CAIRO – Egypt's largest ultraconservative Islamist party, which has emerged as a potent political force in the country, elected a new leader on Wednesday after the previous head broke away to form his own political group following months of infighting.
Younis Makhyoun, a 58-year-old cleric and trained dentist, was selected in a consensus vote to lead the Salafi Al-Nour party, one of several religion-based parties to take root after the 2011 Egyptian uprising. His election marks the consolidation of power of the religious clerics who cofounded the party and successfully faced down a challenge from the previous leadership to separate the group's politics from its religious ideology.
Makhyoun takes over just two months before President Mohammed Morsi is expected to call for new parliamentary elections, and Al-Nour's new leader immediately turned his sights on the vote. He described the next parliament as "the most dangerous and the most important" in Egypt's history because its mission will be "to purify all laws from whatever violates Islamic Shariah law."
Makhyoun was among the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly that wrote Egypt's new constitution. The charter deeply polarized Egyptians and sparked deadly street protests, but passed by a 64 percent "yes" vote in a referendum in which around 33 percent of voters participated.
Islamists perceive the constitution as the first step toward redefining Egypt's identity to conform to Shariah, or Islamic law.
"We want to liberate Egypt from slavery and submission," Makhyoun said while trying to assuage fears of women and Christians by saying Shariah would "liberate women from the West's moral decay that brought humiliation."
Al-Nour was founded by a group of influential hardline Salafi clerics shortly after the 2011 Egyptian uprising that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Their single-minded dedication to applying Islamic law sets them apart from Egypt's strongest Islamist force, the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares many of the Salafi fundamentalist beliefs but also has a history of political pragmatism to achieve its ends.
Salafis follow the Wahhabi school of thought, which predominates in Saudi Arabia. They promote a strict interpretation of Islamic law which mandates segregation of the sexes, bans banks from charging interest and punishes theft by cutting off thieves' hands.
Al-Nour made a surprisingly strong showing in the country's first parliamentary elections last year, capturing 25 percent of the seats and trailing only the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's best-organized political force. Their success reflected years of grassroots organizing throughout the country, giving them a ready-made network of support when they entered politics.
That parliament was disbanded by a court order last year. A new one should be elected within two months starting from the day the Egypt's new constitution is put into effect, according to the charter.
The party has been riven by internal feuds over the past year as it struggles to reconcile democratic maneuvering with religious ideology. Al-Nour's founder, Emad Abdel-Ghafour, broke away earlier this month to form a new party over disagreements tied to the role of a body of clerics in the group's politics.
Some of the divisions were also linked to concerns with the Brotherhood. Some Salafis fear the Brotherhood is too willing to compromise in pursuit of an Islamic state. During last year's parliamentary elections, Al-Nour split from an electoral alliance with the Brotherhood after complaining of the group's attempt to monopolize the alliance.