A Deadly Gamble: Egypt’s Salafists May Now Regret Support for the Military

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GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP / Getty Images

Bearded Egyptian police and army officers perform the weekly Muslim Friday prayers with protesters ahead of a Salafist demonstration in Cairo on March 1, 2013

A month ago, the Nour Party, the largest political group to emerge from the ultraconservative Salafist movement, was seen as Egypt’s kingmaker when it dramatically joined the military-led ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. They then proceeded to shape the interim government, vetoing a nominee for Prime Minister in the first week after Morsi was removed from power. Now, though, the party’s fortunes have reversed. With the body count hovering over 1,000 following the military-backed regime’s assault on Islamist protests last week, the Nour Party is fast losing its political relevance and could even end up a victim of the military coup it initially supported.

“They gambled, and obviously they are losing,” says Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist politics and a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., referring to the Nour Party’s decision to back Morsi’s removal. “The military used them to pass the coup, and they aimed to achieve some political gains, but obviously they are not.” As for those Salafist organizations that sided with Morsi, al-Anani says, “if they not arrested, they will be marginalized and excluded.”

“The state’s plan is to ban Islamic parties or exclude them from the political process,” he adds. The Prime Minister in the current government, Hazem el-Beblawi, on Saturday proposed legally dissolving the Muslim Brotherhood, a measure that, al-Anani says, would not end the group as a vast and deeply rooted social movement.

(MORE: Viewpoint: Egypt No Longer Matters)

Even after government forces moved in last Wednesday to crush protest camps organized by the regime’s opponents, leaving hundreds dead, the Nour Party and the older grassroots movement that it is linked to, al-Dawa al-Salafiya, meaning the Salafi Call, refused to join their fellow Islamists in calling for protest marches to denounce the massacre. Instead, the two groups issued a statement urging dialogue and reconciliation — a statement that, so far, both the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood have ignored.

Representatives of the Nour Party did not immediately return TIME’s requests for comment.

The mass political violence that has taken hold of Egypt has bludgeoned away most political nuances — factions hoping to carve out a third position in the binary conflict between the military and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are having trouble finding a means to register their views. This includes both Salafists and the liberal revolutionaries opposed to both Morsi and the military — those who carry the banner of the January 2011 uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The events of the past 24 hours deepened the sense of crisis and conflict gripping the country. The government acknowledged that its security forces killed 36 Islamist detainees attempting to escape a Cairo prison; on the same day, unknown assailants reportedly killed at least 24 police officers in an attack in the Sinai Peninsula. Meanwhile, a court reportedly ordered Mubarak released from prison. Although authorities might still find a way to keep the deposed President in custody, the announcement further unsettled a country still reeling from several days of violence.

The rise and fall of the Salafist movement is a revealing subplot in the current chaotic chapter of Egypt’s history. The Nour Party is in fact just one offshoot of a large and complex Islamist movement with different strains, ranging from pacifist to jihadi, apolitical to confrontational, across the Middle East and beyond. In general, Salafists adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, many of them seeking to follow the practices of al-salaf al-salih (the pious ancestors), the earliest generations of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad.

(PHOTOS: Clashes Erupt in Egypt as Protesters March Against Earlier Bloodshed)

Founded in Alexandria in the late 1970s, members of Egypt’s al-Dawa al-Salafiya largely stayed out of politics under the government of President Anwar Sadat — whose assassination in 1981 was attributed to Islamists — and later under the three-decade dictatorship of Mubarak. Participation in official politics would mean sacrificing religious purity. Al-Dawa focused on preaching and conventional religious outreach. Other Salafist groups engaged in political activism and some, including a jihadi trend, openly confronted the state. Activist or not, nearly all branches of the Salafist movement faced some form of repression under Mubarak.

That dynamic changed with the 2011 popular overthrow of Mubarak. Salafists formed several political parties, and Nour emerged as the largest one, leading a coalition that won the second largest bloc of seats, after the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Freedom and Justice Party, in Egypt’s 2011-12 parliamentary elections. It was also a key ally of Morsi when his government withstood major protests in late 2012 that surrounded the controversial drafting (and eventual passage) of a constitution critics deemed unfairly skewed toward Islamist positions.

