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Middle East

The Salafist power struggle

Egypt's largest Salafist bloc is in turmoil. Leaders are arguing over the influence of its parent organization, its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and irregularities in internal party elections.

The Salafists are an integral part of Egypt's current political landscape. Here, as in other Muslim countries, they promote a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

But what sets Egypt's Salafists apart is their political influence. In the country's first parliamentary election the group's largest political party, the ultra-orthodox Nour Party, took about 25 percent of the seats, making it the second-strongest political force after the Muslim Brotherhood.

But party spokesman Mohamed El-Nour stressed that there's a big difference. "Our party is still very young and just making its first steps," he said. "The party is just one year old, and our internal rules are not entirely clear or mature."

Loud and boisterous discussions would therefore be expected from such a young party. But the events of the last two weeks have the makings of a political thriller. First, the party presidium fired the head of the party, Emad Abdel-Ghafour. Ghafour reacted by ousting the group of his adversary, Yasser Borhami, leaving the question of who was actually calling the shots.

Politicians versus preachers

Autor: Matthias Sailer Mohamed El-Nour

Mohamed El-Nour is one of three spokesmen for the Nour Party

There are two camps at war with each other within the ultra-conservative Salafists. On the one side is the more pragmatic faction of the party chairman Ghafour, and on the other are Borhami's followers, who are much less willing to compromise.

El-Nour al describes the two men as having very different personalities. "Emad Abdel-Ghafour is a calm individual who knows his way around the political arena, while Sheikh Borhami preaches in mosques," he said. "This is reflected in both their characters."

Borhami is mainly known for his open radicalism. Just recently, he made it clear that Islam allows for a husband to beat his wife under certain circumstances. He refuses to work closely with the Muslim Brotherhood; Ghafour, meanwhile, recently became an adviser to President Mohammed Morsi, of the Brotherhood.

Elijah Zarwan, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), sees these differing positions reflected throughout the party. "Many in the Salafi movement see their future as a competitor to the right wing of the Brotherhood, and others see an opportunity to make common cause with the Brotherhood to advance common objectives," he said.

But since the last parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood has become increasingly resistant to working with the Salafists. It's therefore likely that many Salafists are skeptical of Ghafour's close relationship to the Brotherhood.

Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party President Mohammed Morsy (C) speaks as Emad Abdel Ghafour, chairman of the Salafi Nour Party (R) and businessman Ramy Lakeh (L) look on during a press conference in Cairo +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Ghafour (right) is an adviser to President Mohammed Morsi

Much influence from the parent organization

But the current conflict can also be linked to other causes, one being a clash over elections within the Nour Party itself. It's through this vote that most of the party positions will be awarded. However, because some party members accused the vote of having irregularities, the party chairman wanted to postpone the election. The Borhami camp opposed this step.

"Some party members think that the election committee only wants certain people to vote," said El-Nour, who hasn't ruled out election fraud.

But he says the central cause of the current crisis is the relationship between the Nour Party and its ideological parent movement, the Dawa Salafia, a 40-year-old movement that was originally apolitical. Its scholars were mainly concerned with shaping society with ultraconservative Islamic values. But now, the movement is now trying to influence the Nour Party with its ideas.

"Many directors of the Dawa Salafia also sit on the board of Nour Party," said El-Nour. "They affect all party decisions. We believe it would be better if that were not the case."

Secret meeting with Mubarak confidantes

Members of the ultra-conservative Salafist al-Nur party attend the first session of the Egyptian parliament ASMAA WAGUIH/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of Salafist parties is on the rise

Borhami is an Islamic scholar within the Dawa Salafia movement, and represents the group in the presidium of the Nour Party. Recently, it came to light that he took part in a secret meeting with Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, during the last presidential election, a meeting of which the party was unaware.

Borhami later pointed out that he had been meeting Shafik as a representative of the Dawa Salafia, and that the Nour Party should not, therefore, have been informed. Incidents such as these have lead to much tension between the party and the Dawa Salafia.

Both camps have agreed to elect a new presidium and party leader on October 11. The wider Salafist movement, however, has not been much affected by the conflict in the Nour Party, as seen by the growing number of Salafist parties, according to Zarwan of the ECFR.

"When the new parliament is elected they will likely act as a semi-coordinated voting block on most issues," he said. "It's hard to imagine many issues where they would have very serious disagreements."

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