Thought The Muslim Brotherhood Was Bad? Meet Egypt’s Other Islamist Party.
The big story from Egypt’s parliamentary elections, the first round of which concluded on Tuesday, will likely be the Muslim Brotherhood’s impressive victory. But the Brotherhood’s anticipated rise from outlawed organization to parliamentary power won’t be surprising: the Brotherhood’s strong mobilizing capabilities are well known, and Hosni Mubarak often warned the West that its choice was between his autocracy or the Brotherhood’s theocracy.
The real surprise is the emergence of the Salafist Nour party, a deeply theocratic organization that bases its ideology on a literal reading of the Qur’an and Sunna and, most astoundingly, didn’t exist until a few months ago. Although Salafist political activity was, unlike the Brotherhood, completely banned under the Mubarak regime, the Nour Party is giving the Brotherhood a run for its money in some districts. Not only is the Islamist Alliance, in which the Nour Party is the major player, running 693 candidates—but those candidates’ banners and images have been ubiquitous, even in Egypt’s least religious neighborhoods. It is now expected to place second when the final round of elections is completed in January, perhaps winning as much as 30 percent of the vote.
The Nour Party’s strong campaign was particularly noticeable here in Fayoum, a rural governorate 81 miles southwest of Cairo that is home to 2.5 million people. Based on my experiences covering various Cairo polling places on Monday, I fully expected a strong showing in Fayoum for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Islamist ideology is very much at home in this traditional countryside region. And, indeed, the Brotherhood was quite visible. But the Nour Party was, without question, much more visible. From the moment we entered the governorate, Nour banners—and often only Nour banners—were everywhere: atop light poles, along traffic islands, and even on mosques. (One aspect of the Nour’s campaign particularly impressed me: To get around the ban on using the Islamic crescent as a party symbol, Nour chose to be represented on ballots by another Islamic symbol: the fanous, a decorative lamp that Muslims display during Ramadan.)
My first stop was at a polling station along a major road, a schoolhouse that was one of the few structures in an otherwise pastoral setting. Although there was little foot traffic, approximately two dozen enthusiastic Nour party supporters—again, only Nour party supporters—were milling about, apparently waiting to help voters. “I voted for the Nour party yesterday,” Ahmed Kamel, sporting the bushy-beard-sans-mustache look that is typical of Salafists, told me. “They are honest and I trust them a lot. They depend on the Holy Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.”
At my second stop, a very busy polling station towards the center of Fayoum city, the Nour Party and Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice—and no other parties—manned nearby voter assistance kiosks. But here, the Nour Party’s presence was notably more advanced: whereas the Brotherhood was using an old desktop with a boxy monitor to tell people which voting box was theirs, the Nour activists were working off of two sleek, new-looking laptops and handing out impressively concise copies of their plat