ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Former defense minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi won Egypt’s presidency in a landslide last month, but amid low turnout, one key group of voters who were expected to support him stayed away from the polls: ultraconservative Islamists who had officially endorsed his bid.
The leaders of Egypt’s Nour party, run by Salafists promoting strict adherence to sharia law, backed Sissi’s presidential bid after supporting his move last summer to depose their Islamist rival, elected President Mohamed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood group that engineered his presidency. The Nour party — the country’s largest Salafist party — and the once-formidable Brotherhood competed for influence among Islamist voters after Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
But over three days of voting, May 26-28, Nour party rank and file failed to turn out in large numbers to cast ballots for Sissi. His bloody crackdown on Islamists had alienated many in the party and in the wider Salafist community. And despite the leadership’s decision to endorse Sissi, few Nour party foot soldiers were likely to end up voting for a candidate who is not overtly Islamist, analysts said.
Their absence at the polls highlighted what many observers had already cast as a tenuous alliance based on little more than a shared interest in eradicating the Brotherhood as a political force. Should the marriage of convenience unravel, Sissi would lose a sole Islamist ally that he needs to portray his political partnerships as inclusive and that serves as an outlet for a swath of Salafist voters who might otherwise oppose him. For its part, the Nour party, which won roughly a quarter of parliamentary seats in 2011, would risk putting itself in the regime’s cross hairs.
“If al-Nour supports the state and is nonviolent, then the regime will consider it an ally,” said Kamal Habib, an Islamic scholar and former member of Gamaa Islamiya, a radical Islamist group that waged an insurgency against the Egyptian government before officially renouncing violence in 2003. But if there are political disagreements and the party’s members turn to protests, he said, the Nour party “will be sidelined.”
Salafist political groups such as the Nour party were established in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, having forged constituencies through decades of religious preaching and charity work at the grass-roots level. Salafists had steered clear of politics to ensure their survival under Mubarak, who saw political Islam as a threat to his rule.
Salafists, from the Arabic word “salaf,” meaning ancestor or predecessor, purport to emulate the behavior of the followers of the prophet Muhammad in 7th-century Arabia. They promote a rigid interpretation of the Koran and, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, have long viewed participation in politics as un-Islamic. By some estimates, they number as many as 5 million people in Egypt, where the population is 86 million.
So when the Nour party entered the fray in 2011, it allied with and clashed with the rival Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party as political forces adjusted to the post-Mubarak landscape. But later, as opposition to Morsi’s volatile presidency grew, the Nour party maneuvered to stay afloat, toning down extremist rhetoric and throwing its weight behind Sissi, who was then the defense minister.
A career military officer, Sissi is the only man Nour party leaders say is capable of bringing Egypt’s vast and often chaotic bureaucracy under control and stabilizing an economy on the brink of collapse.
However, “the decision [to support] Sissi was a difficult one,” said Helmi Ibrahim, a member of the Nour party workers committee in Alexandria, a coastal Mediterranean city that is the party’s stronghold.
There are few places where the interests and ideologies of the two sides overlap, creating a rift between the leadership and its foot soldiers. Sissi, for example, refused to release a political platform while he campaigned, leaving many voters in the dark about what policies he planned to enact. The Nour party has in the past proposed banning alcohol and revealing swimsuits on beaches, moves that would thwart government plans to revive Egypt’s tourism industry and promote economic recovery.
The Nour party’s support for Sissi could easily backfire, said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It remains vulnerable to an article in the country’s new constitution that imposes a ban on religious-based parties. If the courts were to dissolve the Nour party, the group would find little backing among the Islamist and Salafist communities angered by the party’s choice to acquiesce to the military-backed government.
Six days before the election, the Nour party held a rally for Sissi in Alexandria. But its leaders strictly controlled party messaging, preventing members from speaking to reporters and insisting that low-level party members listen quietly to their superiors’ prepared speeches.
“The pro-regime media is against Islam!” said one of those attending the rally, before being ushered away by senior Nour party members.
Later, in the nearby Mediterranean province of Mersa Matruh, also a center of Nour party support, just 27 percent of registered voters went the polls, according to unofficial results from local elections committees. Nationwide turnout eventually reached 47 percent, according to officials from the high elections commission, after the government extended the two-day election period to a third day.
“The members are not happy with the policies adopted by the party, especially when they took the position against the legitimate president,” said Yousri Hamad, a former Nour party member and the co-founder of the Salafist al-Watan party, referring to Morsi. Hamad’s party boycotted the elections and opposed Sissi’s military ousting of Morsi. Security forces have imprisoned al-Watan leaders, Hamad said.
“Salafists do not accept the legitimacy of a man who came to power by spilling the blood of Egyptians,” he said of Sissi.
Even mid-ranking Nour party members concede that the partnership with Sissi may not last long.
“We support the people, not Sissi as an individual,” said Hany Labeed, an Alexandria-based businessman and member of the Nour party’s sports committee. “When we saw that the Brotherhood was getting into a confrontation with the Egyptian people, we supported the people. This will be the case with Sissi,” he said.
Sharaf al-Hourani and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.