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12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
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Avoiding confrontation

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

Abul-Ela Madi

Abul-Ela Madi broke ranks with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood at the end of 1995 to establish his own political party under the name, Al-Wassat (The Centre). His application, first made in January 1996, was denied twice by the Political Parties Committee, a government-controlled body in charge of licensing political parties. Madi was on the Brotherhood's list of candidates for the 1995 parliamentary elections. His break and attempt to establish his own party drew fire from the Brotherhood. In April of the same year, Madi was arrested for what was described as an attempt to establish an illegal party. He was released two months later. Despite the committee's refusal to grant him a licence, a breakthrough was made earlier this year when the Ministry of Social Affairs allowed Madi and a group of other Islamists to establish an NGO called Misr for Dialogue and Culture. Many believe that the ministry's approval was intended to encourage Madi and the Wassat group to stay away from overt political activity.

You initially spoke of election plans, but this was later retracted. Why?
It is true that we were seriously thinking of contesting the forthcoming parliamentary elections, but this was not well received, particularly within Brotherhood circles, because news reports made it look as if our candidates were running against theirs.
An example, often cited by the press, was Essam Sultan, a (would-be) co-founder of the Wassat Party and a former member of the Brotherhood, who planned to run in Doqqi district, which is the same constituency where Ma'mun El-Hodeibi, the Brotherhood's spokesman, nominated himself.
We simply did not want any confrontation with the Brotherhood (and Sultan reconsidered), although news reports portrayed the situation as if we were challenging them, which was not the case at all.

So the main reason you decided to refrain from running for election is to avoid a confrontation with the Brotherhood?
Not in so many words. The point is that Al-Wassat is a new group and we wanted to act without provoking any party. We had planned to nominate 10 candidates and we thought it was a relatively good number of people, given our size as a budding political group which has not been legally accepted by the state. Our candidates were to cover Greater Cairo and the Nile Delta and I was planning to run in Minya -- my hometown. The fact that the elections will be held under full judicial supervision also led us to believe that maybe this time things will be different.
However, the reason we had to go back on our decision was basically the fate we saw befalling Brotherhood candidates. Dozens of them have been arrested and others harassed by police. We figured that it will not be smooth sailing for Islamist candidates. Moreover, we also faced the constraints of time and financial resources.

But some say the reason you decided not to run for election was that you have no electoral platform that addresses society's various social and political malaises.
There are two points here; first, the easiest thing to do is to author an electoral platform. And our programme is a very distinctive one. Secondly, we are not boycotting the elections. We have decided to participate, but in a different way. The time is not ripe for us to participate as candidates but we, as a political group, have decided to choose a number of candidates nominated by the various political parties and support them in their campaigns. The criteria for choosing them would be the grassroots support they enjoy.

Does that mean that you are going to support candidates regardless of their ideology?
We have decided to support any candidate who is accepted by the people as a national figure, someone like Dr Hamdi El-Sayed, despite his membership of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). I personally decided to support Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, the Wafd Party's candidate in Al-Wayli district, and will accompany him on his election tours. There is a national consensus that these figures have no vested personal interest in running for election, but they do it for the sake of Egypt.

Would you lend support to Brotherhood candidates?
Al-Wassat group supports all political trends and, theoretically, I would support a Brotherhood candidate although I believe that the Brotherhood's decision to contest the elections this time is disastrous, probably one of the most drastic mistakes they ever made.

But you were on the Brotherhood list of candidates in the 1995 elections; so how can you describe their decision to run as disastrous?
It is so now because of the unrelenting confrontation between them and the state. They should have saved the nation yet another round in the confrontation between the Islamists and the state.
What we are seeking is a lull, so that the government would reconsider its policies regarding the Islamists. But the Brotherhood's decision to contest the elections broke the consensus of Islamist circles to abstain from anything and everything that could trigger the government's wrath for the time being. Participation in the elections will only bring the Brotherhood more losses, not only for them but also for the entire Islamist movement. We have seen the mass arrests which are reminiscent of the turbulent 1990s, as well as the fear of an Islamic ideological system.
These practices are bound to have adverse effects on the political climate and the political process. It gives the state added reason to clamp down on the Islamists. The Brotherhood should have solved their problems with the state first before becoming involved in an important political event such as parliamentary elections.
For us, we thought that the battle to gain legality was much more important than the battle to enter parliament.

But if they abstain from participating in elections, where else could they assert their existence?
Elections are one of the reasons for the bad relationship between the Brotherhood and the state, and they are very much aware of this.

But some say that the reason behind your decision not to run for election was a deal with the government, under which you were allowed to set up an association in return for shunning politics, including elections?
All I can say is that there is no deal between us and the state. We are not renouncing politics and we are not giving up on [the quest to establish] a political party.
We will seek legality in whatever way possible. It is a major undertaking but not as impossible as it may seem.

Related stories:
Islamists come into the fold of civil society 20 - 26 April 2000
Centre II turned down 24-30 September 1998
'Wassat' by any other name... 14 - 20 May 1998
Navigating a centrist course 7 - 13 May, 1998
See Elections 2000, The 1995 Elections


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