By Mahmoud Mourad
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Nour Party, the only Islamist group to escape a crackdown on dissent after the Muslim Brotherhood's overthrow two years ago, is now blaming state tactics for its dismal performance in parliamentary elections.
Tensions are rising between the party, which draws support from conservative Salafi Muslims, and the government even though it has backed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Nour has accused the government of arresting members, orchestrating a media campaign against it and curbing its ability to campaign for Egypt's first parliamentary election in three years, which began in October and ends this week.
In the first round, the party won just nine seats out of the 286 contested, in sharp contrast to its second place overall behind the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2012 contest.
"This result does not represent the true political or societal weight of Salafis in Egypt," said Yasser Borhami, a prominent party leader and second in command of Nour's parent organization, the Salafi Calling.
Nour was being persecuted by state bodies that want it to be "very small" despite its backing of the government, Borhami told Reuters in an interview. "The Interior Ministry is prosecuting members of the party," he said at his home in the coastal city of Alexandria, a traditional Salafi stronghold.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abu Bakr Abdel Karim dismissed the allegations. "Our role is complete security. We do not interfere in the electoral process. The Interior Ministry provides for the voting process's electoral needs. We are completely neutral," he said.
Once regarded as the kingmaker of Egyptian politics, Nour backed the Muslim Brotherhood during its troubled year in power, then sided with the man that toppled it in 2013, Sisi, who was army chief at the time.
Nour's maneuvering enabled it to contest elections while thousands of other Islamists were jailed by Sisi, who went on to become elected president. But its political fortunes are taking a turn for the worst in an election Sisi has described as the final step on Egypt's road to democracy.
Hani Sarhan, a former Nour official in the oasis city of Fayoum southwest of Cairo, said the party had lost credibility by not taking a firm political stand.
"The changing face of the party destroyed its popularity," he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood came to power and they backed it. Then Sisi came along and they dropped the Brotherhood and backed him instead."
Sisi ousted President Mohamed Mursi, a Brotherhood leader, in July 2013 after mass protests against his rule.
Shortly afterwards, constitutional amendments that included a ban on religious parties were introduced by a 50-member committee on which Nour had one seat. A year after ousting Mursi, Sisi resigned as head of the military and ran for president, winning 98 percent of the vote. Nour backed him.
Borhami accused the Interior Ministry of moving civil servants who are members of its campaign team out of party strongholds to different cities and arresting dozens.
Abdel Karim denied the government was targeting the group. "The Nour Party is a party like any other, it is exercising its right and the competition is open to all parties. People compete against each other and we have nothing to do with it at all," he said.
Former party members and analysts say it was Nour's attempts at compromise - which were regarded as selling out by its traditional supporters - and not any crackdown that cost it so much.
"Many of its base lost confidence after the party failed to support the Brotherhood in its fight with the state. If you try to hold the middle ground you lose both sides," said Yasser Abdelaziz, member of the National Human Rights Council.
While Nour escaped the constitutional ban on religious parties, this nevertheless curbed its room for maneuver.
"The party also entered this battle without the use of its greatest weapon: religion. It was unable to use religious slogans in campaigning," said Abdelaziz.
(Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Moaz Abdelaziz in Fayoum; Editing by Michael Georgy and David Stamp)