed what might seem like an unlikely alliance with the liberal and secular forces in Egypt.

Created following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Al-Nour’s origins lie in the so-called Salafi Da’wa, or Salafi Call – an ultra-orthodox group which emerged in Alexandria during the late-1970s. From the outset, the Salafi Da’wa refrained from violence and formal politics. Its stance made it more palatable to the Egyptian authorities, who often used the group to undermine the power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet its members have nevertheless espoused views which are severely at odds with the nation’s secularists.

Followers try to emulate the perceived lifestyle of Islam’s earliest adherents, while some leaders have expressed support for reintroducing the centuries-old dhimma system – where Christians were guaranteed protection by the Caliph but forced to pay the jizya, a special tax.

The initial antagonism between the Brotherhood and Salafists, although briefly suspended following the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, continued in earnest afterwards. During parliamentary elections later that year, the Al-Nour party tried to portray Brotherhood candidates as stooges of the system.

In 2012, it decided to back a liberal Islamist for the initial rounds of the presidential elections, only switching to the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi once their man had lost.

Perhaps the ultimate dagger in the back came when the party stated its support for last week’s popular coup.

According to Cairo-based expert Ashraf el-Sherif, Al-Nour’s politicking was born of pure expediency. “The Al-Nour Party has long-running ambitions,” he said. “They want to succeed the Muslim Brotherhood and they are the only Islamist actors who think they can replace them in the long run.”

The anti-Morsi coalition also needs Al-Nour. Backers of last week’s mass revolt are desperate to show that the protests were not the work of liberals and secularists alone.

“This… is now a fight mainly for the Islamic constituency,” said Nirvana Shawky, the Middle East regional director of Crisis Action. “Now the Muslim Brotherhood is really spreading the word that the Al-Nour Party has sold out the Islamic community.”