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July 10, 2013

Egypt's Brotherhood Looks Back, Islamist Rivals Look Ahead

by Reuters

While Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood looks back in anger at its military removal from power, an ultra-orthodox Islamist party is looking forward in hope to replacing it in voters' favor.

Yet far from celebrating the downfall of its larger rival, the Nour Party, which sits on the religious right of the political spectrum, is weighing the cost of Brotherhood mistakes it says have weakened the entire Islamist movement.

Courted by the army that toppled president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's second biggest Islamic force has wielded decisive influence over the choice of a new premier, vetoing the first two liberal candidates.

But Nour's leader is surprisingly downbeat for a politician whose main rival has just been dealt such a major blow robbing it of a string of 2012 election victories.

“There is no doubt that the Islamist current in general has lost a lot because of the Brotherhood's failure in managing the past period,” Younes Makhyoun said in an interview.

“I do not think the Islamist movement will achieve what it achieved before because of these erroneous practices,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Islamist groups expect to secure nothing like the 65 percent of the vote they won in parliamentary elections 18 months ago. Under the army's transition plan, new parliamentary polls will be held in about six months' time.

“The Islamists will be reduced to their natural size - no more than 25 to 30 percent,” said Kamal Habib, a former member of a Muslim militant group.

Nour believes the Islamists' popularity, in retreat even before Morsi was elected, has been further dented by the failures of Morsi's one year in office and the bloodshed resulting from its unceremonious termination.

Makhyoun was also sharply critical of the Brotherhood for pushing to the fore hardliners who had used violent rhetoric in recent weeks, saying that had further sapped the appeal of Islamists in Egyptian society.
 
Political newcomer
 
Established after the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, Nour is 84 years the Brotherhood's junior.

It emerged from the Dawa Salafia, a quietist religious movement based in Alexandria - a party stronghold today - that believed in saving souls rather than seeking power. Nour claims 800,000 members, nearly as many as the Brotherhood's membership.

Advocating a puritanical vision of Islam, it used its foothold in officialdom to press for Islamist-inspired changes to the constitution last year. It then lobbied for their application, demanding, for example, that a law allowing Egypt to issue Islamic bonds be sent to Muslim clerics for approval.

Having aligned itself with the Brotherhood at key moments in 2012, it distanced itself from the movement this year, echoing opposition accusations that Morsi was staging a power grab.

As the political crisis deepened this year, Nour positioned itself as a would-be mediator. Its more nimble approach has given it huge leverage over the army-mapped transition that the Brotherhood has vowed to boycott.

Hazem el-Beblawi, the economist named interim prime minister on Tuesday, owes his job to Nour's rejection of other liberal politicians initially suggested for the position.

The army is going out of its way to satisfy Nour as the only Islamist party that signed up to its roadmap, isolating the Brotherhood and giving the new authorities Islamist credentials.

A decree setting the rules for the period of interim rule includes Islamist-tinged language sought by Nour and opposed by liberals.

“We value the Nour party position very much and we see a future for this party in Egypt,” said a military source, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with army rules.

Yet Nour's approach also brings risks. Other Islamist allies say it has sold out - an accusation that may damage its standing, particularly after more than 55 people were shot dead when the army opened fire on pro-Morsi protesters.

The army says it was firing back at terrorists who attacked its troops. The Brotherhood says those killed were praying peacefully.

Responding to rage in Islamist circles over Monday's killings, Nour announced it would withdraw from the army's roadmap. But it still kept one foot in the process. Though Nour says it does not seek any posts in cabinet, spokesman Nader Bakkar said it would offer the cabinet advice.

Assem Abdel Maged, one of the Brotherhood's hardline allies, told a crowd of Morsi supporters that Nour's leaders must seek repentance from God for what he called their betrayal.

Necessity versus choice

Makhyoun described the Nour's decision to cooperate with the army's plans as stemming from necessity rather than choice.

By taking part in the process the Brotherhood is shunning, Nour says it is giving voice to Islamist concerns and has been able to resist a wide expansion of liberal influence in the new, unelected administration.

Nour is trying to revive its mediation effort, though Makhyoun said communicating with the Brotherhood right now was “difficult.” The party has proposed a committee of “wise men” to promote reconciliation and agree on a new transition plan acceptable to all.

But it may struggle to convince its base of the merits of the approach. “The passions are running high in the Islamist movement - the sense that this was a coup against the Islamists - puts the Nour's base under pressure,” said Habib, the analyst.

“They are in a delicate position,” he added.