By Jahd Khalil with original illustrations by Andeel
In December 2011, the ultraconservative Egyptian channel Al-Nas had singer Abou Ammar surprise a notable sheikh, Abdel Moneim Shehat, by crooning an original piece in a capella.
شيخ منعم الشحات Sheikh Moneim al-Shehat
مكسبش الإنتخابات He didn’t win the elections
وناس كتير شمتوا and many were happy with the misfortune
في الشيخ ده ليه بالذات of this sheikh, but why?
لأنه رمز النور Because he’s a symbol of nour
لآنه كان هيثور because he was going to revolt
لآنه قلبه كسور because his heart was brave
واقفلهم بثبات and was going to stand strong
Shehat and Abou Ammar, whose real name is Yasser Farouq, were two faces of Egypt’s most powerful Salafi group – the Salafi Dawa. Egypt was in the midst of its first truly competitive election, and Shehat had already failed to gain a seat. Nevertheless, it was clear that his Nour Party (the political party of the Salafi Dawa) was going to do incredibly well.
Ultimately, the Nour Party took nearly a quarter of the seats and became the second biggest bloc in Parliament, behind Egypt’s most well-known Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Casual observers of Egypt may confuse the two groups, but the differences are significant and important. The Brotherhood had been participating in formal politics since the 1980s, eventually even controlling the presidency for a brief period. On the other hand, until only a year before this election, the Salafi Dawa had sworn off politics entirely, prioritizing instead prayer, preaching, and charity work. Their relative newness to electoral politics made their 2011 election victories all the more impressive.
The Salafi Dawa was officially founded in the early 1980s after growing out of the Islamist student movement in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city on the Mediterranean coast. In a state that was hostile to organized Islamists, the Salafi Dawa nevertheless focused on institution building and patience as part of a general movement aimed at steadily making the average Egyptian more religious. It flourished by keeping its rhetoric apolitical and its activities limited to Alexandria.
The Dawa’s apolitical approach had been consistent all the way up to and including when thousands turned out in Tahrir Square in early 2011 to overthrow Hosni Mubarak. The Dawa remained on the sidelines throughout the uprising, never endorsing the protests. But when the 30-year autocrat was overthrown, it decided it was time to go into politics.
“It was a ‘way out’ for the Dawa. If the Dawa’s goal is really that citizens, in the midst of the difficulties of life, don’t forget their religion and develop their morals and behavior…then this was an opportunity for us to utilize the political side [of things],” said Mohamed Abdel Aziz, a Dawa member that became one of its political operators.
The Dawa named its party Nour, which means light or illumination. Its years of effective organizing allowed it to compete, and its distance from the prior political era appealed to many Egyptians, Salafis and otherwise.
It was a watershed moment. The Dawa quickly became politically savvy, and was even occasionally forced to compromise on its viewpoints, a shock considering the orthodox and absolutist reputation of their organization’s philosophy.
Even as Nour became a more significant political force, the Dawa remained first and foremost a social rather than political movement— just one that had also significantly invested in the Egyptian state. Whereas the Brotherhood preferred to seize institutions and use them as a platform to Islamize from the top down, the Dawa chose a pious population with a government to match. “Our goal is not that we’re there raising the banner [of Islam],” said Abdel Aziz, “but its that the banner is raised.”
So far, the Dawa is one of the most adept survivors of the unforgiving and often deadly Egyptian political scene.. Despite their differences, once elected, the Dawa became supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s, right up until they willingly contributed to their demise. The Nour Party’s relationship with the ruling powers, first with the Brotherhood and now with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government is one of unsympathetic coexistence, and even cooperation.
During its ascent, Abou Ammar literally sang the Nour Party’s praises across the country. The party financed production of his first song, and at campaign events he appeared with its highest-ranking members, including Shehat and its vice president and principal figure, Yasser Borhamy. In the beginning of the sole year the Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsy was president, Nour and the Dawa were the president’s most reliable ideological allies as they drafted a new constitution.
The Nour Party’s backbone is the Salafi Dawa, and few have ever held any illusions about their separation. This approach stands in direct contrast to the Muslim Brothers, who have always maintained that their political party is independent from the Brotherhood itself.
The Dawa and Nour gained significant political support from pious Muslims, both from the Salafi movement and more traditional conservatives across the country, thanks to their religious but nationalist messaging and the charity work they did in service of proselytism.
This second group, to which Abou Ammar belongs, made up the majority of the Nour party’s political base. They may have voted for Nour, but some of its more ideological members contravened party doctrine by protesting at pro-Sharia demonstrations and directly supporting Mohamed Morsy as part of the Islamic vanguard – a move that ran counter to the Dawa’s strict view of the presidency as a friendly institution and ally. As a constitutional crisis was brewing in November 2012 and thousands of people were in the streets protesting against President Morsy, Abou Ammar released a song elevating him.