But in 2013, the Nour Party distanced itself from Morsi, refusing to take a side during the June 30 uprising against him and the Muslim Brotherhood. Days later, when General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced Morsi’s removal, the Nour Party chairman Younes Makhyoun was standing beside him along with a tableau of other politicians and religious figures.

However Salafists, and Islamists generally, were never uniformly supportive of the military’s removal of Morsi, and several groups have stood by their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, including al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a group that waged an armed insurgency against the Mubarak regime in the 1990s but later renounced violence. A number of the Gama’a members have been detained in the regime’s mass arrest of more than 1,000 Islamists across the country. The popular Salafist politician and former presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, who was disqualified before the 2012 elections, was arrested and his assets frozen following the military’s removal of Morsi.

(MORE: Egyptian ‘Liberals’ Are Out for Blood)

Another group that has sided with the Brotherhood is the Watan (Homeland) Party, a group founded by Emad Abdel-Ghafour and 150 other members who resigned from Nour in January. Watan, which does not identify as Salafist but rather as a party with a vaguely defined “Islamic reference” and a centrist, technocratic ethos, has joined the Anticoup Alliance, the main umbrella group mobilizing against the military-backed government.

In an interview on Monday, Watan Party spokesman and U.S.-educated businessman Mohamed Okda said his party would not participate in the military-sponsored constitution-drafting process. Even Okda, with his talk of building a “modern political party” and mounting “nonviolent activities” against the current regime, admitted that the space for acts of compromise were limited.

“There is just mass killing outside. I am waiting to be detained any time,” he said. “How can you expect us to participate if you’re detaining people and killing them?”

MORE: U.S. Military Aid to Egypt: An IV Drip, With Side Effects

99 comments
Dibony
Dibony

Hey I'm from Switzerland and I'm very interested in the events happening in Egypt. I'm currently writing on a document, about the arab spring with the focus on Egypt. I thank the author of this article very much as it provides me with a lot of good and also new information. Of course I will mention this article in my document, I proudly will :)

And I hope for the People in Egypt that they will have a democracy soon where everybody is satisfied. good luck!

WhereIsJustice
WhereIsJustice

People of Egypt are silly.. they have fallen to the lies of military media.. Now the so called secular's.. liberals and idiot Tamarod movement can celebrate losing 2011 revolution and living under repressive.. corrupt and illegitimate rule which doesn't guarantee safety to any citizen who dare to question their immoral acts.. what a bunch of losers...

ASobhy Mohamed AbdElbaky
ASobhy Mohamed AbdElbaky

Massage from Egypt: Don't support the Egyptian military coup ... We are the Egyptian people. Sisi bloody coup leader in Egypt threatens will massacres committed against peaceful demonstrators rescued civilians from the brutality of the military coup It's a coup not a popular revolution ... We are the Egyptian people reject the coup, pass the message to everyone in all corners of the world support the Egyptian people, Dr. Morsi is the legitimate president of Egypt and the Egyptian people are in the streets to support democracy, the legimacy their president Dr. Morsi there are millions in the streets to defend their rights and their votes, their elections and especially against the coup Criminal Sissi.

Cecelia Jane Hickel
Cecelia Jane Hickel

Have faith that the military will see your country through separation of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood would kill the people having peaceful protest and they have powerful allies to back them up. The military rule is temporary and I fear necessary in the midst of such evil.

Elias
Elias

The Liberal Military of Egypt and The Liberal mass who could not gain after election, must maneuver cleverly to defeat the Brotherhood. They must bring in better orators on BBC, CNN and Aljazeera to batter the well read and articulate narrators from the Opponent. We are aggrieved to find them lack in verbal duels. This is very critical for the Liberal and Modern outlooked people of Egypt to show the world and developed and learned people of the West that they are not confined by a Political Islam mixed with spiritual one as practiced by the Brotherhood which shall hamper a liberal society incorporating all cultures from other parts of Globe in this modern era. These fundamentalists must learn from the Culture of , not to speak of the modern West where ladies can bear legitimate children without wed lock, even the poor Asian countries like Thailand, Philippines etc which are developing with help of their liberal outlook.Even Bangladesh under the able leadership of Sheikh Haseena has severely crushed these Political Islamists craving for thousand year old model not compatible with the modern free world. Tasleema Nasreen was severely victimised by these elements when she unfurled the flag of Modern Muslim world. The Salafists are the best bid to counter the brotherhood in the name of true Islam as they have proved against them and they are not having a global recognition among other Islamists. The Liberals must play tricks with the best experienced Israel, Britain, USA etc to weaken the Brotherhood who are having an ideology mixed with  even modern education impressing the Muslims of other countries. This is last 'Do and Die' for the Modern thinking Egyptians to exist with Modern World.

