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

  • Share
  • Read Later

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