CAIRO — A party of ultraconservative Islamists has emerged as an unexpected political kingmaker in Egypt, shaping the interim government after the military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
The al-Nour party, widely regarded two years ago as bumbling amateurs, now has unique leverage. It was the only Islamist party to support Morsi’s removal, and the sight of al-Nour’s bearded sheik standing behind the general who announced the takeover on television was the only signal to Egyptian voters that the move had not been an attack on Islam, as some of the ousted president’s supporters are saying.
The party played a starring role in the military’s choreographed presentation of its takeover, offering the chance to reunify a country on the brink of civil war between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents.
Over the weekend al-Nour tested its leverage for the first time to force the retraction of an announced plan to name a liberal icon, diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, as interim prime minister.
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“You just can’t do something like that, after we had appeared right next to you on the scene” at the televised announcement, Younis Makhyoun, an al-Nour party leader, said Sunday. “We have grass roots,” Makhyoun added, “and they don’t agree on the choice of ElBaradei.”
Instead, state news-media outlets reported Sunday that the interim government was close to naming as acting Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa el-Din, a former head of Egypt’s investment authority. An al-Nour leader blessed him in a radio interview as “one of the liberal figures that we greatly respect.”
The party’s ability to block ElBaradei from the premiership raised new alarms from liberals about what the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, might demand next in Egypt, especially because one of the main complaints against Morsi had been that his more moderate Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood had gone too far in consolidating and monopolizing power.
Organizers of the protests that helped force Morsi from office said they would stage new demonstrations in part against al-Nour.
Many of the party’s old Islamist allies, meanwhile, are denouncing al-Nour’s leaders as traitors, if not apostates, for turning on Morsi and the Brotherhood.
For the sheiks of al-Nour, the Brotherhood’s fall is an extraordinary opening. “They have a chance to be the main Islamist player in politics in post-Morsi Egypt,” said Samer Shehata, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma who studies Egypt’s Islamists.
Since its inception two years ago, the al-Nour party has campaigned more than anything else for constitutional provisions enshrining Islamic law, not just “the principles of Islamic law,” as Egypt’s charter read for three decades. Al-Nour and other Salafist parties sought to give religious scholars a constitutional power to strike down any legislation that they deemed contradictory to Islamic law. But in the drafting of the country’s new constitution last year, the Muslim Brotherhood sided with the liberals to block such a provision. Al-Nour succeeded in preventing an express guarantee of equality for women from being written into the new charter, and it has defended prohibitions of heresy.
When the ultraconservative Islamists first entered politics here two years ago, liberals called them Neanderthals for demanding literal-minded Islamic law, and the leaders of the Brotherhood wrote them off as neophyte rubes. But the party’s tactics, before and after the military removed Morsi, have already demonstrated that al-Nour has developed skill at political hardball and at compromise.
Before the Egyptian revolution of 2011, most Salafis — the name refers to the companions of the Prophet Muhammad — shunned electoral politics. Their sheiks taught respect for the ruler of the state and a focus on obeying God’s law. But after President Hosni Mubarak’s departure came more open elections, and Salafi parties captured nearly one-quarter of the seats in the new parliament, which was led by al-Nour and won the second-most seats after the Muslim Brotherhood.
As Egypt became acutely polarized between the Brotherhood and its opponents in the run-up to last week’s takeover, the al-Nour party was almost alone in urging both sides to compromise for the good of the country.
Al-Nour broke with other Islamists in the week before the mass protests started against Morsi’s rule, issuing a call for him to resolve the political crisis with a sweeping package of concessions. Al-Nour asked the president to name a new consensus Cabinet including more of his opponents, to remove an unpopular prosecutor he had appointed and to reconsider his gubernatorial appointments.
But the party urged all sides to stop justifying violence even in their own defense, to stop allowing their debates to be portrayed as for or against Islam, and to cool off their provocations before the country descended into “chaos,” Makhyoun said, “so that we don’t become a reason behind interposing the armed forces in the circle of infighting.”
Then, when millions of Egyptians took to the streets against Morsi, al-Nour’s leaders were the only Islamist politicians to call for an early presidential election.
“We offered many initiatives, but the president rejected all of them, until we were all shocked by the numbers” of people in the streets, Makhyoun said. “How did he expect to run a country like this?”
When he was summoned to a meeting between the military leadership and opposition political groups on the morning of the takeover, Makhyoun said, he urged the opposition to give Morsi more time.
“But we found that it was already over,” he said. “The armed forces had made up their minds, and the military was already moving on the streets.”
He said al-Nour decided to accept the removal of Morsi by the military as the “least bad” option in the hope of lessening strife in the country.
Now, the party intends to use its new influence to protect the incorporation of Islamic law into the constitution, which was approved in an Islamist-backed referendum in December.