CAIRO (AP) — Internal feuds are threatening to unravel the political party of Egypt's ultraconservative Islamist Salafis, as pragmatists try to shake off the control of hardline clerics who reject any compromise in their stark, puritanical version of Islam.
The fight for leadership could paralyze the Al-Nour Party, which rocketed out of nowhere to become Egypt's second most powerful political force, behind the Muslim Brotherhood. Together, the Brotherhood and Al-Nour embodied the rise of Islamists to prominence after last year's fall of Hosni Mubarak.
It also underlines the key dilemma in the project of political Islam — what to do when the maneuverings of democratic politics collide with demands for strict purity of religious ideology, particularly the unbending, black-and-white doctrine of the Salafis. Infighting among the Salafis could discredit their aims of radical Islamization of Egypt in the eyes of some Egyptians who saw the movement as pious and uncorrupt, calling for strict adherence to the Quran and the ways of the Prophet Muhammad.
"The party is exploding from inside," Mohammed Habib, who was once a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, said of Al-Nour. "In the street, it has lost its credibility. People see clerics who they used to see as men of God engaging in earthy disputes. They used to trust them. This will have a negative impact not only on Al-Nour or Salafis but on all Islamists in politics."
Salafis are among the most hardcore conservatives in Egypt, with a stricter vision of Islam than the Brotherhood.
Salafi men are known for their long beards, with the mustache shaved off — a style they say was worn by Muhammad — while the women wear the "niqab," an enveloping black robe and veil that leaves only the eyes visible. They advocate strict segregation of the sexes and an unbendingly literal interpretation of the Quran, saying society should mirror the way the prophet ruled the early Muslims in the 7th Century. They say they want to turn Egypt into a pure Islamic society, implementing strict Shariah law.
They also reject democracy as a heresy, since it would supplant God's law with man's rulings.
Nevertheless, after Mubarak's fall in February 2011, the movement's main institution of clerics, the Alexandria-based "Salafi Call," backed the creation of Al-Nour to run in parliament elections on the religious principle that "what is necessary permits what is prohibited." The party's showing was stunning, winning a quarter of the seats, second only to the Brotherhood's 50 percent of the legislature — a testimony to the popular networks Salafi clerics set up under Mubarak's rule. Parliament was disbanded by a court ruling this year because of faults in the election law.
Now the party is in a bitter feud over leadership.
The first camp is led by the party's founder and chief Emad Abdel-Ghafour, who advocates separating between the party and the Salafi Call to give the party ability to maneuver away from clerics' edicts.
The second camp is tightly connected to a heavyweight Salafi cleric, Yasser Borhami, and opposes separation. Several prominent party figures are in this camp, including former spokesman Nader Bakar, who was removed from his post by Abdel-Ghafour.
The second camp put forward a rival candidate for party leader, Mustafa Khalifa, to run in internal elections. But Abdel-Ghafour then suspended voting, accusing his rivals of forgery to pack party positions with their loyalists.
Now the dispute has been thrown to the state's Political Parties Committee, which says it will rule Sunday on who is the party's legitimate leader. It could also suspend the party over the internal fighting.
The feud is the latest embarrassment tarnishing Al-Nour's image the past year. One of its lawmakers was kicked out of parliament for lying about getting nose job surgery, claiming he had been beaten up by political rivals. Another lawmaker was caught fondling a woman on his lap in a parked car at night and was sentenced to a year in prison for public indecency.