Lovely Rosy
Lovely Rosy

What happened in Egypt is not a coup. its a revolution against the MB dectatorship. It is a war against terrorism and the free people of the world should support it.

TIMEME
TIMEME

Egypt in mode of self destruction. Thank you democracy for turning Egypt into Darwinian survival of the fittest civil war.

Noor El Tahan
Noor El Tahan

why they are supporting terrorists???!!! Muslims brother hood are the real terrorist they are burning every thing and killing innocent Egyptian EGYPT is fighting terror and you are supporting it please don't miss lead the world and be fair i am from Egypt and you are NOT telling the truth and whole world should know and they should see video like this Muslims brother hood attached a police station and killed officer after terrorizing him please don' be blind

Heba Hussein
Heba Hussein

Human rights organizations and the United States and the European Union condemn Egypt on the war on terrorism and arrest members of al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and leave what is happening in Syria of these organizations against the Syrian people and what is happening in Iraq ... Is this the democracy thatthey want in Egypt ....... actually states "friends"

Marco Nour
Marco Nour

I think it's the right moment now to start and refuse the us aid, we don't want it, us is supporting the terror of MB with all power! Why Mr Obama ?

Marco Nour
Marco Nour

Egyptians don't need a support from terror groups, they didn't even go with us on the streets on 30.june !! They are copy of MB just wants to get the power over Egypt , maybe in their dreams

Ahmed Yakout
Ahmed Yakout

Hint to cut off aid or review something provocative to the people of Egypt This increases the tension and hatred of the American people, and you do not understand it well In the case cut off aid to Egypt has the right not to cross any warships through the Suez Canal And also the right of Egypt to expand relations with Russia and China are military cooperation with them You lose and we are not Arab countries are ready for financial aid and will not need money or grants from any party I hope you review your positions well :)

Nur Gül
Nur Gül

u talking about media?? i'm talking about things i saw with my bare eyes... media is protecting n supporting muslim brotherhood like Aljazeera, CNN, BBCW .. ur supporters.. ur liars.. so dont talk about media to defend ur untrue point of view sir

Aya Knanis
Aya Knanis

Mostly the muslims are in arab countries or the natives arabics are much luckiest then other muslim countries.. because they understand what the quran written.. but other .. only read ! they dont know what quran says.. shape:a (Turkey), I hope , someday people can understand what quran says..."if the egypean muslims they do all these for going uneducated peried back while they understood already" there is a big problem about them....

Zal Uyeuthe
Zal Uyeuthe

Time is under the tutelage of the MBs...expect more pro MB features from this magazine. Where's their conscience?

TutAnkhAmon
TutAnkhAmon

-

Obama Bin Laden can continue supporting the terrorists Muslim Brothers
aka Al Qaeda BUT WE, Egyptians, will exterminate them. END OF STORY.

Check: Obama supports terrorism in Egypt in Facebook
-

Rain Regen
Rain Regen

It might be better to say a 'few' people have been attacking churches (as the attackers idenities haven't been 'confirmed'). If they are 'Muslim' then again what has that got to do with the crime? The criminals religion is never used for evidence now is it? In fact It is forbidden to destroy place of worship in Islam...

AdamJavaMan
AdamJavaMan

@BaFana3 Even Saudi scholars reject coup, an epic fail from nour to take MB place in terms of votes.

MilfBiaf
MilfBiaf

@Elias Who are you Elias? A Munafiq or a Christian has no right to give guidance to Mu'mineen.


Elias
Elias

@MilfBiaf @Elias 
 You can not gauge me. Is this my opinion? Can you fathom it? Did n't you find a veiled reality at places in my writing. The whole writing is not my opinion but some one who defeats the world by hook and crook Now guess who am I?