Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Islamists crash the party

By Diaa Rashwan *

From the beginning of the 1970s the militant Egyptian Islamist movement waged a ferocious battle against the state and certain sectors of society. Its component elements vied among themselves to take the most hard-line stance and to cause the state the most damage. By the first quarter of 1999, however, the movement had radically changed its position. For the first time, Islamism is positing itself as a legitimate political actor under the very same state it has fought against for more than a quarter of a century.

Islamists previously identified with the most active militant groups in Egypt have declared their intention to petition the official Political Parties Committee for permission to establish new parties. Three months ago, author and journalist Gamal Sultan, a former member of Gama'at Al-Muslimeen (Society of Muslims) -- also known as Al-Takfir Wal-Higra (Excommunication and Migration) -- announced plans to set up Hizb Al-Islah (the Reform Party). Just two weeks ago, Mamduh Ismail, assistant to the secretary-general of the Association of Islamic Lawyers, revealed efforts to establish a new Islamist party in Egypt, Hizb Al-Shari'a (Islamic Law Party). Ismail has defended Islamists on trial on charges of violence and faced charges himself in the Jihad trial of 1981.

Three years ago Abul-Ela Madi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, together with other former and current members, Copts and women, officially filed a request to set up Hizb Al-Wassat (the Centre Party). After the Political Parties Committee and the courts rejected the petition, Madi sought a license for Hizb Al-Wassat Al-Masri (Egyptian Centre Party). This was again turned down by the committee. An appeal is still being weighed by the judiciary.

Despite its importance, the attempt to establish Al-Wassat should not be seen in the same analytical framework as Al-Islah and Al-Shari'a. The historical and intellectual orientation of the would-be founders of Hizb Al-Wassat derive from Muslim Brotherhood thinking. And although the Brotherhood has confronted the Egyptian state since the mid-1950s, it does not identify with Islamist tendencies that excommunicate state and society and resort to violence as the exclusive instrument for dealing with them.

A group of former and current members of the Brotherhood trying to establish a political party within the existing constitutional and legal framework of the Egyptian state does not constitute a break with the Brotherhood's theoretical and practical position towards that framework. It has never accused the state of transgressing the doctrines of Islam or its basic tenets. The remarkable thing, if the party became legal, would be its role as an organisational and political alternative to the Brotherhood.

It is logical to deal with the Islah and Shari'a projects within a single analytical framework. Although the instigators of these two projects have spent a long time inside militant Islamist groups, close scrutiny of their ideas and programmes reveals deep intellectual and practical transformations. While Al-Islah has yet to announce a detailed platform, Al-Shari'a has presented a manifesto which contains a number of points revealing the extent of the transformation in its thinking compared to its Islamist origins.

One could also argue that the attempt to establish legal political parties is itself the clearest indication of the metamorphosis of violent religious groups to Islamist-oriented socio-political groups within a civil society. This historic transformation is not confined to the largest of these groups, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya which announced its final decision to abandon violence on 24 March after about two years of internal debate.

The would-be founders of Al-Islah and Al-Shari'a belong to the three main groups within Egyptian militant Islamism: Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, Jihad and Al-Tawaquf Wal-Tabayun. Neither of the two proposed parties has a special relationship with any specific groups. Gamal Sultan, the figure-head of Al-Islah, was a member of Al-Tawaquf Wal-Tabayun; his main partner is Salah Hashem, a founder of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya; a key supporter is Kamal El-Said Habib, one of the historic leaders of the Jihad group. The same variety is found in Al-Shari'a: its figure-head, Mamduh Ismail, was a member of the Jihad group; and available information, in the absence of a list, suggests that key actors comprise a mixture of former members of both Jihad and Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya.

The significance of the two new Islamist parties also lies in the fact that they represent a public declaration of the new theoretical basis underlying recent Islamist activity. Militant Islamist groups have been moving away from violence towards politics, but the move has been limited to praxis and minor organisational matters.

It is worth noting in this context, that Al-Islah's coterie have preferred to publish their new conceptions in articles under their own names, rather than by means of documents under the proposed party's name. Al-Shari'a have been more daring and published the complete party programme, and they are in the process of preparing a theoretical statement.

Diffusion of the theoretical basis for the Islamist transformation is no doubt a necessary step for its completion. Confinement to changes in praxis in the absence of changes in theory will make the transformation unstable or temporary and give it the appearance of a conspiracy.

Islamists have three main aims in trying to set up legal political parties. The first is to test the reaction of the Egyptian state to their transformation and gauge the extent of the state's tolerance of them within the legal political arena. The two proposed parties are fully aware that there is no real possibility of the state officially accepting them. They hope, however, to be allowed a measure of political activity as "parties under establishment" -- the status of Al-Wassat since attempts to establish it began.

The second aim is to see the reaction within the ranks of the Islamists themselves to legal political activity. An initiative by a group of individuals does not oblige the main Islamist groups to assume a position one way or the other. This aim is logical and necessary given the heritage of such groups in absolutely rejecting party work. There are a number of tracts on this, the most important being Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya's "The Islamic Movement and Pluralism" of 1987.

The third aim reflects the wish of the new version of militant Islamists to reclaim a space within the Egyptian political arena, which lacks any clear representation of them. The Muslim Brotherhood has enjoyed such representation for some years through Al-Wassat.

The motivations behind the historic Islamist transformation can be gleaned from statements and articles by Al-Islah figures and from the political programme of Al-Shari'a (especially its fourth part). They all assert that external factors, specifically the Arab-Israeli conflict and relations with the US, were crucial in the move from violence against state and society to a search for political integration. After long years of struggle against society and the state, militant Islamists have come to the conviction that the "external enemy" in the form of the Jewish state and the US is the most dangerous one. Priority should be given to the struggle against that enemy rather than against the Egyptian state, which has been transformed from an "apostate" or "pre-Islamic" one, to an Islamic or Muslim one according to the wording of Al-Shari'a's programme.

While the two parties' projects refer to other factors behind the historic transformation from violence to party work, it seems that the external factor, and especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, has been the most crucial and decisive one.

* The writer is the managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report issued by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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