As the parliamentary elections draw closer, questions about the future of the Salafi-oriented Nour Party linger. Some say the party's recent crisis — detailed in yesterday’s column — will debilitate its electoral power, but are unsure whether this will favor the Muslim Brotherhood or liberal and leftist groups.
I believe it is still too early to discuss the party's fortunes in the coming elections. They will (partly) depend on the success of reconciliation efforts in temporarily patching things up for the party to run as one unified entity, deferring the final resolution of its contradictions to a later stage.
Likewise, the party’s participation in the elections is linked to the ability of new Salafi parties — to be established by former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the Salafi Front — to build organizational structures capable of mobilizing voters and going up against the networks of the Nour Party and Salafi Dawah.
The party's ability to run in the elections also depends on the ability of the Construction and Development Party — Jama’a al-Islamiya’s political arm — to develop its influence in Upper Egypt, as well as the rise or drop in the popularity of the Brotherhood over the coming months; it is the Salafis’ strongest Islamist rival.
Combined together, these factors will determine the distribution of votes among the different Islamist powers. But on the other hand, the total vote for the Islamist bloc, with its diverse currents, will depend on the competitive preparedness of leftist and liberal powers, as well as the amount of protest votes against Islamists.
All these factors will only become clear shortly before the elections. But the most important aspect that will shape the future of the Salafis is their ability to come up with a unique model for political engagement, a model that distinguishes itself from the authoritative Arab regimes and their tyrannical modernism, and also from the closed models presented by other Islamist powers that the Salafis have criticized.
Salafis need to present a model capable of carving out a space in Egyptian political society. Similarly, they need to be able to deal with the modern mechanisms of politics on the domestic and international fronts.
How can Salafis build a healthy and effective relationship between the Salafi current and political parties? How can the Nour Party be structured in a way that reflects the scope and plurality of the Salafi current, while at the same time maintaining organizational competitiveness and institutional discipline to compete with the Brotherhood and reserve a place for the Salafis in Egypt's fledgling political sphere?
To what extent are Salafis going to expand the implementation of the jurisprudential concept of “the rule of necessity” to address fresh developments imposed by the local and international realities, while holding on to their orthodox Salafi approach? How are Salafis going to differentiate themselves ideologically from the Brotherhood in light of the growing similarity between their political positions and as the Brotherhood seeks to attract the Salafis by granting them positions and privileges?
Also, how are Salafis going to face the rising pressures from more radical Islamist factions to their right? Will they be able to stand up to these factions after they have favored peaceful engagements and gradual change? This will be all the more difficult, particularly if political Salafism and its chief representative, the Nour Party, fail to achieve concrete success by implementing stricter Islamic criteria (for instance with regard to tourism, guaranteeing the Islamic nature of the state in the new constitution and having a strong presence in the government).
Salafis' failure to achieve success in these areas will increase the influence of more radical Islamist powers and might lead them to give up on politics and return to their dawah work on the pretext that Egyptian society is not yet ready for the rule of Sharia. In fact, there are already signs that this is happening.
Finally, how are the Salafis going to address the negative impacts of the politicization of the Salafi Dawah? This issue is of paramount importance given the fact that popular trust in Salafis and their networks at the local level represent a chief source of power for the Salafis in the elections.
Answers to these questions will be determined in light of political changes and developments. In considering these issues, we should not overlook international and regional factors that interact with the Salafi tide. We might likely see the rise of new parties which will replace the Nour Party if it fails to respond to these challenges. To be sure, though, the Salafi movement, and the Islamist movement in general, is embarking on a new stage in its development.
Ashraf El-Sherif teaches political science at the American University in Cairo.