CAIRO — When he took the stage at a campaign stop last year, Nader Bakar moved with a polished grace that defied the brimstone stereotype of an ultraconservative Islamist.
Lithe and bearded, Bakar was appearing at a rally supporting a progressive Islamist presidential candidate, even as his Nour party envisioned Egypt as an Islamic state. The candidate lost, but Nour, savvier than its bigger and more moderate rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, showed a political nimbleness rare among Egypt’s religious movements.
The military coup that toppled President Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood this week has focused attention on how Nour and other ultraconservative Salafi parties will advance their agendas against revived secular and moderate voices backed by the Egyptian army, which for decades has warned against Islamist ambitions.
That calculation is particularly tricky for Nour. Although a nominal parliamentary ally of the Brotherhood, it sided with anti-Morsi protests, backed the army’s plan for a coalition government and accused the Brotherhood of pushing the country toward civil war.
Many Islamists are outraged over the fall of the Brotherhood and the arrest of its leaders by generals they condemn for deposing Egypt’s first freely elected president. But amid the fury are questions over how to keep the goal of political Islam alive.
Some wonder whether Islam has any place in politics, which many clerics regard as a realm where compromise takes precedent over the imposition of God’s will. The coup has made them more disdainful of the ballot box and is forcing them to reconsider how they might merge religion and politics at a time when the trend in Egypt, especially among the young, appears to be to separate the two.
The question echoes across the Middle East and North Africa, including in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, which are trying to rebuild after the upheavals of the Arab Spring. In Turkey, an underlying theme of recent protests was liberals’ anger at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to insinuate a more pronounced Islamist tone into society. Turkey has been held up as a model of political Islam but even Erdogan’s decade-long economic success story did not mute the uproar.
Still, given the Brotherhood’s setback in Egypt, ultraconservatives are looking for an opening. And their grassroots programs, including education and aid to the poor in the provinces, leave them much better organized than secular parties.
The Salafists adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, deeply rooted in the Koran. They will be “a winner in this phase and will be the leader of political work in the Islamist current, because they calculated the recent political equation very nicely,” said Gamal Sultan, an analyst and newspaper editor. “They have been rational and well thought out. ... But it’s a gamble.”
Nour epitomizes that description. It won about 25% of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections and became a nominal ally of the Brotherhood, which won nearly 50%. While the Brotherhood hewed to authoritarian tendencies, Nour was more fluid. At times, it sided with the secular opposition against efforts by Morsi and the Brotherhood to accumulate more power.
It sought to avoid bloodshed and sensed an opportunity in Egypt’s latest political drama. It didn’t participate in the massive anti-Morsi protests that started Sunday, but it backed calls for a coalition government. Bakar accused the Brotherhood of making “an enemy out of anyone who criticized or disagreed with them.”
He said the Brotherhood “is insisting on the continued state of polarization in the street and trying to benefit from it rather than end it.”
Nour is facing criticism for its stance. Many Morsi supporters at a rally Friday denounced Nour as betraying the country’s first Islamist president. Ironically, in the eyes of strict Salafists, Nour made the same mistake as the Brotherhood: sacrificing religious principles for political power.
“Nour is now finding itself somewhat ostracized within the mainstream Islamist movement because of its support for military intervention,” said Sultan.
Passions around the coup were further inflamed Friday, when soldiers opened fire on Islamists marching toward the headquarters of the Republican Guard, where Morsi is believed to be in custody. The incident is likely to put further pressure on Nour and embolden its rival Gamaa al Islamiya, a former terrorist group that backs Morsi.
One of Nour’s adversaries, Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie, appeared outside a mosque Friday and urged Islamists to unite to free Morsi and end military rule.
“The Brotherhood lives with you and you have lived with the Brotherhood,” said Badie. “You know us well. . .The millions of us will stay in the streets and public squares to protect Mohamed Morsi. We will carry him on our shoulders.”
But support for the Brotherhood is waning in many quarters, and Nour may well benefit.
“Nour gained a lot of credit for siding with the people during and before the June 30 protests,” said Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It gave them a great image as an Islamic party that is playing moderate politics and working for their own survival without subjecting the country to the possibility of internal violence.”
Though Salafists largely avoided the political scene during Mubarak’s 30-year rule, his overthrow in 2011 inspired the newly formed Nour party. Influential members, including Bakar, entered the political fray and gained a position giving them a hand in writing a new constitution.
Bakar, 28, has the youthful aura of a software genius. He is not easily categorized. The son of a teacher and a notary clerk, he has said that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he viewed as an attack on Muslims, led him to Salafism. He preached in mosques in Alexandria and co-founded Nour.
He is accustomed, especially in the media, to trying to alter people’s perceptions of ultraconservatives. But he is vigilant in defending his faith. He called for protests in front of the U.S. Embassy last year over a film made in the U.S. that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad. He has a degree in commerce, writes newspaper columns and, unlike many Salafists, he supports women working outside the home.
Despite appearances of being inclusive, however, Nour was a main architect of attempts to impose the Koran on the constitution, drawing a backlash from secular groups and even members of the Brotherhood. The constitution that passed — and will be scrapped by the military — was not as strict as Nour had hoped, but it opened the door for sharia law.
A popular blogger, known as the Big Pharaoh, summed it up in a Twitter message, saying, “Clashes to watch in the future: Nour party versus everybody else over religion in [the] constitution.”
Bakar has said he fears being labeled an extremist. “I represent a generation of educated and well-read youth who work for international organizations. I belong to the Internet generation,” he told the Egyptian Independent in 2012. “The media has always preferred not to present this profile and focused on the repulsive, backward Salafi, who believes that everything is haram [forbidden]. I try to challenge this stereotype.”
But Sarah El Ashmaouy, a human rights activist, said Nour was included as part of the opposition against Morsi “based on the logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ and I don’t agree with it.”
She added: “There will be the same ideological polarization between the Nour party and the rest of the opposition over [civil and economic rights] once we revise the constitution.”
Special correspondents Manar Mohsen and Amro Hassan contributed to this report.