New kingmaker in post-Islamist Egypt: Even crazier Islamists

You know the rule. With few exceptions, whatever follows upheaval in the Middle East is worse than what preceded it. Egypt’s right on track.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Nour (a.k.a. Salafist) party, they’re the people who wanted Egypt’s new constitution to be even more hardline in its devotion to sharia than the Muslim Brotherhood did. I wonder what’ll follow them after they take power and inevitably fail too.

The Al Nour party, widely regarded two years ago as bumbling amateurs, now has unique leverage. It was the only Islamist party to support removing Mr. Morsi, despite his ties to the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. And the sight of Al Nour’s bearded sheik, standing behind the general who announced the takeover on television, was the only signal to Egyptian voters that the move had not been an attack on Islam, as some of the ousted president’s supporters are saying…

Over the weekend, Al Nour tested its leverage for the first time to force the retraction of an announced plan to name a liberal icon, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, as interim prime minister…

The bedfellows could not be stranger. Since its inception two years ago, the Nour party has campaigned more than anything else for constitutional provisions enshrining Islamic law, not just “the principles of Islamic law,” as Egypt’s charter read for three decades. Al Nour and other Salafist parties sought to give religious scholars a constitutional power to strike down any legislation that they deemed contradictory to Islamic law. But in the drafting of the country’s new Constitution last year, the Muslim Brotherhood sided with the liberals to block such a provision. Al Nour succeeded in preventing an express guarantee of equality for women from being written into the new charter, and it has defended prohibitions of heresy.

There are too many Islamists in Egypt to deny that faction representation in the new government and no one outside the Muslim Brotherhood itself trusts the Brotherhood with power right now, so Nour’s the winner by default. All they needed to do to get a seat at the table was play nice with the secularists and other anti-Morsi factions by joining the protests against the MB, so that’s what they did. Just one hitch: What about all the Morsi fans in the MB who consider Nour’s participation in the new government a knife in the back of Islamism? Aren’t they … angry? Why, yes:

Nour is facing criticism for its stance. Many Morsi supporters at a rally Friday denounced Nour as betraying the country’s first Islamist president. Ironically, in the eyes of strict Salafists, Nour made the same mistake as the Brotherhood: sacrificing religious principles for political power.

“Nour is now finding itself somewhat ostracized within the mainstream Islamist movement because of its support for military intervention,” said Sultan.

A Brotherhood spokesman said of Nour, “They are being used to beautify or whitewash this military coup. They are making enemies on both sides.” Two big X factors here, then. One: How many Islamist voters will Nour inherit from the Brotherhood due to public disgust with Morsi? A “pragmatic” Islamist will migrate to Nour simply because they’re the only game in town if you want some leverage inside government. Others, like these lunatics, will stick with the MB and bitterly resent Nour for having sold out The Cause in the name of gaining power. That’s not a terrible result, actually — having Islamists at each others’ throats is better than having them at anyone else’s. With the secularists pushing back against Nour’s Islamist constitutional ambitions in the new coalition government and the Brotherhood stirring up Islamist resentment against them on the other side, maybe Nour ends up more or less paralyzed, with only token concessions from the rest of the coalition to hand them “achievements” they can show to Islamist voters.

Two: Does any of this still apply in the aftermath of this morning’s massacre of Morsi supporters? The two pieces quoted above were published this weekend, before it happened. The hotter things get on the street and the more mobilized Islamists become against the army, the more Nour’s participation in the coalition looks like outright treason to the fundies. The head cleric of Al-Azhar University is already warning of civil war; yesterday, influential Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa calling on Egyptians to support Morsi. At some point, if things escalate, defending the army against the pro-Morsi insurgency will become politically poisonous for Nour and they’ll have to quit the government. So maybe “kingmaker” status here is fleeting. Unless something changes soon on the ground, the dynamic will be Islamists versus the army and non-Islamists, which leaves Nour either out of power or out of legitimacy.

Whatever happens, don’t forget: Egypt is an economic disaster and therefore ungovernable. By conventional means, anyway.