Egypt Islamist party that backed Morsi ouster in damage control mode after protester killings

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An Islamist party that is a key member of the factions that backed the military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi threatened to break with the country's new military-backed leadership after the killing of more than 50 Islamist protesters Sunday, trying to salvage its position in the face of criticism it had turned against its own movement.

Officials in the ultraconservative Salafi Al-Nour Party warned that some of its followers were abandoning the party and joining Morsi's supporters in the street, from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist allies.

Al-Nour leaders scrambled to try to find a way out of their corner. The group announced it was suspending cooperation with the interim leadership over its "road map" for the post-Morsi political system, denouncing the "massacre," and demanded an immediate start to reconciliation efforts between Morsi and his opponents.

In a statement, it described interim president Adly Mansour as a "dictator and with bias to a certain ideological current that doesn't have support in the Egyptian street," in reference to secularists. It said the military-backed road map for a post-Morsi system had only increased violence and led to "rise of suppressive measures and exceptional actions" referring to the arrests of five senior Brotherhood figures and the shutting down of several Islamist TV networks.

"We are presenting an initiative based on forming a committee for national reconciliation to deal with the problem since it exploded between Mohammed Morsi and his opposition," the party said.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera TV, the party's chief Younes Makhyoun raised the possibility of calling a referendum on Morsi. The idea was floated as a possible compromise before Morsi's ouster on Wednesday and had no acceptance then among the president's opponents — who are even less likely to accept it now.

Since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Al-Nour emerged as the most powerful party among the Salafist, an Islamist movement that holds an even more conservative and strict interpretation in Islam than Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. It was the second biggest winner in 2011-2012 parliamentary elections and was initially a key ally to Morsi when he took office. But over the course of his administration, it broke with him, complaining that his Brotherhood was monopolizing power. The move caused a split in the party ranks, with a breakaway faction forming a new party to remain with the president.

Even more dramatic was its allying with the military in a loose coalition where it was a decidedly odd fit. Hours before ousting Morsi, the military chief met with his collection of backers: the liberal National Salvation Front, bitterly resented by many Islamists; the sheik of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope, both of whom have had frictions with Salafis and other hard-liners; bitterly anti-Islamist youth activists — and al-Nour.

The other factions have been eager to keep Al-Nour on board to show Morsi's ouster had backing among the Islamists. But there were quickly frictions among them. Over the weekend, the Salafis blocked an attempt to have top reform figure Mohamed ElBaradei of the Salvation Front appointed prime minister and balked at a close ally of his proposed as a compromise. The moves infuriated some liberal and secular activists who questioned why Islamists should have veto power.

Hamada Nassar, a leading figure from the Gamaa Islamiya — a former Islamic militant group that is now an ally of Morsi but is in close contact with the Salafi movement, said Al-Nour is facing a "deep internal crisis."

"The generals needed a beard to join the beards of Al-Azhar's grand imam and the Coptic pope for a cinematic move to tell the world this is a revolution not a coup and all Egypt's political and religious spectrum is represented" Nassar said. "Now Al-Nour is in a trap ... with the bloodbath, the constituencies of the party are fragmenting, allies are leaving because they have been disappointed more than once."

One Al-Nour lawmaker said it's unclear how long party leaders can keep their control, with some members breaking ranks to join the Brotherhood. The lawmaker spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the group's internal situation.

The party appeared to have find some refuge in a strong position by Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Al-Azhar Mosque, who after Sunday's killings said he would go into seclusion until "until everyone shoulders his responsibility to stop the bloodshed instead of dragging the country into civil war." His protest aimed to push all sides into some sort of reconciliation — a theme Al-Nour was also hitting.

Unlike the Brotherhood, which more than 80 years old, 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.

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, or Islamic law.

They also reject democracy as a heresy, since it would supplant God's law with man's rulings — though they decided to set those concerns aside to enter post-Mubarak elections.

But it is less cohesive than the Brotherhood, clumsier with politics and more vulnerable to splits. Early on, the Salafis were divided over whether to back Morsi or a more moderate Islamist in the presidential elections last year. Al-Nour was also tarnished by other foibles. One lawmaker 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 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.

"What is more dangerous is loss of confidence and trust between the youth and sheikhs," said Nassar from Gamaa Islamiya. "Now the youth are rebelling and this could have permanent effect and the confidence won't be restored easily."