Salafist Party Asserts Role in Egypt as Brotherhood Teeters

The dethronement of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood party is giving rise to a new political power.

The ultra-conservative Nour Party was the only Islamist group to support the military-backed plan to topple Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood organization that fielded him for office. The move has cast them as political power brokers, evidenced by their scuttling, at least for now, of Mohamed ElBaradei’s appointment as prime minister.

“The Nour Party for the time being has a veto power over major decisions because the new order needs at least one major Islamist party on its side,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in the Qatari capital. “It’s never been so influential.”

After state-run media reported that ElBaradei, a secular Nobel peace laureate, had been tapped by the presidency, Nour Party leaders labeled him as a figure who would only deepen political polarization. The opposition prompted the presidency, in a midnight press conference, to deny reports that anyone had been asked to take the job of prime minister.

The flipflop underscored the Nour Party’s influence as Egypt’s interim leaders seek to buttress the legitimacy of a coalition that supported deposing Mursi and now faces deadly street clashes. Instead of ElBaradei, the Nour Party demanded a premier without political affiliations who could revive an economy stuck in the worst slowdown in two decades.

Suspending Talks

The party today suspended its participation in the talks to name a new premier after clashes between the military and Mursi’s supporters killed at least 42 people.

ElBaradei, 71, and Nour Party leader Galal Murra, were among figures who flanked Defense Minister Abdelfatah Al-Seesi when he announced Mursi’s ouster and the suspension of the Islamist-backed constitution on July 3. Under the plan, Constitutional Court Chief Justice Adly Mansour became an interim president charged with forming a government that would rule the country until presidential and parliamentary elections.

Addressing the nation from the same podium after Al-Seesi, the Nour Party leader said they “only took this stance and agreed to these decisions to prevent the spilling of blood” and stop a civil war. “We didn’t create this situation. It was created by others,” Murra said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and biggest Islamist movement, has called on its supporters to reject what its leaders have called a military coup. Clashes since July 5 until yesterday had killed about three dozen people and wounded more than 1,000. The military has taken Mursi into custody and police have rounded up Brotherhood officials, including deputy leader Khairat el-Shater.

Brotherhood Alternative

The Nour Party is well-situated “to position themselves as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and to advance their own agenda,” said Erin Snider, assistant professor for Middle East politics at Texas A&M University. “Their ability to block ElBaradei’s appointment is testament to their power at the moment; how long that endures though is uncertain given the ambiguity and rapid pace of this transition.”

Arabic for Party of Light, Nour was set up after the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. The party calls for the application of Islamic law in Egypt. Its more conservative views mean that unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, it advocates the gradual abolishment of non-Shariah compliant bank lending in the country.

Parliamentary Vote

The Salafist group came second after the Brotherhood’s political wing in parliamentary elections in 2011. The results of the vote were later annulled by courts.

Brotherhood and Nour Party leaders later sparred over what the Salafists saw as Mursi’s bid to exclude other groups from power.

The Nour Party “was disappointed with what they saw as the Muslim Brotherhood simply taking everything,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst in Cairo at the International Crisis Group, which tracks countries in conflict. “That’s why they were more inclined to side with” the anti-Mursi protests.

Any appointment of ElBaradei as prime minister risks repeating Mursi’s errors, Shaaban Abdel Alim, assistant secretary-general of the Nour Party, said yesterday.

Betray the Cause

By blocking ElBaradei’s appointment, Nour Party leaders may also be seeking to deflect criticism from their own supporters.

“They’re already under fire for betraying the Islamist cause,” Hamid said by phone. “They can now say that ‘we blocked the bad liberal from becoming a prime minister.’”

The Nour Party’s move threatens to drive a wedge in the coalition that supported the toppling of Mursi. Backers of the former chief of the United Nations nuclear agency are also digging in.

“We’re insisting on ElBaradei as a prime minister,” said Islam Hammam, a member of central committee of Tamarod, or Rebel, a youth group that served as a catalyst for the latest protests against Mursi. “Our mistake from the beginning was that we allowed mediocre and non-revolutionary figures to run the country, and now it’s our time to correct this.”

For the meantime, the Nour Party is enjoying its unprecedented status in Egyptian politics.

“If Nour were to drop from this coalition, the situation would be an even secular-Islamist split” in Egypt, said el-Shimy. “Maybe some of the other parties think they only need to appease Nour until the immediate crisis is over, but for now it seems that they’re going to play the role of kingmaker.”

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