Salafi Movement inEgypt may endorse Abou Al Fotouh

Ghaffour portrayed al-Nour as a kingmaker, saying whomever it backs for the presidency would win.

The head of Egypt’s Salafi party said it might back an Islamist for the presidency and criticized the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to field a candidate in the election to replace ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

The Islamist al-Nour party is the second biggest bloc in parliament after the Brotherhood and claims broad influence over Egypt’s Salafis, whose puritanical approach to Islamic practice is inspired by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology.

A popular Salafi sheikh was barred last week from Egypt’s first free presidential vote and the remaining Islamist candidates are wooing his supporters. Al-Nour did not field its own contender.

An obvious beneficiary might be Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood’s candidate who has been courting the conservative vote. Mursi’s chief Islamist rival is Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who quit the Brotherhood last year.

Al-Nour leader Emad Abdel Ghaffour, speaking to Reuters in the northern port city of Alexandria, indicated that figures such as Abol Fotouh were contenders for his party’s patronage.

“Al-Nour party’s candidate will be the one with an Islamic background and who adopts the application of Sharia (Islamic law), even if it is gradual,” he said.

“We met (Abol Fotouh) many times. He passed by the party’s bases in Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta and I met him twice. He told us he would be fair to all Egyptians and would work on a religious basis. He sent messages of reassurance.”

Political experts say the Salafi movement has up to 3 million devotees and controls as many as 4,000 mosques, making it a formidable force in Egypt’s new politics.

Ghaffour portrayed al-Nour as a kingmaker, saying whomever it backs for the presidency would win.

“The next president will be decided through al-Nour’s voting bloc,” he said. The party will decide whom to back once the state Presidential Election Committee publishes the final list of candidates on April 26.

The game of shifting alliances could throw up more surprises before then. Al-Nour may be trying to exert pressure on the Brotherhood to gain a bigger say over the policies of a future Islamist-led government and the allocation of ministries.

The Islamist candidates, who also include Islamist thinker Mohamed Selim al-Awa, have been lobbying different Salafi groups in an attempt to win their backing.

Though they both share the goal of a more pious, Islamic society, al-Nour and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have often looked more like rivals than allies.

Ghaffour said al-Nour would emerge stronger than ever from the vote because it had shown maturity by not fielding a presidential candidate. The Brotherhood had pledged not to seek the country’s highest office but changed its mind in late March.

“I think we will emerge as the biggest winner from the election period and our popularity will double,” he said. “We didn’t field a candidate, although other groups did and bred distrust… We didn’t rush to support any candidate.”

Abol Fotouh was a senior member of the Brotherhood during Mubarak’s three decades in power, when it was sidelined from formal politics, but the movement expelled him last year when he announced he would run for the presidency.

Ghaffour said he had told the Brotherhood’s initial candidate Khairat al-Shater, who was disqualified by the election committee that fielding a Brotherhood candidate would be a wrong move.

“I told Shater four days before they took their decision that we recommended they do not field a candidate and told him ‘If you do, we aren’t committed to backing him’,” Ghaffour said.