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Egypt's hardline Islamist party unravels, pointing to fragility in political Islam

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.

The impact of the feud on its public support has yet to be tested. If Al-Nour breaks up, the Muslim Brotherhood could benefit as some religious conservatives turn to it as a political vehicle. A longtime Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, is Egypt's president. Other Salafis could turn to more radical extremist groups, including former jihadist groups that have now formed political parties.

The public display of divisions and bitter exchanges in the press hurt a movement that presents itself as having clear-cut, divinely dictated answers to the country's problems.

"This is the end of the religious utopia," wrote Khalil Anani, scholar in Islamic movements in the Al-Hayat newspaper. "Mixing ... between political and religious activity is a ticking bomb inside the Islamic currents."

Kamal Habib, an Islamist thinker, said the image of the clerics "has been harmed."

"Clerics should leave politics and let the party work independently from them," he told The Associated Press.

The Al-Nour Party's pragmatists don't necessarily hold more moderate views than its pro-cleric camp. Instead, the dispute centers more on issues of personal power and how much a party trying to navigate Egypt's new political system must adhere to the clerics' strict lines. The party has already repeatedly wrestled with that question.

Unlike the 86-year-old Brotherhood, which is highly disciplined and deeply versed in politics, the Salafi movement is more of an umbrella for various schools that differ in their views, spiritual leaders and methods. For nearly three decades, the Salafi school shunned politics, spreading its message through mosques, charity, and TV stations. It was not targeted in security crackdowns under Mubarak since it posed no political challenge to the ruling regime, unlike the Brotherhood and violent jihadist groups, some of which were offshoots of the Salafis.

But another result is that it is less cohesive than the Brotherhood, clumsier with politics and more vulnerable to splits.

During this year's presidential campaign, many young Salafis defied the party by backing the candidacy of Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, a firebrand cleric who mixed Salafi and revolutionary ideas but who was not welcomed by Al-Nour's clerics. In the end, Abu-Ismail had to drop out of the race.

The party was further split over which of the two main Islamist candidates to back — Morsi of the Brotherhood or the more liberal Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who defected from the Brotherhood. Al-Nour backed Aboul Fotouh out of fear of Brotherhood domination. The elders of the Salafi Call, however, shunned him because of his moderate views and close ties with secularists.

Though both are Islamist movements, opposition to the Brotherhood runs deep among many Salafis, who fear the more organized group will overwhelm them and who say the Brotherhood is too willing to compromise in pursuit of an Islamic state.

Sheik Borhami frequently lashes out at the Brotherhood, warning in one sermon, "If they get empowered, they will curb Salafism, no doubt." He went so far as to meet secretly with Morsi's opponent in the run-off presidential election, Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak's last prime minister — embarrassing Al-Nour when word of their talks leaked.

Another top Salafi cleric Abu Ishaq al-Hawani denounced the Brotherhood's outreach to Christians, who Salafis often say are trying to wreck Egypt's Islamic character. "This is total loss," he said of past meetings between Brotherhood leaders and the Coptic Christian pope.

In contrast, their rival in the Al-Nour Party, Abdel-Ghafour, has become one of Morsi's advisers in a sign of cooperation with the Brotherhood.

"It's politics killing even the most rigid and stubborn ideology," wrote Ashraf el-Sherif, a scholar in Islamist movement studies in an article in April, predicting the collapse of Al-Nour.