Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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The limits of tolerance

Amira Howeidy

The would-be founders of the Al-Shari'a (Islamic law) Party planned to hold their first seminar, grouping a large number of prominent intellectuals, last Sunday, to discuss whether or not "the Egyptian political and constitutional framework could allow the trends of political Islam to exist legally". Although the seminar, entitled "the Islamist movement between government restrictions and open-door politics", was never held, the would-be founders got a signal anyway. Security forces, said Mamdouh Ismail, Al-Shari'a's leading would-be founder, asked the hotel that was going to host the event to cancel it.

In a statement following the cancellation, Ismail took issue with what he described as the "negative security measures against the founders of Al-Shari'a, but not other parties".

Ismail applied for a licence to establish the party with the Shura Council's Political Parties Committee (PPC) last month.

The statement said that several would-be founders, whose names were submitted to the PPC at the time, had been pressured, and frequently arrested by police, to withdraw their names. Since the Political Parties Law stipulates -- among other things -- that the number of a party's founders should not be less than 50, Al-Shari'a could face a serious impediment should they fail to meet this quorum.

According to Ismail, three would-be founders have already been arrested. They include Sheikh Mohamed Ali Suleiman, head of the Al-Gam'iya Al-Shar'iya, the nation's largest Islamic NGO, located in the working-class Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba. Two others, Raafat Ibrahim Nasr and Sabri Mohamed Ahmed, were briefly arrested, but later released after they withdrew from the "party".

Lawyer Montasser El-Zayyat, who has been the de facto spokesman of the militant Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya for years and who strongly supports Ismail's initiative, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "all the founders have been coming under pressure and Ismail's office was raided by the police".

Ismail's move to establish a political party coincided with a similar initiative by another Islamist group to gain a licence. Ismail, a former member of the militant Jihad group, was arrested in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat, and later sentenced to three years imprisonment in the so-called Jihad case involving an alleged attempt to overthrow the government. At the time, Ismail was in high school which meant that he was not a leading member of the group. After his release, he pursued his studies in law school and later worked in El-Zayyat's office.

Although the Political Parties Law prohibits the establishment of parties on religious foundations, Ismail's group confidently gave their platform the obvious Islamic name of Al-Shari'a.

Another group, led by Gamal Sultan, a journalist with the Islamist-oriented Labour Party mouthpiece Al-Shaab, also applied for a party licence under the name of Al-Islah (reform) earlier this month. Armed with the membership of Kamal Habib, a leading member of Jihad who was once the group's deputy emir in the 1970s, Sultan's move triggered competition with Al-Shari'a.

An observer close to both groups told the Weekly that El-Zayyat orchestrated the Al-Shari'a initiative so that Al-Islah would not be the only Islamist group with militant roots to seek legality. "There is a serious rift in Islamist circles because of this," said the source.

However, according to Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher with the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, "It is a healthy sign that they are being transformed from an Islamist to a political group, with all the negative ramifications of the latter."

According to Rashwan, who was among many others invited to speak at Sunday's cancelled seminar, "testing" the government position seems to have been Ismail's objective.

The Al-Shari'a's arrests are reminiscent of what happened to the would-be founders of the Wassat Party, which never took off the ground. Defecting from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood three years ago, Wassat's leading would-be founder, Abul-Ela Madi, former assistant chairman of the Engineers Syndicate, was briefly arrested and put on military trial for "attempting to form a party as a front for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood".

Two attempts by the Wassat group to establish a party have been turned down by the PPC. The party's would-be founders announced that they would make yet a third attempt soon.

According to El-Zayyat, the attempt to reduce the number of Al-Shari'a's would-be founders "is an indirect way for the PPC to turn it down because, with the growing number of applications from Islamist groups to establish parties, the government might feel obliged to accept one which, in this case, would be the Wassat".

But Rashwan argued that this remains a far-fetched possibility. He argued that ever since the militant groups observed a cease-fire initiative in 1997, security authorities have responded cautiously and less aggressively "as we've seen with the release of thousands of political detainees, for example".

"However, the political decision remains that of absolutely not allowing any Islamists, of any background, to exist politically," he added.

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