(Corrects name of Islamist politician in 9th paragraph)
By Nadine Awadalla
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) - Egypt’s last permitted Islamist party is backing former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for a second presidential term, a quirk of electoral politics that reflects the precarious state of the country’s Islamists.
The ultra-conservative Nour Party believes it has no choice but to support Sisi if it wants to survive in a country where Islamists of other stripes are a political and military target for the army-backed authorities.
With turnout the authorities’ top concern in an election this week Sisi is virtually guaranteed to win, the Nour Party is trying to ensure its members are seen at the polls by bussing in voters from poor areas.
It has also set up centres to track participation and help people find their polling stations.
While not unexpected, it is still an eye-catching manoeuvre by a party that has traditionally defined itself by opposition to all things Western. Islamists including the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood were for decades the backbone of opposition to autocratic rule in Egypt.
Nour, founded after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has learned to adapt to shifts in the political landscape: It broke with the Brotherhood after it became clear that Egypt’s oldest Islamist group would not be able to stay in power.
“Do I have an alternative?” said Yasser Borhami, a cleric in Nour’s parent organization, the Salafi Calling.
“(We are) looking for the benefit of the country .. (We) are unfit (to run for office) in this period after the earthquake, so where is the alternative?” he told Reuters, referring to the tumultuous years following the popular revolt of 2011.
Leading Nour Party figure Galal Morra was one of a handful of religious and political leaders who flanked Sisi, then the army chief, when he went on television to announce the removal of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 after a series of mass protests against his rule.
Nearly five years on, the group, which once held 25 percent of parliament’s seats but now has only two percent, is still campaigning heavily for Sisi and struggling to prove its loyalty amid a political climate of fear, distrust and cynicism.
“Am I even ready to run for elections?” Borhami replied, when asked why the party did not nominate its own candidate for the presidential seat.
“Are state institutions going to cooperate with me? I’m coming after an earthquake, after the Muslim Brotherhood’s glaring failure in running the state and a major societal clash ... I’m not crazy enough to ask to run the state in light of these circumstances.”
The bearded 59-year-old spoke from a small party office in Egypt’s second city Alexandria, still a Salafi stronghold despite a ferocious government crackdown on Islamists including a military campaign against jihadists in Sinai.
Sisi’s only formal election contender was an obscure politician loyal to him. More serious challengers were forced out and several opposition politicians called for a boycott of the vote, saying repression had removed credible challengers.
Nour’s acceptance of Sisi in 2013 was viewed with suspicion by both liberals and Islamists including the Brotherhood, which was banned and declared a terrorist group. The party rejects accusations by critics that it has betrayed the Islamist cause.
Not everyone in Nour is happy with its cautious stance.
Some of the group’s youth, which make up more than 75 percent of those who participated in rallies and organised ahead of the vote, are believed to want a more assertive stance.
But Abdullah Badran, Nour’s general secretary, told Reuters that the decision of the party leadership to get involved in the campaign had been followed by its “base”.
Three female party members said other voters and authorities securing the polling stations appeared surprised to see the group of women wearing all-encompassing burqa gowns and niqabs, the full-face veils worn by ultra-conservative Muslim women.
“They even asked to take selfies with us,” one woman said.
Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich