from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Lights Out for Al-Nour?

August 6, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The post below on Egypt’s Salafis  was written by my research associate, Alexander Brock, and my intern, Amr T. Leheta. I hope you find it interesting.  

After the military intervention that toppled Mohammed Morsi and imprisoned much of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, many Egyptian and foreign observers are speculating that  Egypt’s Salafis are poised to rise to prominence. The Salafi parties have shown political acumen that hardly anyone could have predicted, given their historical opposition to political participation. Yet just as Salafi parties, in particular al-Nour, are well positioned to replace the Muslim Brotherhood as the predominant Islamist political actor in Egypt, the seeds of the movement’s political demise may have already been sown.

Salafis, who are hardly a homogeneous group, champion a particular Islamic vision and identity that is based on a strict and literal interpretation of Islam. They are among the ideological descendants of the Islamic reformers of the nineteenth century in the style of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. They believe in the strict application of the shari’a and the revival of what they consider to be "pure" Islam: the Islam that the earliest Muslim generations, the salaf, practiced. Through their largely informal network (charities, mosques, educational institutions, and media channels), the Salafis have spread their message to a wide swath of Egyptian society. Despite this, they have historically been apolitical, claiming democracy to be an un-Islamic and foreign innovation (bid’a). Even when the uprising broke out on January 25, 2011, Salafi leaders issued fatwas warning against participating in the demonstrations, citing traditional teachings that forbade rebellion against any leader who was formally a Muslim, even if his rule were unjust.

It was only when the protests succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak that some Salafis decided to contest politics, setting up three parties: al-Nour (Light) Party, al-Asala (Authenticity) Party, and al-Fadila (Virtue) Party. They saw Mubarak’s fall as an opportunity to shape Egypt’s political order and push for an Islamic state, justifying their entry into the political arena by pointing out the threat of a secular political order emerging in Egypt. Nevertheless, this opportunism represents a divergence from its traditional doctrine, and is especially surprising in light of criticism the Salafis have directed at the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing them of abandoning their Islamic principles in favor of party politics.  Still, the Salafis recognized the need for pragmatism, particularly as they were well aware of their inexperience. They worked closely with the Brotherhood to ensure Islamists gained the upper hand, even if they did not fully believe that the Brotherhood prioritized the application of shari’a law as they did. They collaborated to win seats in parliament, to manage the dominant Islamist bloc in the legislature, and to support Mohammed Morsi in his bid for the presidency in June 2012 after the Salafis’ first choice, preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was disqualified.

This alliance, however, was short-lived. Morsi gave the Salafis no cabinet posts in his government, side-lined them from the decision-making process, and supported describing Egypt as a "civil state" in the new constitution, against the Salafis. The Salafis also got little backing in their most significant push to make Egypt an Islamic state: changing the wording of the much-disputed Article 2 of the constitution to make the actual rulings of  shari’a, not just the principles employed in deriving specific legal rulings, the basis of Egyptian law. It confirmed for the Salafis that the Brotherhood had, indeed, become "bourgeois elite disconnected from the street."

Their pragmatism has even resulted in the most unlikely of alliances: al-Nour ultimately sided with liberal forces in support of the military intervention against Morsi, perhaps yet again seeing an opportunity to implement its own vision. But in this, as some observers have pointed out, al-Nour seems to have fallen victim to its own criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, that of sacrificing principles for political gains, a criticism that was a source of leverage against the Brothers and that was a draw for much of its membership. Some members of al-Nour have been participating in the most recent pro-Morsi demonstrations, and some members have even left the party to join the Brotherhood in support of the ousted president. But it is now popularity, not purity of doctrine,  that is the compass for al-Nour’s leadership in its decision-making, made clear by al-Nour party spokesman Nader Bakkar’s statement that although twenty percent of its followers is disappointed in its position regarding the military intervention against Morsi, eighty percent remains faithfully aligned. In another doctrinal about-face, al-Nour is refusing to participate in the interim government, saying it would only be able to participate in a government established by democratic elections, when at one time it was democratic politics in which it could not participate. And how, indeed, can al-Nour possibly justify supporting the overthrow of Morsi, when by any measure the former president was “outwardly Muslim”?

The Salafis in Egypt have diverged enough from their doctrine, traditionally the source of its strength, to incite internal divisions among both the leadership and ordinary members. Even those dissatisfied with al-Nour’s political strategy, but not wanting to join the Brothers, are not without options. Some may find a voice with another more conservative Salafi groups, such as that led by Sheikh Said al-Raslan, who staunchly rejects party politics altogether, and who thus purports to represent a more authentic, and pure, Islamic worldview. And senior leaders of al-Nour have started to resign as well, suggesting that all is not well within the party.

This may seem like al-Nour’s time to shine, but the very pragmatic strategies that it  has employed to rise to power may also be its undoing, as it risks alienating its core constituency, which has supported it for its principled, rather than its pragmatic and political, stance. By assuming a leadership position in Egypt’s political scene going forward, the Salafi al-Nour party may be making the same mistake as the Islamist party which it maneuvered to replace.

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