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Unusual alliance

Markus Symank / re
February 19, 2014

Hizb al-Nur is Egypt's only Islamist party that supports the military-backed government. Doing so may have secured its survival, but internal disputes may derail the party in the months ahead.

Bearded men sit in the Egyptian parliament (Foto: Asmaa/AP PHOTO)
Image: picture-alliance/AP

Nader Bakkar wears a crescent-shaped beard, likes to pepper his speeches with religious terms and always has the Koran handy. One factor allows the 29-year old Islamist to talk undisturbed with journalists or offer his political opinions in talk shows: he is the co-founder of Hizb al-Nur (Party of Light), which is on the side of Egypt's transitional government. The Salafist party is the only party among Egypt's Islamist parties that welcomed the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013.

Bakkar does not see the military coup, which was preceded by mass protests, as a rejection of the movement he supports. "The people rejected certain opinions and decisions of the [the Muslim] Brotherhood. That doesn't mean that the people turned away from political Islam," he said.

Fight for political survival

The alliance between Hizb al-Nur and the new regime surprised many observers. The transitional government is dominated by liberal and left-wing forces. For decades, Egypt's military, which is pulling the strings in the background, has been the main opponent of the country's Islamists.

Younis Makhyoun and Nader Bakkar (Foto: Amr Nabil/AP Photo)
Nader Bakkar (l) says Egyptians haven't turned away from political IslamImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

The Egyptian political researcher Adel Ramadan sees two main reasons for the Islamist party's course of action. First, its survival is at stake. The party wants to avoid the Brotherhood's fate, in which thousands of the members of the group were arrested. Second, Hizb al-Nur had a falling out with the Brotherhood some time ago.

"The Brotherhood has done a good job marginalizing everyone, including the Salafists," said Ramadan. "It seems they were kind of out for revenge." After the ousting of the long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak three years ago, the radical Salafists and the pragmatic Brotherhood first worked together. However, the Brotherhood quickly showed its domineering side, usurping all of the key government posts and pushing the Salafists aside.

The military's fig leaf

After the overthrow of the Brotherhood, the military sought solidarity with the Salafists. The generals do not want brutal actions taken against the Brotherhood to appear to be an attack against Islam. Instead, they prefer to cast such moves as a fight against a terrorist organization that places its own interests above those of the nation. Islam expert Ramadan explains that after the Brotherhood's overthrow, the military needed the Salafists as a kind of fig leaf. "Hizb al-Nur played a good role in sort of legitimizing the coup, giving it a variety - a mixed taste," said Ramadan.

Unlike the Brotherhood, the members of Hizb al-Nur have not yet faced security forces' wrath. In turn, the leadership of Hizb al-Nur has kept silent about the massacres that led to hundreds of Brotherhood members' deaths last summer. The party has, however, called for a political solution to end the unrest in Egypt.

The threat of insignificance

It's unclear how long the marriage of convenience between the military and the Salafists will last. In January, Hizb al-Nur's leadership called on their supporters to vote for the country's new constitution - but simultaneously criticized the deletion in the document of all references to the body of Islamic law known as Sharia. One article in the constitution even explicitly bans political parties based on religion, and that could lead to the future prohibition of Hizb al-Nur.

People protest in an Egyptian street (Foto: Ahmed Assadi/EPA)
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Nur supports the governmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"We reject this article. From a legal perspective, we don't think it's possible to implement it," said party spokesperson Bakkar, who added that the Egyptian people are deeply religious and accustomed to Islam playing a role in the nation's politics.

There is some evidence that a majority of Salafist voters did not take part in the constitutional referendum. The voter turnout in provinces with a high proportion of Salafists was particularly low. In one of the party's strongholds, the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matruh, only 19 percent of the electorate cast votes.

Divisions within the party can also be observed. In recent weeks, several leading members resigned. Parts of the party's base accuse party chairman Younis Makhioun of having betrayed Islam. In fact, political researcher Ramadan believes that Hizb al-Nur could soon sink into insignificance.

"All their aims for joining the coup have not been fulfilled. They have just made a mockery of themselves - and that makes them lose even more supporters," he said, warning in particular against possible outcomes for the group's younger members. As happened with the Brotherhood, he explained, they could turn to violence if they don't feel represented in the political realm.

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