CAIRO — On the mid-August day that Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of Islamist protesters, throwing the country into deeper turmoil, the ultraconservative religious Salafist Nour Party released a statement positioning itself as the sole voice of reason.
“We warned a long time ago against the danger of bloodshed and against mobilization and counter-mobilization,” the group said.
Nour called on both the nation’s military rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood that had been ousted from power to stop the violence, saying that the only option for peace was a political solution.
Once a nominal ally of the Brotherhood, the Nour Party backed the coup that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and notably attended the military’s July 3 news conference announcing Morsi’s removal. The party has remained with the military despite its crackdown and has agreed to serve on a 50-member committee tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
Soon after Morsi’s ouster, it was unclear how Nour’s backing of the military would play out politically. But as the weeks-long sit-ins by Morsi supporters failed to return him to power — and the bloodshed mounted when more than 1,000 died as the military cleared two pro-Morsi sit-in camps and cracked down on following protests — analysts say Nour has felt vindicated.
Now with a seat at the political table, as the Brotherhood’s fall continues, Nour’s calculations have shown it to be a savvy and pragmatic political player.
Some say the moves are helping it cement itself as the new voice of political Islam in Egypt. Other Islamist groups, including the once-terrorist group Gamaa Islamiya, could be following Nour’s example as they try to position themselves as voices of mediation.
Nour is seeking “to distance itself from the Brotherhood in order to maintain its support and positive image and avoid having all the Islamist groups excluded from the political arena,” said Gamal Sultan, an analyst and editor of Al Mesryoon newspaper. “They wanted to leave the sinking ship rather than go down with it.”
It is unclear, though, whether Nour can differentiate itself from other Islamist groups and guarantee political support at a time when the Egyptian public seems disillusioned with all Islamist groups and blames them for the current crisis, Sultan said.
It is a stark reversal for Islamists from last year’s parliamentary elections in which the Brotherhood won nearly 50% of the votes and Nour won about 25%.
The Brotherhood’s prospects further dimmed in recent weeks. Even as interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi said the group should not be banned or excluded from the political process, arrests of leading members, including senior leader Mohamed Beltagy, continued. On Friday, there were rumors that the group would be dissolved.
Brotherhood and anti-coup activists have called for mass demonstrations each Friday, but amid tight security around mosques and squares, the turnout has continued to shrink.
Bassam Zarqa, the Nour Party’s assistant chief for political affairs, has dismissed contentions that by participating in the political process, his group has betrayed the Islamist cause.
“The Brotherhood did not do what people were expecting from them, and so what happened on June 30 happened,” he said. “We tried for five months to advise them to correct their mistakes, but they didn’t respond.”
Zarqa, calling the situation a “calamity” for all of Egypt, has denied that the fall of the Brotherhood has presented Nour a unique political opportunity. Cooperation, he said, has long been a key principle of the Nour Party and was not part of a strategy to benefit from the Brotherhood’s fall.
“These people think it is a zero-sum game, but the Nour Party doesn’t play a zero-sum game,” said Zarqa, a former member of Morsi’s presidential advisory team. “We want cooperation for the purpose of forming a political structure.”
After being marginalized for so long, Islamist groups have had a taste of governance in the last two years and do not want to return to the political periphery, said Diaa Rashwan, director of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Nour participated in the selection of leaders and ministers of the military-backed interim government and even successfully blocked the appointment of secular opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister.
Despite this, some say the group’s role will remain mostly ceremonial, such as its attendance during the military’s announcement of Morsi’s ouster. ElBaradei, who also attended the announcement, resigned as vice president the day the military brutally cleared the Muslim Brotherhood encampments.
“They told them they would replace the Brotherhood but they just fooled them,” said Mohammad Hassane, a spokesman for Gamaa Islamiya. He said Nour had lost the support of the Islamist groups without gaining any backing from liberal or secular ones.
Tarek El Malt, spokesman for the moderate Islamic Al Wasat Party, agreed that Nour would remain in a symbolic role in the military-backed government.
“In this pitiful show of democracy, for sure they will incorporate these decorative Islamists, with their beards and all that,” he said. “They will play a big role as symbols.”
The group’s influence could become clear soon enough as a constitution is drafted. Last year, Nour pushed to include Islamic law in the constitution, meeting resistance from not only secular groups but the Brotherhood as well.
Last month, the Nour Party said it was feeling marginalized on the constitutional committee and was considering withdrawing.
The ultraconservative Gamaa Islamiya, which has renounced its past violence, including the killing of dozens at a tourist site in 1997, has called for dialogue with the military in its own move to gain a political footing. But Gamaa said it was not entirely calling off street protests just yet.
“We are not looking for an opportunity; we are looking for what is best for the country,” Hassane said. “We will have a political role but not in the shadow of the military coup.”
By calling for dialogue, Gamaa also appeared to be slightly reconsidering its firm backing of the Brotherhood, the country’s largest and oldest Islamist organization, said Sultan, the editor.
Sultan said Gamaa is seeking to advance politically by trying to draw upon the Brotherhood’s large base of support.
“A defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood would be a defeat for all Islamists,” he said. “So for Gamaa Islamiya to come to the rescue of the Brotherhood they are very much doing themselves a favor.”