ايا مرسي اتوكل على مولاك Oh Morsy you rely on your Lord
وبإذن الله كلنا وياك and God willing we’re all with you
وان حاولوا خصومك يوم يأذوك if your enemies try to hurt you
هنكون رجالة بجد معاك we’ll be earnest men by you
ارسم مصر في اجمل صورة Draw Egypt in the most beautiful picture
واحكم فينا بحكم الشورى rule us through the authority of consultation
شايف مصر معاك أمورة With you, I see Egypt alluring
شايف وطني اهو بيتحرر With you, I see my nation liberated
Egypt’s new constitution eventually went through, with most secular figures withdrawing from The Constitutional Assembly, the body drafting the constitution. The Assembly, which was overwhelmingly Islamist, finally hammered it through in a 19-hour marathon session. In the struggle for a Sharia-friendly constitution, the Salafi Dawa’s relationships inside and out of the government began to fray.
First, after disagreements with Borhamy, its more urbane members left to form another party. They complained of a lack of internal democracy and that Borhamy ran the Dawa from the top-down. Borhamy is the vice president of the Dawa, but is widely held to be in charge of the entire movement. Then, the Dawa and Nour had a series of disagreements with Morsy so strong that he fired their only cabinet minister. In tears, the minister said he was happy to be leaving such a situation.
The departure of Nour from the ranks of Morsy supporters came at the beginning of a two-month-long campaign to get people to come out and join the call for an early election on June 30, 2013. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, either at the Presidential Palace or in Tahrir Square, calling instead for Morsy to resign. In two other squares, Nahda and Rabaa al-Adaweya, supporters of Morsy gathered to support him, among them a large number of Salafis.
When Morsy was overthrown and detained by the military on July 3rd, Galal al-Morra, a leader in Nour, stood next to then-defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he announced a transitional plan. The Dawa’s accession to the overthrow gave the coalition an Islamist representative in a time when Islamism was being widely demonized.
“If I see someone is being led into a wall, I should have to run into it with him? No, the opposite,” said Borhamy in his ground floor clinic. For an Islamic group like Borhamy’s to pull support from an elected Islamic ruler was to run contrary to an Islamic legal precept. During Morsy’s ouster though, pragmatism and self-preservation took precedent.
Borhamy speaks in the manner of many Salafis in what sounds like a smokers voice. In reality he rasps from talking all day, using rhetorical and logical flourishes, patience, and earnest but relaxed eye contact that are skills picked up during years of converting people to his brand of Islam.
“On the subject of abandoning the ruler: what can I do? [Should] I go into chaos, for example? I’m not prepared for that and that was the reason we supported Sisi during what was going on,” Borhamy said. “Our support for him was for the survival of state, not that we supported him to kill. And, I said that killing was definitely going to happen.”
He was right. For six weeks, Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters camped out in their twin tent cities through the month of Ramadan until security forces attacked the sit ins, and killed hundreds. The Nour Party denounced the violence but didn’t break from supporting the coup, even calling it exactly that in a time when the Egyptian elite was obsessed with labeling it a revolution instead.
“They are the victims of a massacre at the hands of the national army. They were peaceful civilian protesters of the military coup that deposed a democratically-elected president,” said a letter sent to foreign journalists at the time.
The aftermath of the sit-ins’ bloody dispersal was also violent. Protests were met with gunfire, and civil society groups put the number of those detained in the tens of thousands.
The Egyptian government’s crackdown on Brotherhood supporters and Islamists in general has been broad, with many put into prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Islamists are not the only ones being persecuted – bystanders or passersby at liberal protests have often been detained, or even indicted in some instances. Borhamy often intercedes on behalf of families whose family members have been detained, making calls to them and to security officials.
Borhamy spent a year in prison himself, as did Abdel Aziz. When Abdel Aziz was traveling to Tanta in the Nile Delta to be engaged, he was met by a plainclothes police officer at the station. He was detained and held for a week in a dark dirty room with not enough room for all the prisoners to sleep and a cinematic, slowly moving ceiling fan. Later, his experience on how to deal with detention was taught to the group’s cadres in a lecture known as the “Tanta visa.” Dawa members like him and other Salafis were arrested, and frequently—most members are eager to share their own stories of detention and take their own lessons from it. But, the government didn’t employ anything like the massive dragnet it is using now.
“As far as we see, its not possible for the country to stabilize with 30,000 imprisoned. Its impossible,” said Borhamy. He spoke about a lapsed Salafi that became a Brotherhood supporter and was in jail for making a list of security officials and their addresses in a time where police officers are being assassinated outside their homes. “A day will come that they get out and they admit that, even Sisi himself. It’s not reasonable.”
As part of the efforts to tamp down protests, the government moved to regulate mosques under the pretense of eliminating platforms for radical thought. The policy was originally proposed by the Brotherhood’s government, but was implemented more than a year after Morsy had left office. 27,000 mosques were closed until a licensed preacher could fill each pulpit. No effort was made by the government to exempt Dawa preachers from the process: many of the group’s leaders, including Shehat and Borhamy, were banned from giving Friday sermons until they passed a test from the Ministry of Endowments.
When they were summoned to take the tests, they were full of “yes” or “no” questions, such as, “Is democracy permitted or forbidden in Islam?” Shehat was singled out and given a special test other Sheikhs did not have to complete. He failed. When Borhamy was tested, he looked at the test, then defiantly left the room with it. Later, the government backtracked on their decision and Dawa leaders were reinstated. Borhamy is set to deliver a sermon at one of the largest mosques in Alexandria for Eid al-Fitr on July 17.
The return of Dawa preachers to mosques came as the government was seeking to counteract radical thought and violence. The Islamic State had recently gained a franchise in the Sinai Peninsula, and the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes changed its name to Sinai Province. The Dawa believes that there isn’t a strictly military solution to Sinai’s problems, but there should be religious outreach as well.
“I’m saying to the officials when we win, [there will be] new enemies because those who are undertaking suicide bombings are 15 and 16-year olds, meaning that 4 years ago during the Revolution they were playing soccer,” said Borhamy. “If we have a problem with the new generation that’s less knowledgeable [on religion], more violent. and more radical, that’s a dangerous crisis.”
In the days of Mubarak, security forces treated the Dawa as a possible security threat, Abdel Aziz says, but now, since the revolution and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, there is communication and coordination. Their security cooperation goes beyond advocacy, and into monitoring groups, especially Shia and atheists. Abdel Aziz says that these groups are destabilizing to Egypt. “The Dawa Salafiya resists all of these. We are facing them,” he says. “We can talk about this subject as the file of security cooperation, and it’s made up of many topics, including the Shia encroachment.”
The Dawa also monitors supposed atheist activities in Egypt. At a conference, Borhamy said that the Dawa sent five members to monitor “Atheist Street,” a group of cafés in downtown Cairo reported on by sensationalist Egyptian media which published photos of human rights lawyers lounging on its sidewalks.
Downtown Cairo has a significant security deployment and network, but the Dawa has an organizational presence in many towns and urban areas where the police have not been able to infiltrate due to infrastructure issues and a lack of public trust. Before Mubarak’s ouster, Dawa charity networks and organ izations drew the ire of security forces for their political potential, which indeed brought them to halls of power. Now those networks are an asset for police work.
Brotherhood supporters have long dismissed Dawa and Nour as “amnageya,” a derogatory term for people who cooperate with the ‘amn’ or security. But it is also clear that its not a one sided deal. For a group like the Dawa, Shia, atheists, violent extremists, and Brotherhood upstarts are all threats to its long term project of Islamizing Egyptian society, whether it be through alternative messages or a threat to the stability of Egypt. If a civil war happens, it would be harder to preach their message, says Abdel Aziz. Both he and Borhamy see their group in the service of the Egyptian national interest.
This partnership with the state security is uneasy, though. The main pillars of the Egyptian state all have disagreements with the Dawa on different levels, and the upcoming parliamentary elections have been an increasing source of tension. For example, the Nour Party opposed the current electoral law on account of gerrymandering and other restrictions that could preclude meaningful competition altogether.
But, the state knows that enthusiastic participation of the Nour Party means a higher turnout, and consequently more legitimate elections. During the 2014 presidential election, Sisi’s campaign even gave Abdel Aziz a special certificate thanking him and the Nour Party.
The question of Nour’s electoral viability could be moot now since the party’s very public, cooperation with the state has alienated much of its original base who now see the party as too duplicitous to support. Abdel Aziz, who has run several campaigns, is optimistic that, with their support of the coup, they can not only replace the voters they lost but also win new support, both Islamist and secular. But, many voters have simply withdrawn from political life and discussion altogether.
The last music video that Abou Ammar released was filmed on the turquoise and white beaches that stretch across Egypt’s northern coast. In “A stab to the nation” he scolded Nour and the Dawa for abandoning their principles and their collaboration with what he called “oppression.”
قلناها صباحك نور We told it good morning
وباركنا تانى عبور and blessed the second crossing
وحلفنا عشانها الغاليه and we swore for Egypt, our dear
أسسنا حزب النور we established Nour
مطلعش لوجه الله But it wasn’t for the sake of God
ولا همه كان رضاه its main concern wasn’t God’s contentment
وبعد اللى شفناه and after what we saw
ازاى هتكون معذور يانور how can you be forgiven, oh Nour?
ازاى بتمد فى ايدك How can you stretch your hand
للظالم ويكون سيدك to the tyrant to make him your master
وعايزنى امشى طريق and you want me to march in your path?
ومنين هيجلنا النور how will that bring us light?
It wasn’t the first time he had released songs critical of the government, but it was seemingly the first time he had directly criticized the Nour Party in verse. Shortly after the video was made public, police raided Abou Ammar’s home and detained him because of his stances on social media. He was set free, but stopped writing against the regime, releasing songs, and speaking to media.
Jahd Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist. You can follow his work on Jahdkhalil.com or on Twitter @jahdkhalil.