By Valentina Colombo
30 May 2013
In early May, Amr al-Makki, a prominent member of Egypt’s Salafist Nour party announced that the party “would not present itself as a political alternative to the Freedom and Justice Party, nor any other political party” and “[it] will reach out to Egyptian communities abroad to bring hope and convince them to take part in rebuilding the nation after the revolution”.
Al-Makki made the announcement on the eve of a ten-day tour, with other party delegates, to visit Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and France. This European tour was not only designed for the purpose of electoral campaigning among Egyptians living abroad, but also to establish direct contacts with European politicians.
Al Arabiya’s website reported that the Salafi party asked Saad al-Din Ibrahim, the founder of the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, to help them contact deputies both in the United States and Europe. Ibrahim declared that: “The Salafis, after one year, realised that they were used by the Brotherhood to get into power and now they are being treated like slaves in ancient Rome. Lately this has made them upset, which means they have started looking for independent channels to reach Egyptians abroad”.
During Egypt’s 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, the Nour Party, after the Muslim Brotherhood, became the second most powerful political force in Egypt. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, both parties embodied the rise to prominence of Islamists. This year’s parliamentary elections were supposed to start on April 22nd, but were postponed until the end of the year and are likely to take place in October.
The Nour party’s European tour was intended to inform Egyptians in Europe about the party’s vision and political views. It was their first time to come to Europe independently. Previously in October, the party travelled to the Netherlands as part of a delegation of five Egyptian parties: the Freedom and Justice Party, the liberal-nationalist Wafd Party, the liberal Free Egyptians, and the socialist Tagammu Party. On their latest tour, the Salafists chose to visit countries that already have large Egyptian communities in which Salafi ideas are known to be widespread.
The highlight of the tour was a conference held in Brussels on the subject of Europe’s southern neighbourhood. It was organised by Carnegie Europe, in collaboration with a number of prestigious European-based institutions. At the two-day event, which took place in the European Parliament and the Fondation Universitaire, those invited represented Islamist parties: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Nahdha party in Tunisia, Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, and the Moroccan Justice and Charity Party and Justice and Development Party. Egypt’s al-Nour Party and the ultra-conservative Asala (Authenticity) Party represented the Salafis.
One of the most important Nour party members invited was the 28-year-old Nader Bakkar. His speedy ascendance up the political ladder is due to the party’s imposition of a 20 percent quota for members under the age of 35. Bakkar is currently the party’s spokesman and, according to Egypt Independent, is working to “diffuse stereotypes about Salafis”.
He says he is part of the “internet generation” and even hosts a show on al-Jazeera. Men like Bakkar are helping to rebrand Salafism, which helps attract the interest of young European Muslims, especially in countries like Germany where Salafi ideas are attracting not only Muslims, but also young German people. The tour in question is clearly designed to further this process and spread “moderate” Salafi ideas in Europe.
European institutions should be aware of the growing popularity of Salafi parties throughout the Middle East. They should understand that while countries like Egypt and Tunisia are in the midst of a difficult transition phase, it is important to reach out to members of the opposition and not just Islamic parties. They are not the only political partners across the Mediterranean.
The Salafis in Egypt believe the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi, in particular, are in a difficult position. Internal problems, both social and political, have weakened the ruling party. Accusations of corruption against the Brotherhood could mean a shift in the next elections towards the Islamist right and to Salafi parties. For Egyptians who demand change and want firm leadership in line with Islamic values, the Nour party seems like a natural choice.
But it is vital that European lawmakers are not easily swayed by slick PR campaigns and take measures to carefully scrutinise Nour’s policies and question its leadership. Given the growing popularity of the Salafism across Europe, EU leaders should fully understand the nature of its ideology and political aspirations, especially in this uncertain period.
Valentina Colombo is a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels