Outside the Nour Party’s new headquarters, there’s nothing that bears the party’s name. Inside, there’s not much either. A few bare desks, a new tile floor, two prayer mats slung over an empty chair. Inside, Mohamed Ibrahim is alone.
Ibrahim is the party’s sole representative in the committee of 50, which is rewriting the country’s constitution less than a year after the same Ibrahim helped write the constitution, now being amended, during the short-lived rule of President Mohamed Morsi.
The Nour Party was during that time the ruling political class’ main enabler and a major influencer on the state’s identity. Now, the ultraorthodox party been reduced to a token representative of Islamism that may not even get what it bargained for, instead fighting for self-preservation
In the last drafting, Ibrahim’s fellow party members were able to leave a significant mark, pushing hard for an article that elucidated the principles of Sharia, among other significant interventions.
Now, that achievement is in danger of being short-lived. Other amendments seek to ban parties founded on a religious basis.
While the Nour Party originally thought giving the committee of 50 some nominal Islamist participation would be reflected in the constitution, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, argues that the dynamics have changed.
“On July 3, it was much clearer why the new regime wanted the Nour Party and why the Nour Party was willing to go along with the overthrow of Morsi. For the new regime, the participation of the Nour Party left the Brotherhood isolated and made possible the claim that the move was against Morsi’s failure rather than against political Islam.”
“But now things are much less clear, especially for the Nour Party. It will likely get next to nothing in the new constitution,” he argues. “The most likely conclusion is that it hopes to retain its legal status, protect efforts to Islamize from the ground up, and perhaps even emerge as a significant parliamentary actor.”
Nour Party officials have not kept quiet as its demands have been slowly moved off the table. Younes Makhyoun, the head of the party, released a statement that characterized its opposition to a ban on religious parties as an existential fight. It equated the ban to “a sword hanging over the head of some parties.”
There has yet to be any explicit threat by the Nour Party to withdraw from the process, but nothing has been ruled out, according to Ibrahim and other statements by party officials.
Yasser Borhamy, the party’s vice president told the privately-owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that if the new constitution received less votes than the version that was suspended when Morsi was deposed, the party would consider the new constitution void.
Nour’s representative in the committee of 50, Salah Abdel Maasoud, said that the party would not rule out withdrawing or calling on its followers to reject the draft if amendments of articles related to “identity” were unsatisfactory. He points out that these two options shouldn’t be conflated.
“Withdrawal is one thing, and refusing the process is another,” says Ibrahim. “If the whole product is satisfactory we’ll say yes, if the whole product has more problems, we’ll vote no.”
Nour and others Islamists still hold significant leverage over the popular credentials of the new constitution. The party and other Islamist groups have significant organizational strength that is rivaled only by the state.
The Nour Party’s strength comes from its mother organization, the Salafi Dawah. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Dawah provided much of the electoral infrastructure that delivered voters to the polls in both the parliamentary elections and the constitutional referendum in 2012.
With a boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood almost guaranteed, Ibrahim discounts its influence in turning out voters.
“The circumstances have changed. If we have a moderate and consensual result, we’ll have a big turnout,” says Ibrahim.
The Nour Party has indeed tended to be cautious in utilizing its rarely-tapped street power. Popular criticism of Islamists is particularly vehement, and many Egyptians don’t see a difference between Islamists, grouping them together with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been vilified by both private and state media.
Meanwhile, the party’s decision to withdraw, according to Ibrahim, has to go through a number of committees.
“One can’t just take this decision with one word. This doesn’t happen with the stroke of a pen. This has to go through the high council and then there would be an opinion process throughout the country,” says Ibrahim, who serves on the high council. Ibrahim is also a member of the Salafi Dawa, which is most often consulted on major party decisions and stances.
It is unclear how much internal pressures will restrict the party’s decision-making process. The Salafi Dawah is hierarchal, much like the Brotherhood, and most dissenting opinions within the Nour Party have left the party. The result is a more ideologically cohesive and obedient organization than its original form. Most notable was when party President Emad Abdel Ghaffour left to form his own party at the beginning of this year. His supporters and others more aligned with Borhamy clashed over how the party formed its relationship to the Salafi Dawah, and how the party’s internal disputes were handled.
Today, being the main Islamist player in the political scene, the Nour Party has to interface with the state differently, while it is also being treated by the state differently.
Between its formation in the 1970s and when former president Hosni Mubarak was deposed, it was largely quietest and did not openly challenge the regime, focusing instead on passive proselytizing that changed society from the ground-up and contributed to the incorporation of Islamic identity in the state. Although it formed a party after Mubarak’s overthrow, it has mostly sat on the sidelines, even when droves of Islamist demonstrators filled Tahrir Square to make constitutional demands in the winter of 2012.
“Its literalist interpretation of the Islamic Sharia is sincere but gives it little guidance on tactical matters,” says Brown.
The authors of a front page article in Al-Ahram, the state’s flagship newspaper, accused the Nour Party leadership of meeting with the CIA. The report, which warned of a “fifth rank” threatening the country’s stability, was immediately denied by party spokespeople. Ibrahim denied that the report was the opinion of state institutions or the security services, attributing it instead to the authors.
Another possibility is that there is disagreement inside the collection of groups interacting with Nour over how to approach the party’s political future. “This is a series of mixed signals — which is not surprising, considering that there are different institutions giving the signals. The intentions of the security apparatus, the military, the presidency, the cabinet, and the committee of 50 might not be identical,” says Brown.
“What is clear is that Nour is right now very much on the defensive,” says Brown, “but it is not clear to me what it can achieve.”