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The Nour Party Goes Dim

Egypt’s last Islamist party is clinging to life. But how much longer?

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Since 2012, Egypt’s presidents have ruled by decree, with no parliament or legislature to check their authority. That’s about to change. Today, the second (and final) round of voting to elect the country’s long-awaited parliament began. The roster of candidates is replete with secularists, nationalists, and business tycoons. But Egypt’s vast Islamist constituency is down to one option: the Nour Party, “The Party of Light.” This deeply conservative, quietly pro-regime Salafist party is all that remains of political Islam in Egypt.

Nour became a major force following the revolution that ousted long-time autocratic president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. After decades of marginalization, an opportunity had finally come for an Islamic alternative to secularist politics — and Nour took advantage.

Salafis profess an extremely fundamentalist version of Islam, one that commands living exactly as the prophet did. They oppose paying interest on bank loans, standing to sing the national anthem, or allowing women to be depicted on campaign posters. In the 2011-2012 elections that followed Mubarak’s downfall, Nour denounced the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s long-established and better-known Islamist movement, as too liberal. Nour ended up taking nearly 25 percent of the seats in that election, putting it in second place after the Brotherhood. But this Islamist-dominated parliament lasted only through June 2012, when it was dissolved by the Supreme Court for alleged electoral violations.

This year’s parliamentary elections are being held in two rounds. The first — for Egypt’s South and West — took place October 16-18. The second, covering the rest of the country, begins today. But the first-round results, which have already come in, show that Nour’s hour of political prominence is over. Since his election, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi has consolidated political control over Egypt, eradicating or co-opting nearly all the remnants of political Islam. Nour is the only party that remains of the Islamist political scene, and so far, it’s losing badly in the parliamentary race. This means that Egypt — still a deeply conservative nation — will be represented by an almost completely secular parliament.

Nour’s expectations for these elections were low from the start, but they thought they could count on winning at least in their home base of Alexandria, which voted in the first phase. They were wrong. Though Nour ran for a total of 102 seats in the first round of voting, it won only ten. ”What happened was beyond our worst expectations,” said Amr Mekky, assistant chairman of foreign affairs for the Nour Party and a parliamentary candidate himself. “We were expecting the [party] to win in Alexandria.”

Nour has been quick to blame unfair electoral laws, the hostile media, and corrupt officials for their catastrophic first round. But that isn’t why they lost, said Ashraf El Sherif, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo and former associate with the Carnegie Endowment. “They lost because the main Salafist constituency did not go to vote for the Nour Party,” said El Sherif. “This is because they think Nour sold out the Islamist cause and the Salafist cause.”

Since deposing the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Morsi in July 2013, the military-backed regime led by President Sisi has sought to systematically eradicate the Brotherhood. Nour and its parent organization, the Salafi Call, managed to survive by openly siding with the new government, abandoning their beleaguered fellow Islamists. It was a practical decision, they insist. “It was clear that what was done was done,” said Abdel Moneim Shehat, the Salafi Call spokesman. “The Nour Party made a strategic decision and the Salafi Call supported it.”

But for the Brotherhood and its supporters, this strategic decision was a knife in the back.

Forced to choose between extinction and the regime, Nour chose the regime. “They made a wager from the day of the coup that in exchange for supporting the Sisi regime, they would receive something in return,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

The Nour Party didn’t just wager; they went all in. “They went to extremes. In the presidential elections they supported a campaign for Sisi,” El Sherif said. “They could have abstained, but no, they stayed and [chose to] support Sisi. This was very provocative to the other Islamists.” Nour endured the ire of their fellow Islamists hoping that when the next parliamentary elections came around, they would be given a fair chance — maybe even a nod of approval from the administration.

As the October elections drew closer and closer, however, it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. “Time and time again they’ve been disappointed [by the regime], and they’ve been gradually marginalized and pushed out of the process,” Hamid said.

As a candidate for the Nour Party last month in Alexandria, Mekky said he was surprised to see the authorities actively siding against the Salafis. “We were not expecting the government to close its eyes to all sorts of violations,” Mekky said. “People were buying votes in front of the polling stations. Meanwhile — I ran in the Raml district [in Alexandria] — I had 17 of my campaign volunteers detained by the police on the first day of the elections and I spent the whole two days in the police station.”

This should not have shocked Nour, noted Hamid. “The Nour party was acting as if these were somewhat legitimate competitive elections and they never were going to be,” he said. “So their initial premise was mistaken.” Their wager failed.

The Nour Party faced more than just state opposition. Many political forces — including, of course, their old enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood — have come out strongly against the group. Nour was very nearly banned from running altogether after the “No to Religious Parties” campaign filed a lawsuit against the party, claiming that it was in violation of a constitutional ban of parties based on religion. When the state did nothing to defend them, Nour announced they would only contest a minimal number of seats, in hopes of appearing moderate and non-threatening. They ran in only two out of the four party list constituencies and for 160 out of 448 individual seats. But they were still mercilessly attacked by political opponents and the secular media. “The Nour Party was on one side and all the other parties in Egypt were on the other,” said Ashraf Sabet, a senior member of Nour, who lost his bid for a parliamentary seat.

The first round results showed Nour it had not only failed to garner the support of the state, it had utterly lost the support of most Islamist movements — and worse, it had lost its wider, more moderate Muslim following. “They really failed to read the common people,” El Sherif said. “They thought that the common people who voted for them in the 2011 election would vote for them now… That’s where they read it wrong.”

Ultimately, Nour attempted to befriend the secular state while also trying to represent the diverse interests of Egypt’s Islamist community. It failed at both. “It’s logical they failed, because they endeavored to do a job they were not qualified to do,” El Sherif said. “They wanted to play the role of the reasonable, moderate, rational Islamist actor who can be pragmatic and save the Islamists from extinction… But this won’t work in the eyes of the liberals who see them as extreme, as dangerous, and it won’t work on the Islamists who see them as hypocrites.”

Although Nour still technically has a shot at 118 seats in the second round of voting, the party’s outlook is bleak. This contest promises to be even more cut-throat than the first, as Nour will be competing for Cairo, the heart of Egypt’s anti-Islamist movement. At best, Mekky said he’s hoping for another 10 seats, which would bring Nour up to 20 seats total — or roughly 3 percent. “Can we do anything in the parliament with 10 or 12 seats? I don’t think so,” Mekky said.

And yet, Nour has succeeded in doing one thing that none of its Islamist rivals has managed to pull off: it has survived. “The Nour Party is the only Islamist party that hasn’t been essentially eradicated,” Hamid said. “The leadership of the Nour Party sees survival as some kind of success.”

In the eyes of the party’s leadership, as long as Nour can stay alive, it will remain an option for Egypt’s conservatives down the road. “At the end of the day, [Nour] knows that Egyptian society is not secularist. It’s conservative, it’s religious — so they need ideological actors with an Islamist discourse,” El Sherif said. “Nour can furnish this role.”

So Nour will play the long game. They’ll maintain their deference to the state while working towards reconciliation with the various factions of the Islamist constituency. They’ll keep positioning themselves as the moral, Islamic alternative — and when that comes back in vogue (which history indicates it will), Nour will be there.

In the photo, Salafists demonstrate over a lack of enforcement of a recent court order permitting bearded police officers to serve in Cairo on March 1, 2013.

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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