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The Rise and Fall of the Salafi al-Nour Party in Egypt

[Egyptian school children gather around a street vendor by electoral posters that read in Arabic, [Egyptian school children gather around a street vendor by electoral posters that read in Arabic, "Al-Nour Party, Ahmed Ibrahim Yousef," on a street in Cairo, Egypt on 12 December 2011. Image by Nasser Nasser via Associated Press]

When Mohamed Salmawi, the spokesman for the committee appointed to draft Egypt’s post-coup constitution, appeared before the press on 29 October, the message was clear. There would be no place for Article 219 in the new constitution, and there would be no further discussion.

The announcement followed two months of anxious efforts by the Salafi al-Nour Party to secure the Islamic language introduced in the now voided 2012 constitution. This has been quite the battle given their single member representation of the tiny two-person Islamist contingent on the fifty-person committee. In late August, the al-Nour Party’s head, Younis Makhyoun, had proposed the party’s vision for Egypt’s road forward: an end to the violence and instability in the streets and an inclusive political process led by the military and guided in religious matters by al-Azhar. His worries: a return to the police state of Hosni Mubarak and the removal of Islamic elements approved in the 2012 constitution.

As it became clear to al-Nour in mid-October that the drafting committee, which interim president Adly Mansour appointed, was writing a new document nearly free of Islamic references, the party hurried to offer compromises. Article 219 could be excised, provided that the word “principles” was removed from the less controversial Article 2, which seemed to have survived and states that the “principles of the Islamic sharia are the chief source of legislation” in Egypt. But their efforts were to no avail.

Article 219 had been the al-Nour Party’s great prize. For them, it added substance and heft to what they considered the flaccid phrasing of Article 2. The “principles of the sharia” could be as bland and non-committal as “justice” and “the protection of life, dignity and property.” It was not specific enough to ensure Egypt’s commitment to Islam and the sharia. Shaykh Yasir Borhami, the chief ideologue behind the al-Nour Party, had penned lengthy diatribes against the liberal and permissive manner in which Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court had interpreted Article 2. It understood it as prohibiting any new laws that contradicted “the principles of the sharia,” which the court understood as the minimal, core rulings of Islamic law. To the horror of conservative Muslim scholars like Borhami, this had allowed the court to approve of such policies as banning face veils in schools, since wearing it was not actually a requirement across the Sunni schools of law. In the opinion of al-Nour Party, Article 219 rectified this problem. It specified that the principles of the sharia consisted of “its main categories of evidence, jurisprudential and substantive law principles, and its recognized sources according to Sunni Islam.”

Among Salafis, Article 219 became the rallying point for a post-Mubarak affirmation of Egypt’s Islamic identity. Perhaps as a reaction to this celebration, it also became the bête noire of the Salafis’ secular and ancien regime foes, who viewed it as a harbinger of an impending descent into Islamism. Loading 219 with such significance is ironic, since the article’s wording is as malleable in Arabic as it is in English, and it adds little of substance to Article 2. I have never heard a passable explanation for how Article 219 would have reined in a liberal interpretation of Article 2. Rulings like the constitutional court’s approval of the face veil ban would be just as possible with 219’s verbose posturing as it had been without it. In one sense, however, Article 219 was of particular significance to Salafis. They trumpeted the fact that it specified, for the first time, that the understanding of the sharia in Egypt would be a Sunni one. This was no more than a symbolic affirmation, however, since Shi'i law has played a marginal role in legislation in Egypt, and the country has a miniscule Shi'i population.

It has been a short and predictable trip for the al-Nour Party. Founded in the immediate wake of Mubarak’s fall in February 2011 by leading members of the Salafi Call (al-Da‘wa al-Salafiyya), the Alexandria-based Salafi organization, the party had three main aims: ensure that post-Mubarak Egypt would not be a place where bearded men are arrested and tortured, improve the county’s deplorable standard of living, and make the Egyptian government Islamically legitimate. This last objective was particularly important. Well before the 2011 revolution, Shaykh Yasir Borhami, the Salafi Call’s most charismatic scholar, had written that Egypt’s government was not “Islamically legitimate.”

