When Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced in a television address the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, an ultraconservative Salafi party official sat by his side, making an unlikely ally.
Almost 11 months later, with Sisi poised to win a presidential election amid a crackdown on Islamists that has killed at least 1,400 people, the Salafists of Al-Nour party are sticking by him.
The support of Al-Nour, whose Galal al-Morra appeared in the dramatic television broadcast last July, has allowed it to survive the crackdown but splintered its base.
Many Salafists were among the estimated 700 protesters killed on August 14 when police raided a pro-Morsi protest camp in Cairo.
The leaders of Egypt’s Salafists — adherents of a puritanical school of Islam — have had a history of falling in line with strongmen.
Their opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood, say they are mere opportunists.
But the Salafi leaders argue their pragmatism helps avoid the turmoil and bloodshed of rebellion, and serves their endgame of a society which accepts Islamic law.
“We have a long-term vision,” said Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for Al-Nour party.
The party was formed in 2011, months after an uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak – an uprising Egypt’s most prominent Salafi clerics viewed with caution.
Al-Nour won the second largest number of seats in a 2011 parliamentary election, behind the more politically experienced Brotherhood, and it lobbied for a larger role for Islamic law in a new constitution.
“We are for the implementation of Islamic law but not a state within a state,” Bakkar said of Morsi’s Brotherhood movement, removed from power after mass protests against Morsi.
“We want a parliamentary system, not a president who monopolises all powers,” he said.
The party now faces the prospect of a retired military leader as president, who says he is pious but will leave religion out of politics.
A new constitution approved in a January referendum removed much of the Islamist-inspired wording of the one adopted under Morsi, and partly drafted by Salafists.
Bakkar says his party was backing Sisi in the May 26-27 election because he was the best man to restore “stability” and fight “terrorism”, referring to militant attacks which have killed hundreds of security personnel.
The decision has shorn it of support from many Islamists ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.
– Sisi or ‘chaos’ –
Mohamed, a 37-year-old Salafist who runs a Cairo pharmacy, accused the group of sacrificing “religion for the sake of politics”.
“Al-Nour leaders have chosen to be pragmatic … They know Field Marshal Sisi will win and they prefer to be with the ruling power,” he said.
“They are simply afraid of going through what’s happened to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Most of the Brotherhood’s leadership, including Morsi, has been arrested and put on trial.
Omar Ashour, a Middle East expert at England’s University of Exeter, said Al-Nour’s stand was a mix of political “opportunism” and ideology.
Mainstream Salafi clerics support “backing the ruler, regardless of him being oppressive or democratic, because the only alternative is chaos”, Ashour said.
Mohamed remains impressed and say he will boycott the election.
“Many of my friends think they are traitors who collaborate with state security,” he said, adding that several party members had resigned.
said such defections were “propaganda and media exaggeration”.
“Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which is similar to a military organisation where no one can diverge, the Salafi current is rich and Nour does not represent all Salafists,” he said.
Salafism is a widespread school of thought, ranging from the monarchy-supporting clerics of Saudi Arabia to Al-Qaeda leaders who denounce it and other Arab regimes as un-Islamic.
They share theological beliefs that set them apart from other mainstream Muslims, such as a literal interpretation of Koranic verses describing God, but disagree on politics.
They name themselves after the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims they say practiced a pure form of Islam which has since been corrupted.