Egypt's ultraconservative Islamists back Sisi, seek to eclipse Brotherhood

By Yasmine Saleh

By Yasmine Saleh ABU HOMOS Egypt (Reuters) - Egypt's ultra-conservative Islamist Al Nour party is voicing interest in joining President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's new government as part of a strategy to replace the banned Moslem Brotherhood as the country's most influential Islamist movement. Al Nour chief Younes Makhyoun, who enjoys strong support in Egypt's poor cities and slum areas where Sisi's liberal-leaning allies are weak, said in an interview with Reuters his party's strategy would be to "help Sisi in his rule". He backed the former general when the army toppled the Brotherhood last year. When asked if his party would be willing to take up a post in Sisi’s new government, Makhyoun, said: “Very likely and I expect so if God is willing.” “We are ready and we don’t mind any opportunity to present through it something for Egypt. It is a national duty to seek that. I would not mind joining the president as a consultant on his team or in the coming cabinet if he offered us so.” Sisi has indicated he will show little tolerance for political Islam in a country where leaders with military backgrounds have battled militants for decades. But political and security officials say he might see advantages to engaging them in some form after parliamentary elections expected in few months provide a clear view of the country's political landscape. Sisi could need broader support in moving to crush militants who have stepped up attacks on soldiers and police since the former army chief deposed President Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood last year after mass protests against his rule. For now, security officials said, Sisi needs technocrats to fix a soaring budget deficit and education and health problems. KINGMAKERS The Salafists, whose doctrine asks followers to obey the ruler of their country, have already asserted some influence. In the aftermath of Mursi's ouster, they became kingmakers, blocking, in one instance, the nomination of a prime minister. Opposing Sisi would be a risky affair for any political movement, not least one of an Islamist stripe. Security forces killed hundreds of Brotherhood members in street protests, arrested thousands of others and put its leaders on trial. Al Nour appears to be betting that favor from following its support for Sisi will help it remain relevant, and safe, in a country where repression against Islamists has reached unprecedented levels. Al Nour came second after the Brotherhood in the 2012 parliamentary election with 20 percent of the vote. Makhyoun acknowledged that allegations that Mursi usurped power, imposed the Brotherhood's views on society and mismanaged the economy tarnished Egypt's Islamists in general. "There is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood made major mistakes when they were in power and that they affected us," Makhyoun said, talking in his villa in the poor village of Abu Homos, north of Cairo. "It had affected us negatively. Our power now on the street is different to how it was after the Jan. 25th revolution," he added, referring to the 2011 popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak and brought Mursi to power. But the Brotherhood's demise has also given Nour the chance to become the dominant Islamist group. The Nour party is formed mostly from religious preachers and popular Salafi scholars. It is unclear where it gets money to fund mosques, charities and branches across Egypt. But some analysts said it could be getting a financial aid from similar groups in wealthy Gulf Arab States. FLEXIBILITY The party's flexibility has contributed to its survival, avoiding politics then embracing it to maneuver in Egypt's volatile and polarized political climate. Sisi offered rare praise of an Islamist grouping when he commended what he called Al Nour's nationalism. But comments in television interviews during the election campaign offered strong hints that he would show no tolerance for overly-ambitious Islamists, saying there is no such thing as a religious state - challenging a central Islamist concept. Makhyoun, a soft-spoken dentist with a long beard, did not seem disturbed by Sisi's remarks. ‮‮‮‮‮‮‮‮‮‮‮ ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ "He was talking about the practices of a certain group that used religion to reach power," he said, in a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. In order to survive Egypt's upheaval, Al Nour was nimble. The party first welcomed Mursi; then when mass protests against his rule erupted, it switched sides. These days it endorses the state's campaign against fellow Islamists, the Brotherhood. Human rights groups say there are now over 16,000 political detainees in Egypt. "We first need to build the state's institutes and reach stability then fix any such violations," said Makhyoun, who worked as a religious preacher for 40 years. "We know that the Egyptians are religious, love Islam and its Sharia laws and in time and by us being close to the people on the streets, our situation and image will be enhanced." "I think the situation is moving in the right direction." (Editing by Michael Georgy and Ralph Boulton)