On this point the Salafi Call differed with most of the other Salafi organizations in Egypt. Although they all forbade any rebellion against a Muslim ruler, the Salafi Call stood out in that it did not grant Mubarak that station.[1] Salafi Call leaders cited the well-known sharia law principle that a ruler who fails to establish sharia law is not Muslim. As such, his rule is illegitimate for his Muslim subjects. Article 2, which had been introduced by late President Anwar al-Sadat in the hopes of shoring up his Islamic legitimacy, offered a ray of hope, but it applied only to new laws.

If rebellion against Mubarak’s government had been Islamically permissible according to the Salafi Call, the organization never considered it a good idea.[2] Calculating no chance of success in a confrontation with the state, the Salafi Call laid low and focused on teaching its followers.

With Mubarak’s fall, however, the political square had been opened, and the Salafi Call leaders saw an opportunity to achieve real change. The al-Nour Party was consciously designed by its main architect within the Salafi Call, Emad Abdel Ghaffour, to be administratively separate from the Call’s religious organization, which was to continue its religious activities apart from politics under the guidance of Yasir Borhami and other senior clerics. If the revolution went south or politics proved too polluting, the al-Nour Party could fold, and the Salafi Call could continue on as a religious organization with little impact. Alas, reality proved different.

Al-Nour’s early days were halcyon. In the country’s first free parliamentary elections in decades, al-Nour won twenty-one percent of the seats in the lower house and proved even more successful in the upper house elections. On the basis of impressions gleaned from Egyptians for voted for al-Nour, the party’s support came from its Salafi constituency and more conservative Muslim voters who saw the party as a fresh alternative to the checkered Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Nour suddenly seemed to be the new kingmaker in Egyptian politics.

Matters deteriorated, however. In September of 2012, disputes between Abdel Ghaffour, the party’s chairman, and members of its leadership committee spilled into the open. Nader Bakkar, the party’ spokesman and one of its more telegenic personalities, explained that, since Abdel Ghaffour had been appointed as a close advisor to President Morsi, he could no longer serve as al-Nour’s head as well. Behind the scenes, the real rub was the personality clash between Abdel Ghaffour and Borhami. The shaykh had evidently not observed the division of labor between politics and religion, providing political direction to Bakkar and others.[3] To make matters worse, Abdel Ghaffour’s approach to politics differed from that of Borhami and company. The shaykh was cautious and did not want al-Nour to commit itself too much to the initiatives of the Morsi government. Abdel Ghaffour believed this was the time for Islamists to leap fully into the political arena.

There was still more rancor. The leadership of the Salafi Call and the senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood had come out of the same Islamic student activist groups of 1970s. They knew each other well but had taken divergent paths, with Borhami and others choosing the path of Salafi religious scholarship and the political orbit of Saudi Arabia over Muslim Brotherhood activism in Egypt. There was no love lost between the groups now. Soon Abdel Ghaffour was ousted from al-Nour Party, and along with a hundred defectors from Nour he went on to form the Watan Party in December of 2012.

Despite their prickly relations, the al-Nour Party and the Brotherhood could work together on common causes. Al-Nour and popular Salafi Call preachers campaigned vigorously for Morsi in the run-off with the ancien regime stalwart Ahmad Shafiq. The two groups also worked together to draft the 2012 constitution and mobilize voters for its ratification by popular referendum, though the Salafis had irked the mainstream core of the Brotherhood with is insistence on Article 219 and its (failed) efforts to change “principles of the sharia” to “the rulings of the sharia” in Article 2.

In November and December of 2012, however, relations worsened. President Morsi’s constitutional decree, declaring himself immune from Egypt’s Mubarak-era judiciary, provided the president’s diverse but broad opposition with a golden opportunity. He was acting like the power-hungry Islamist they had always feared, and now even the most flagrant Mubarak-era folk could don the mantle of the revolution by calling for his departure.

In January, al-Nour Party elected a new head, Younis Makhyoun. Tensions between al-Nour and the Brotherhood broke to the surface when Khaled Alam Eddin, a senior al-Nour member who had been chosen by Morsi as an advisor, openly accused the Brotherhood of exclusionary behavior and making consensus-based governance impossible. He also admitted meeting with the recently formed National Salvation Front (NSF), an alliance of mostly secular, anti-Morsi parties. On 30 January, al-Nour and the NSF announced that they shared a common vision for moving forward to extricate Egypt from the political impasse that had formed between Morsi and his opponents. From that point on, al-Nour openly refused to participate in protests organized by Islamists to show public support for Morsi. In mid-February, President Morsi dismissed Alam Eddin with accusations of improper conduct. In the media frenzy that followed, the al-Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood traded barbs that culminated in Makhyoun’s announcement that he would soon publish a report documenting the Brotherhood’s plans to “Ikhwanize” the state. The al-Nour Party joined the chorus of opposition accusing Morsi of incompetence, being deaf to the people’s concerns and attempting to force the Brotherhood into all levels of government. As the situation approached its finale, on June 9, Nader Bakkar announced that al-Nour would not participate in pro-Morsi rallies on June 30 (but to be fair, the maverick Salafi Hazem Abu Ismail, a popular supporter of Morsi, also refused to participate. Both he and al-Nour cited the danger in two big bodies of supporters meeting in the streets).

But al-Nour ended up doing much more that merely refusing to stand with the Brotherhood. When Sisi took to the air to announce the military’s overthrow of President Morsi, al-Nour’s leader Younis Makhyoun was seated prominently next to him along with other coup supporters. While Abdel Ghaffour and other many other prominent Salafis (not associated with the Salafi Call) frequented the rostrum at the Rab’a sit-in, the al-Nour leadership openly rebuked any of its rank and file members who participated. Borhami, Makhyoun and Bakkar continued to lambaste the Brotherhood for its failings. Bakkar even offered to resign as the Nour Party’s spokesman after he – counter to his party’s line – praised the peaceful nature of the sit-ins. When the military assaulted the protesters to break up the sit-ins, the line between the Salafi Call/al-Nour and the rest of Egypt’s Salafis (and Islamists more broadly) became clear.

Some independent Salafi preachers like Mohammad Abd al-Maqsud took to the internet and launched scathing attacks on the army and security services for shedding civilian blood. Others chose to go silent in the face of the intense violence. These included the famous Salafi preacher Muhammad Hassan from the Ansar al-Sunna organization, who had earlier criticized the Sisi regime for killing protesters. The al-Nour Party, however, reaffirmed its support of Sisi and the army. Bakkar has continued to praise the military effusively and has stated several times that al-Nour has no objection to a Sisi presidency. On August 16, as the worst of the crackdown was playing out, al-Nour and the Salafi Call issued a joint declaration affirming their support for the Egyptian army. The party has expressed only the mildest concern for the killing of civilians.

How was it that the al-Nour Party, so long a specter of some conservative Islamist take over, has actively supporting the Sisi regime despite its slaughter of fellow pious Muslims? This cannot be explained merely by pointing to al-Nour’s troubled relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood. The army’s massacre of civilians has earned broad condemnation from across the political spectrum, including from Brotherhood opponents. Wouldn’t a party of pious Muslims, faced with the killing of unarmed Muslim men and veiled Muslim women, abandon the Sisi government faster than, say, Mohammad ElBaradei or other disenchanted liberals?

There are two theories to explain this. For the conspiracy minded, there is the theory that the al-Nour Party was conceived, funded and directed by the Saudi intelligence services. The deal: the military cum ancien regime would run the country, the Salafis would run the mosques, preaching an apolitical, Saudi-friendly message. Hence al-Nour’s ungainly leap on the anti-Brotherhood bandwagon in early 2013, its embrace of the NSF and its wholehearted support of the Sisi government. Hence its bizarre obsession with anti-Shiite vitriol that exceeded mere theological polemics (standard for Salafis) and flooded madly into the political realm. In April, after Egypt and Iran agreed on an innocuous tourism exchange, a small delegation came from Iran. Al-Nour reacted as if Shiite legions were breaching the Suez Canal. It launched aggressive protests at the Iranian ambassador’s house in Cairo, and on 13 May al-Nour MPs in the toothless Majlis al-Shura declared that Iranian tourism was major threat to religion in Egypt–all in a country with an insignificant Shiite population. Hence the party’s loyal embrace of the Sisi regime despite its jailing of thousands of Muslims, closure of Salafi satellite channels and, most glaringly, the secularization of the constitution.

