Despite its support for the army-led coalition that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government this past July, the Nour Party, the political wing of Egypt’s Salafi Dawa movement, is growing increasingly isolated amid rising anti-Islamist sentiment. Its participation in the army-led coalition has proven insufficient to overcome the suspicions of Egypt’s secularists, who have become dismissive of its contribution since the overthrow of the Islamist government and often threaten to subject it to the same treatment as the Brotherhood’s should it step out of line.

Meanwhile, ongoing tension between the Salafi Dawa movement, also known as “the Alexandria School” or “Scientific Salafism” (al-salafiya al-‘ilmiya), and the other Islamist movements, especially the Brotherhood, have reached a level of open hostility. This leaves Nour and its supporters isolated among their fellow Islamists as well. For instance, Islamists have referred to the Nour Party as the Zour (Fake) Party, and Nour has retorted by saying that the Brotherhood deserves what is happening to it and its members. 

Rivalry and antagonism between the Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood came to the surface when the former joined the Salvation Front in January 2013, gravitating toward its vicious criticism of the Brotherhood, whose supporters claim this move highlights Nour’s anti-Islamism. Nour saw for itself an opportunity to inherit the Brotherhood’s mantle as leader of political Islam by supporting the military-led coup in the summer of 2013; a new incarnation of the long-standing rivalry between the Brotherhood and the Salafis over a similar voter demographic and types of public activities.

The shifting political dynamics in Egypt have forced the Salafi Dawa, which in addition to the Nour Party includes charity networks and other smaller civic-minded groups, to try to create a religious justification for certain decisions at odds with some of the political visions that it adopted before the coup. For instance, during major events such as the clashes outside the Republican Guards’ club on July 8, 2013 and the deadly crackdown on protests at Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares the following month, the Nour Party condemned the violence but did not withdraw from the army-sponsored roadmap coalition. This showed that it sought above all to maintain its position and participation in politics, regardless of the damage done to its credentials among its core Islamist supporters. 

Nour Party leadership explained its support of the military to its members as an effort to “preserve Islamic identity and Sharia” by keeping Islamists represented in the government. It argued that had it followed any other course, it would have been submitted to the same fate as the Brotherhood, with its leaders and members thrown in jail or on the run. This has helped fuel the popular impression that the Salafi Dawa employs two contradictory types of rhetoric: one accepting a secular political system, and the other couched in the Islamist terminology of “interests and vices” (al-masalih wa al-mafasid). This means Nour does not have one single coherent discourse; it oscillates between discourses to justify contradictory stances and positions. 

Former Nour Party members have argued that the movement’s response shows a newfound pragmatism. Similarly, the Brotherhood had supported the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces during the opposition protests in late 2011 at Mohammed Mahmoud and the Cabinet building, which began when the police and army used force to clear the sit-in organized by families of the martyrs. The Salafi Dawa leadership argued that it rejected the protest verbally, but could not adopt any active stances because “the state is in danger.” It also claimed that “the greatest mistake is the Brotherhood’s,” holding them responsible for the deterioration of the situation in Egypt. However, this did not change the secularists’ view that Nour’s move was “opportunistic” and had nothing to do with ideological evolution. 

The movement’s controversial support for the military has also heightened internal divisions. The initial division that weakened the movement followed a disagreement between Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the former leader of the Nour Party, and Yasser Borhami, deputy head of the Salafi Dawa, that led to the former splitting off to form his own Watan Party in January 2013. Nour’s backing of the military and the crackdown on the Brotherhood deepened the rifts between those remaining in the party. A number of the original founders of the Salafi Dawa have stopped attending its meetings, such as Dr. Said Abdel-Azeem, who before June 30 had announced that he believed in “the legitimacy of President Mohammed Morsi.” Abdel-Azeem stayed the course after July 3 and appeared on the speakers’ podium at the Rabia al-Adawiya protest repeatedly; he has been against the Nour Party’s support of the military since the crisis between Nour and the Brotherhood began in January 2013. Dr. Mohammed Ismail al-Muqaddam has also been absent from the movement since July 3, declining to appear in public or speak about politics. 

Even more illustrative of the fragmentation within the Salafi leadership is the sermon given by prominent Salafi figure Dr. Ahmed Farid at a mosque in the Amiriyya district of Alexandria on February 28, in which he called for “returning to our origin.” He added that “for 40 years, we have wanted to return to missionary work (al-dawa) and forget politics,” even though only a few days earlier he himself had participated in a political conference supporting the latest constitution. Even though a majority of the Salafi Dawa leadership is sympathetic to these dissenters, Borhami, the most powerful figure in the movement, continues his efforts to convince his followers that the political Salafi Dawa organization is emerging from the current crisis stronger than before. Borhami has sent his pupils and followers throughout Egypt’s provinces to rally Nour Party supporters and convince them of the wisdom of nominally condemning the use of violence against pro-Brotherhood protesters while tacitly accepting it by supporting the military regime, including Nour’s recent endorsement of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for president and calls for their followers to vote for him.

But despite Borhami’s attempts, obvious difficulties remain for the Salafi Dawa to re-inspire its followers. The Salafi Dawa movement is attempting to establish a strong presence behind Borhami’s efforts, capitalizing on state and military acceptance to continue and even expand its charitable, social, and missionary activities, mimicking the Brotherhood’s strategy by building a powerful network based on social and religious services—for example, the Dawa established a new network of charity and markets in its own name. Thus Nour and the Salafi Dawa movement are offering an alternative to the outlawed Islamist organization, an alternative that has the blessing of the state—at least at the moment. The Salafi Dawa is devoting its energy to making use of the margin of freedom given it by the state to expand its social and political turf. However, despite this margin of freedom, it remains uncertain whether the movement will be able to maintain its internal cohesion while staying in the current political process and playing by rules that curb its power.

Attempting to take over the Brotherhood’s position puts the Salafis at risk of facing the same fate. With the Brotherhood largely out of the way, the Nour Party (and the Salafi Dawa more broadly) is likely to become the secularists’ future enemy. This will not be the case with the military in the short term, because the military regime needs the support of the movement and party for the moment. But while their marriage of convenience will probably survive the presidential elections, the Salafi Dawa will likely continue to splinter internally. It will also have to worry about the effects of the new constitution’s vaguely worded Article 74 (which they had unsuccessfully lobbied to strike down), and which states that “no political parties may be formed on the basis of religion.” Should the secularists decide to use it, this article could send Nour and the Dawa movement the way of the Brotherhood. 

Abdelrahman Youssef and Mostafa Hashem are Egyptian journalists.

This article was translated from Arabic.