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Can Salafists Save Egypt?

Can Salafists Save Egypt?

I had a question for Nader Bakkar, the spokesman and co-founder of the Salafist Nour Party: How can Egypt avoid more of the bloodshed that has brought it to a crisis point since the military deposed Mohammed Morsy? There was a long silence.

"It’s a very difficult question," he said eventually. "We understand that nobody can attack the military and they will stand without any reaction. But we don’t want excessive reaction — you should have the necessary emotional stability in front of civilians…At the same time, for the civilians who want to struggle against the military, we are trying to convince them that this will not lead to anything but more blood."

The message sums up the balancing act the Nour Party, the second-largest political movement only to the Brotherhood, is trying to achieve: It signed on to the "roadmap" that ousted Morsy, providing valuable Islamist cover for the coup, but has since been at odds with the new government and critical of the military crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. They have taken the lead in pushing for a reconciliation with the Brotherhood — but could gain the most if the Islamist movement is excluded from the political process.

With protests swelling in Egypt again today in response to army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s call for demonstrations in favor of "confronting" the Brotherhood, Bakkar’s job is about to get a lot tougher. The Nour Party rejected Sissi’s call for protests, saying that popular mobilization on both sides "foreshadows civil war."

For the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nour Party’s actions amount to a historic betrayal — an abandonment of Egypt’s first Islamist government for short-term political gain. "They are very naïve, they don’t have much experience playing politics," said senior Brotherhood official Amr Darrag. "Politically, they are our main opponents. So they thought this was a good time to put us aside, or weaken our position, or get rid of us, so that they can take charge as the leading party in the political life."

Bakkar, on the other hand, paints a picture of how the Morsy administration ignored the Nour Party’s advice to defuse the political crisis for half a year, systematically antagonizing every Egyptian political player. "Facts are facts: The military decided to be with the people, so it was a matter of deciding whether to lose everything for the Islamic stream, or to keep a share in the next round," he said. "Especially when we are not convinced in [the Brotherhood’s] way of governing, especially when we can see that normal people are against them."

During Hosni Mubarak’s reign, the ultra-conservative Salafists, who strive to emulate the practices of the earliest Muslims, were the boogeymen of Egyptian politics. They did not form political parties, some supported the violent overthrow of the state, and their beliefs were seen as irreconcilable with democracy – a contrast to the Brotherhood’s "moderate" Islamist views. But today the tables have turned: It is the Nour Party that cut a deal with the military and is calling for inclusive governance, while the Brotherhood remains outside the political game.

Some have argued that the Salafists were always better suited than the Brotherhood to Egyptian politics. Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University who conducted field research in Egypt’s rural areas, found that many of her interview subjects views the Salafists as "religiously less strict" than the Brotherhood. The problem was the Brotherhood’s top-down structure: While Brothers in every corner of Egypt had to respond to the dictates of their hierarchy, Salafists had no such structure and could more freely adapt to the circumstances of their area. "[M]any of those who voted for Salafis did so not out of religious adherence to the Salafi orthodoxy, but because they did not want to support the [Brotherhood]," Ahmed wrote.

With the military seemingly poised to choose force over reconciliation with the Brotherhood, the Nour Party is seemingly poised to scoop up the movement’s voters in the next election. The party has positioned itself as the opposition to the array of secular politicians that also supported the military takeover, sharply criticizing the makeup of the new government.

"We don’t want to give the impression that we shared in the 30th of June [anti-Morsy protests] to have the prize now," Bakkar said. "We will not come to be in charge by any means other than the elections. We will not be hired by the military."

The question, however, is whether the military intends on allowing the Salafists a place in the new political order. Recent signs have been disturbing for the Nour Party: The military has ignored its pleas to reconcile with the Brotherhood, seemingly opting for a policy of confrontation, while an army spokesman even said that the Sissi would be eligible to run for president if he resigned from the military.

But for Bakkar, it was the failure of the Brotherhood’s time in governance that has led to this dismal state of affairs.

"They said it is a battle against the deep state. We said OK, we are not struggling with you against this principle," he said. "We are struggling about how to deal with the deep state. You have to deal with the intelligence, deal with the military, and deal with the bureaucratic system in the proper way. Don’t give those people the chance to gather together in a group against you."