Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, as well as an associate researcher at the Center for Economic, Juridical, and Social Studies and Documentation (CEDEJ) in Cairo. He is the author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion and Social Movements (co-edited with Bernard Rougier), and has just completed a paper for the Carnegie Middle East program titled “Egypt’s Pragmatic Salafis: The Politics of Hizb al-Nour.” He agreed to talk to Diwan about his paper.

Michael Young: You have just published a Carnegie paper on Hizb al-Nour. What is your main argument?

Stéphane Lacroix: My starting point is the fact that contrary to most expectations when it was formed back in 2011, the Salafi party Hizb al-Nour has constantly behaved as an extremely pragmatic political actor. Despite the intransigent stances of the sheikhs of the Salafi Daawa (the “Salafi Call”), which is the religious organization or movement behind the party, Hizb al-Nour has for instance supported, or even allied itself with, parties and actors that shared little of its religious outlook.

I try to analyze the reasons for this pragmatism. My contention is that one can distinguish between two phases, depending on who actually controlled the party. Until December 2012, the party was in the hands of a relatively independent group of “Salafi politicians” who were willing to make Hizb al-Nour a “genuine political party” with an ambition to govern. They understood that, in order to achieve that aim, they needed to revise (or at least put aside) some of their doctrinal conceptions and fully separate the party from the Salafi Daawa. This evolution somehow resembled that of mainstream Islamist parties in similar contexts elsewhere—most recently Ennahda in Tunisia.

In December 2012, after more than a year of internal struggle, the party was taken over by a group of sheikhs from the Salafi Daawa, led by Yasser Burhami. As a result, the founders of Hizb al-Nour were pushed to resign and established a distinct political party called Hizb al-Watan (the Party of the Homeland). The sheikhs now in charge of Hizb al-Nour would, however, behave no less pragmatically than their predecessors, but for very different reasons. For them, Hizb al-Nour was merely there to serve as the lobbying arm of their religious movement, the Salafi Daawa, in the political sphere. The perceived “interest of the Salafi Daawa” (maslahat al-da‘wa) was to be the main consideration of the party when determining its stances or the formation of its alliances, regardless of the political cost.

This explains, for instance, the objective alliance between Hizb al-Nour, the liberals, and the military against president Mohammed Morsi, who was a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, in spring 2013—leading to the July 3, 2013, military takeover. Hizb al-Nour was fundamentally against the Muslim Brotherhood because the sheikhs were convinced that, should Morsi have managed to impose his authority, the Brotherhood’s political hegemony would automatically have led to the Brotherhood’s religious hegemony—hence threatening the Salafi presence in the religious sphere. 

This position was somehow consistent with what the sheikhs had constantly argued before 2011, when they rejected any involvement in politics. They still did not consider politics a vehicle for change per se—at least not before society was religiously ready. Reform, they believed, would only come through preaching Salafi Islam to society. Therefore, protecting—and, when possible, reinforcing—the body that did this was the only worthy goal.

MY: Why do you argue that Hizb al-Nour is not an Islamist party, or not anymore?

SL: If an Islamist party is a party that believes Islam serves as a blueprint for politics, and aims to govern a country according to its conception of what an Islamic state should be, then Hizb al-Nour, at least in its current form, can hardly be described as Islamist.

As I have argued, the sheikhs of the Salafi Daawa around Yasser Burhami, who took over Hizb al-Nour in December 2012, hardly see politics as a vehicle for change. They consider the political sphere only as a place where they need to be represented in order to protect—and when possible advance—the interests of their religious movement. That means they can ally with any party or actor whom they see as likely to guarantee their presence or expansion in the religious sphere. Sure, they will push for sharia-based legislation if they are in a position to do so, but never at the expense of the Salafi Daawa. In that sense, their politics are largely devoid of ideological considerations. This is what makes them fundamentally different from an Islamist movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

MY: As you implied earlier regarding Ennahda, with Hizb al-Nour we see a familiar debate taking place in other Islamist organizations, namely over whether to separate the political party from the religious movement—in Hizb al-Nour’s case the Salafi Daawa. What did this debate reveal in the case of Hizb al-Nour and what was the outcome?

SL: The proponents of separation in the party were careful to frame the debate in terms of specialization. Religious sheikhs, they argued, are not politicians, and so they shouldn’t be in charge of a political party. The question, they said, is not to separate politics and religion, but to establish a functional differentiation between two distinct spheres of activity. Still, those who advocated for this type of organizational separation usually had something else in mind, namely that by freeing themselves from the immediate authority of the sheikhs, they could hope to impose a more flexible approach to the doctrine.   

In the particular case of Hizb al-Nour, the related question was about whether Hizb al-Nour would act as an Islamist party or simply as the lobbying arm of a religious organization. The balance of power eventually favoured the sheikhs, and the second option prevailed.

MY: Between the Salafi path and that represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is likely to prevail in Egypt in the future?

SL: Hizb al-Nour today is the last religious party to have an official presence in Egypt and to compete in elections. This is how the party was rewarded for its pro-army stance during and after the military takeover. However, this position—which was considered necessary to protect the Salafi Daawa and its social presence—was not very popular with religious conservatives. With the exception of the core Salafi Daawa group, which remained loyal to the decisions of the leadership, Hizb al-Nour seems to have lost a significant amount of support among the broader public. It is unlikely to regain it in the near future, as it is being forced by the regime to make an increasing number of political concessions that continue harming its image of “religious purity.”

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it has been officially banned and labelled a “terrorist organization” since December 2013. Tens of thousands of its members, as well as most of its leaders, have been arrested, and the group is now largely unable to operate. In addition, it too has lost support among the broader public, both because of Morsi’s political mistakes while in power and because of almost four years of an intense media campaign blaming the Brotherhood for just about every ill that has befallen Egypt.  

It is thus probable that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Hizb al-Nour will prevail in the future, but that new Islamist forces will emerge instead. In an article with Ahmed Zaghloul, I have described the rise of revolutionary Salafism—a social movement that advocates a revolutionary version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology phrased in Salafi language—in the years following the Egyptian revolution. Such ideas seem to be gaining ground today among Egyptian Islamist youth.   

MY: How does the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regard Hizb al-Nour?

SL: Hizb al-Nour’s hopes in July 2013 were that it would be able to establish a strong partnership with the new regime, since the latter would need the Salafi Daawa to regain control of the social sphere. Yet, this did not happen. The regime chose instead to rely mostly on official religious institutions such as Al-Azhar, whose understanding of Islam is at odds with that of the Salafis. True, the regime continues to see Hizb al-Nour as useful to its strategy, and so the party has been authorized to run in elections while the Salafi Daawa has kept control over most of its mosques. But the Salafis have not made any substantial gains, and they are under heavy pressure. This is, arguably, why they have had no choice but to accept the regime-imposed status quo.