In the last four years, a pressing question has loomed over the Alexandria-based Salafi Dawah group, one of the Islamist movements which has remained publicly active in Egypt and politically engaged through its political arm, the Nour Party: Why continue doing politics?
The issue has surfaced in light of the increasing restrictions on the group’s religious and political work in the wake of the 2013 ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. The Salafi Dawah has been presented with a series of challenges stemming from the increasingly widespread anti-islamist, specifically anti-Brotherhood, popular sentiments.
Sheikh Ali Ghallab, one of the founders of the Salafi Dawah in Matrouh, asserts that the group’s entry into politics undermined its advocacy. He believes the Salafis of Alexandria should retire from the Nour Party, and from political life entirely.
This echoes previous calls for the withdrawal from politics. In April, 2015, Salafi Dawah leader Mohamed Ismail al-Moqaddem advocated for abandoning politics, claiming it was behind divisions in the country. The comments were made during a meeting attended by Ghallab and two other founders of the Salafi Dawah, Ahmed Hateeba and Ahmed Fareed.
Reflecting on the detrimental effect the entry into politics had on the Salafi movement in a July 2013 blog post, Sherif Taha, the former board member and spokesperson of the Nour Party wrote “We have to confess that having Islamists lead the political scene was a fatal strategic mistake. It’s far better that Islamists exist on the scene to spread their message, rather than leading it politically and becoming unpopular among the people.”
The fact that Salafis have fared poorly in politics since 2013 has mobilized similar calls.
The Nour Party’s parliamentary representation fell from 25 percent in 2012 the Parliament to 1.5 percent in 2014 according to Ahmed Zaghloul, an independent researcher on Islamic groups.
Ghallab asserts that “The Nour Party has lost its political momentum and has become like any other party.”
Salafi Dawah Deputy Head Yasser al-Borhamy says that all parties — including the Nour Party — have been weakened in recent years. However, he believes that the Salafi party has been subjected to a “very fierce” attack by other factions, citing confrontations with security forces during the 2014 parliamentary elections. He asserts that despite this, the party has a strong foothold in political life.
Similarly, in an article titled: “Why don’t Salafis retire from the political scene?”, Ahmed al-Shahat, a youth member of the Salafi Dawah, defends the Salafis’ involvement in politics.
“The small number of members of Parliament was a result of the people’s lack of participation [in the elections]. We are not responsible for that,” he contends. “It was also partially due to the [political] exclusion [of Islamists] that led to the weakening of the Nour Party. This pushes us to keep going and to strengthen our popular base.”
Shahat argues that while the small number of Salafis in Parliament means they aren’t necessarily influential, they are effective. He writes that they maintain clear positions on certain issues, “The party rejected the VAT law, the civil service law, the law criminalizing female circumcision and the church building law. The party is not just cosmetic. It has not been transformed into a tool at the regime’s disposal.”
Zahgloul comments that Shahat’s position against withdrawing from the political scene, considering it a severe loss for the Salafi Dawah, is predictable.
“The Nour Party refuses to return to its pre-2011 state. It doesn’t want to go back to being under the control of state security or for its leaders to face constant imprisonment. The Nour Party is working hard as the only representative of religion on the Egyptian political scene. This requires state support,” he says.
Zaghloul adds that this why the party supported the government’s ceding of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia through a maritime border agreement, first signed in April 2016, a move that was widely contested. “The Salafi Dawah, along with the Nour Party, are placing their bets on the stability of the regime. They see any threat to the regime as a threat to their existence.”
The benefits are mutual. “In the shadow of Muslim Brotherhood propaganda portraying the campaign against them as a war on Islam, the state was obligated to leave an actor, such as the Nour Party, on the political scene,” Zaghloul says, reiterating the logic behind what Ghallab describes as a “forced” political engagement.
he Salafi movements changed dramatically in 2013, and all its affiliated groups, including the Salafi Front and Hazemoun, a group formed around Salafi Sheikh Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, disappeared. “Some of them became part of the Muslim Brotherhood and some of them abandoned politics completely,” Zaghloul says.
“What remained was the Nour Party, backed by the Salafi Dawah,” Zaghloul adds.
