Egypt's Islamic Salafi Party Walks Political Tightrope

The Salafi Al-Nour party won the second-most seats in the last parliamentary election and is now the only major Islamist political force allowed to operate in Egypt. The group supported Mohammed Morsi's overthrow and lent Islamist credibility to the military's decision. But it quickly found itself at odds with the interim rulers, and now faces a court case that could lead to its dissolution.

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To Egypt now, where the government has set January 14 and 15 as the dates for a nationwide referendum on a draft constitution. This new draft will replace an earlier version heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned. Brotherhood supporters vow to boycott the referendum but another Islamist party called the Nour Party urges Egyptians to vote yes. The Salafi Nour Party is now the only major Islamist political force allowed to operate in Egypt. From Cairo, Merrit Kennedy explains.

YOUNES MAKHYOUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: At a recent press conference, Younes Makhyoun, the leader of the Nour Party, announced the group's support for the new constitutional draft. So, why is an ultra-conservative Islamist party encouraging its supporters to vote for a constitution that places little emphasis on Islamic law? Party spokesman Nader Bakkar says it's because of the political crisis since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military.

NADER BAKKAR: We know that in this period and in this point of time, the whole country is in front of a crisis. So, for us to maintain or to keep the state institutions and to keep peace in this country, this for us is the priority.

KENNEDY: And to prevent further chaos, he says, they have no choice other than to move forward with this charter, even though it bans political parties based on religion. In theory, Nour's leaders can make the case that their party is open to people of all backgrounds. But practically speaking, Bakkar acknowledges the draft constitution could threaten the party made up of Muslim fundamentalists known as Salafis who advocate Islamic law. The Nour Party won a quarter of the seats in parliament in 2011, bested only by the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Nour was the only Islamist party to support the military coup that ousted Morsi.

GALAL MORRA: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: When the coup was announced on July 3rd, Nour party secretary-general Galal Morra stood beside army generals, top religious figures and politicians. We moved because we had to, he said. We are intent on stopping the shedding of Egyptian blood. Jonathan Brown, a professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, says the Nour Party provided an Islamist fig leaf for the coup but the party has since rapidly lost most of its political influence.

JONATHAN BROWN: They miscalculated, they didn't understand that this was never going to be a dialogue.

KENNEDY: Bakkar says it's been a challenge to convince Nour supporters to accept what was a purely political decision that appears to go against their Islamist ideology. The Nour Party has paid a price with the Muslim Brotherhood's decline, he says, even though the two parties differ on major strategic and political issues.

BAKKAR: We decided very early to manage losses and to think care about the coming ten years, maybe. Yes, there is a kind of threat against parties who are belonging to the Islamic background.

KENNEDY: As Morsi's supporters continue to hold near-daily protests, Bakkar says that the only way forward for the Nour Party is to encourage stability. He realizes that may hurt its reputation and its prospects for the next parliamentary election. But Nour's stance has been welcomed by some liberal Egyptians, like accountant Mohammed El Sayed. He's sipping coffee near the Nour Party headquarters in Cairo.

MOHAMMED EL SAYED: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: He says he used to see the Nour Party as the Muslim Brotherhood's cousin, but he's been pleasantly surprised since Nour aligned with the military and liberal parties. But other groups are furious. Brotherhood supporters, like security guard Salman, who would not give his last name, feel a sense of betrayal.

SALMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: The Nour party, he says, has lost all its credibility, and it now only represents its leaders. Jonathan Brown, the professor, says that because the Nour Party chose to stand by the military-backed government throughout the violence of this summer, it has few political options left.

BROWN: So, at this point, I mean, what exactly could they possibly do? They have no other choice but to continue down the path that they've chosen.

KENNEDY: And in the current environment, he says that path leads to an uncertain political future. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

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