The most plausible element of this theory is that al-Nour/Salafi Call has so steadfastly supported the Sisi regime in the hopes of increasing its share on Egypt’s mosque and Islamic educational scene. But this is unconvincing both in theory and in fact. First, other Salafi organizations like the Ansar al-Sunna and influential Salafi preachers like Muhammad Hassan and Abu Ishaq al-Huwayni have avoided the regime’s wrath by eschewing politics. They seem more likely to attract Salafi followers than a party/religious organization that has actively supported a regime that has gunned down and imprisoned so many like-minded Muslims. Second, under the Sisi regime the Egyptian government has stepped up its efforts to centralize mosque preaching and Friday prayer sermons under the leadership of the pro-Sisi, vehemently anti-Salafi Shaykh al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayyeb. The “Egyptian Islam” being instituted by this initiative is far from welcoming to the Salafi brand.

The second theory is that the al-Nour Party leadership believed that by supporting the coup it could secure the relatively limited objectives it had been founded to pursue: protect Salafis from police brutality and lock Egypt’s legal regime into a sharia framework. Unlike many Muslim Brothers, Salafis never bought into democracy as an ideal. At worst, it was prohibited by Islam (haram); at best, it was a useful procedure. Rooted deeply in the political quietism of the classical Sunni Islam of the medieval period, Salafism is much closer to the state-obsequious institution of al-Azhar than to the Western political engagement of the Brotherhood. As one fourteenth-century scholar wrote, “We are with whomever wins.”[4]

This theory would explain why, throughout its months of anti-Brotherhood cheerleading and cooperation with the NSF, al-Nour leaders were nonetheless hounding the then-and-current Interior Minister, Muhammad Ibrahim, for the police’s treatment of detained Salafis as well as liberal protesters. Even on May 11, the Salafi Call spokesman called on Ibrahim to resign after he refused to let newly bearded policemen return to work.

This would explain why, just a day before Article 219 was dropped from the constitution, Nader Bakkar announced that, though he welcomed a Sisi presidency, he was very concerned over the overwhelmingly secular make-up of the drafting committee and of the impending ban on religious parties.

If this is why the al-Nour Party supported Morsi’s deposal, then the party’s decision was catastrophically naïve. This failing probably supports this theory more it undermines it, since naiveté regarding the nature of military coups has bee the order of the day across Egypt’s political spectrum. Al-Nour Party officials who might bemoan their support for Sisi can find solace in the company of liberals like Mohamed Elbaradei.

That the al-Nour Party was providing an Islamist fig leaf for an adulatory, ultra-nationalist and oppressive military regime may have been obvious to Borhami, Makhyoun and others. That Morsi supporters, many of them pious, bearded and veiled, would be crushed beneath its boot may also have been clear. This is what happens, a good Salafi might note, when one chants the very Western slogan of democratic legitimacy (shar‘iyya) instead of following the classical sharia duty of obedience to the ruler.

But the al-Nour leadership should have known that their precious amendments to Egypt’s legal identity, those few words that could make it a legitimate Islamic state in their eyes, were doomed the moment the army warned it might intervene. Even the first representative that al-Nour managed to wedge into the drafting committee, Bassem al-Zarka, resigned just a few days after the committee began its work – for “health reasons,” insisted Makhyoun. Perhaps the al-Nour leadership knew they were being used in a process that would very quickly lead to the party’s own dissolution. This might not be too high a cost in the estimation of Borhami, Bakkar and their comrades. The party and the foray into politics had always been an experiment, dispensable and detachable from the Salafi Call’s real mission. The question is, having supported a government that has left thousands of bearded men and veiled women, young and old, dead, disappeared and detained, and with all the emotionally maimed families they leave behind, how many Muslims in Egypt will now consider heeding the Salafi Call?



[1] Yasir Borhami, Faḍl al-ghani al-ḥamid taʿliqat hamma ʿala Kitab al-Tawḥid (Alexandria: Dar al-Khulafa’ al-Rashidin, 2009), 119, 152-3; Saʿid ʿAbd al-ʿAẓim, Dimaqraṭiyya (Alexandria: Dar al-Fatḥ al-Islami, 2009), 68-71.

[2] ʿAbd al-ʿAẓim, 89-90.

[3] Based on interviews with former al-Nour supporters who identified with Abdel Ghaffour.

[4] Badr al-Din Ibn Jamaʿa, Taḥrir al-aḥkam fi tadbir ahl al-islam, edited by Fu’ad ʿAbd al-Munʿim Aḥmad (Qatar: n.p., 1985), 55-6.

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