Today, some argue that not only has the Nour Party been rendered politically helpless, but the Salafi Dawah has been weakened by the restrictions placed on its religious work. “There is no doubt that the Salafi Dawah has suffered as a result of the restrictions placed on it. Our freedom to move and advocate for the Dawah has definitely been limited,” A source from the Salafi Dawah, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Mada Masr. “The intransigence against us is a result of the unfair attack by both liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Borhamy disagrees, refuting claims the group’s position has been diminished. “We remain, in order to preserve a kind of Islamic activism that is non-confrontational,” he says. “We rejected zero-sum conflicts that some have tried to impose and which led to the worst possible outcomes. As the Salafi Dawah, we are still integral to society’s stability and contribute to the achievement of calm and constructive reform — even if society doesn’t realize the importance of our role.”
Borhamy, who like a godfather to many young Salafi cadres today, points out that those who abandoned the Salafi Dawah in recent years were members who only joined after the 2011 revolution. The damage is limited and the base of the Dawah is still strong, he maintains.
The decline in the political and religious influence of the Salafi Dawah and Nour Party can be traced back to the political upheaval of 2013, says Borhamy. He says that on July 3, the Nour Party accepted an invitation from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to a meeting, in the wake of widespread protests against former President Morsi. During the meeting, the gathering of generals agreed to Morsi’s ouster, a decision which received the blessing of attendees, Salafis included.
The Salafi Dawah’s deputy head claims that all players, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church, were invited to attend the meeting. However, the Muslim Brotherhood refused the invitation.
“We attended the meeting hoping to look to the future. We hoped that matters would be handed over to Morsi, and that he would be asked to hold early presidential elections so that the issue could be resolved without violating the Constitution. However, things took a different turn and the matter had already been decided upon. We accepted, because of the huge risks facing Egypt. We rejected the prospect of more clashes,” Borhamy asserts.
This decision cost the Salafis dearly. After Morsi’s ouster came the appointment of a military-backed government, and the anti-Salafi Mohamed ElBaradei as deputy prime minister. When word got out that ElBaradei may be elected president, Salafi’s began seriously discussing their withdrawal from the political scene, unable to foresee future political participation.
In May 2014, when the Salafis decided to back the candidacy of current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Salafi Dawah distributed pamphlets in mosques titled “To the followers of the Salafi Dawah: Why did we choose Sisi?” In the pamphlet, the Dawah leaders wrote, “We have to maintain our cohesion and the ties of the Dawah to its leadership. Yes, we have chosen Sisi as a candidate; however, this is a relative choice and not an absolute one. We are participating in the elections to support the state.”
The pamphlet asserted that “Sisi does not maintain any ideology. He is not a Marxist, a leftist, right wing or an Islamist. He has no political affiliations and doesn’t show any leanings toward a particular faction. He does not maintain an ideology that contradicts the constitution and its stipulations on the Islamic Sharia nor is he against the gradual reform of a moral regime. He is aware of the dangers of Iran and the Shia currents. He does not maintain allegiance to a particular state and he is the best able to deal with state institutions, to achieve national reconciliation and to work with us to serve the public interest.”
The option of boycotting the elections was tabled in 2014, but this was fiercely opposed by the Salafi Dawah. Former spokesperson of the Alexandria-based group, Mahmoud Abdel Hamid, said at the time that “boycotting means breaking down the power of the Salafi Dawah, dismantling its foundations, showing animosity to state institutions and creating a hostile relationship with the next president. It would waste the benefits resulting from the Nour Party’s role in decision making.”
“We are now the representatives of the Islamic current in the state. All the other Islamic entities have become weak and scattered,” Abdel Hamid added. “We have to maintain our presence or else Islamic work will have been dealt a strong blow. Political work is a vessel to maintain the Salafi Dawah. Without it, the Dawah would collapse. If we separate, we will lose all our value.”
On the decision to vote for Sisi, Borhamy recounts, “We were looking for what was available and possible, not what was ideal or desirable. At the time, he was the most capable of leading the country out of its state of crisis, when compared with the opposing candidate.”
But he also stresses the need to keep some distance from Sisi. “Choosing the president does not necessarily mean that I will agree with all of his decisions. This includes economic decisions which are, while not entirely incorrect, somewhat lacking.” Borhamy elaborates, stating some of these “weak” decisions are related to “the limited support provided to the poorer classes and the lack of consideration for means to increase the state resources before raising prices. The poor have to be compensated.”
After Sisi’s election, the Nour party secured a meager 11 seats in the parliamentary elections, rekindling discussions around whether the Salafis should withdraw from the second phase, held in 2015. There was even talk of dissolving the Nour Party and withdrawing completely from Egypt’s political scene.
The leaders of the Nour Party that Mada Masr reached out to for comment prefer silence, with some saying that the current situation does not lend itself to any meaningful reflection.