Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

A moral agenda,
not a political programme

The state's relation with political Islam has been an uneasy one during the past century. Can the Islamist opposition -- whether it has renounced violence, or never condoned it in the first place -- now become part of the legitimate political landscape? Omayma Abdel-Latif gauges reactions

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Said El-Naggar

Prominent economist Said El-Naggar is the head of the New Civic Forum, a non-governmental organisation established in 1992. Adopting a liberal line, it seeks to enhance political performance and monitor the progress of the democratic process in Egypt

How do you view those who use religion to buttress their political legitimacy?

Combining religion and politics is a recipe for disaster, for both religion and the state. I believe in the separation of state and religion. We have seen radical Islamist elements adopting ambiguous objectives and methods that raise political concerns. Their approaches have elicited deep suspicions and an unwarranted association of Islam with totalitarianism, violence, bigotry and human rights violations.

How then would you assess the experience of the Wasat Party?

I welcome the initiative taken by Abul-Ela Madi to establish a political party with an Islamist orientation. This is a step in the right direction and a major development in terms of the possibility for Islamist parties to play a role in public life through constitutional channels.

It is also a major development in terms of opening the party to non-Muslims, and, I hope, to all Egyptian citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliation. The government should not leave the field open for the reactionary elements of Islamist movements, which would pose serious problems if they succeeded in becoming officially recognised as a political party. Despite of the many positive aspects of Al-Wasat, however, I think Abul-Ela still has a long way to go in adapting his movement to the requirements of the modern age, and Egypt's true needs.

Why then have you suggested that certain conditions be imposed on the participation of Islamist parties in Egyptian political life?

Because I believe that the Wasat Party, or any party with an Islamist platform, has to take some steps in order to make the party a real option for all Egyptian citizens. Firstly, some basic principles should be adopted; a distinction should be made between Islam and the Qur'an, on one hand, and its interpretations on the other. As we know, the Qur'an is open to many interpretations, as reflected in the fact that there is no single, definitive Islam. There is a huge difference between Islam as we know it in Egypt and as it is applied in Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Each of these countries has adopted the interpretation that is most appropriate to its circumstances. Based on this premise, the Wasat Party should distance itself from the interpretations of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and adopt an interpretation more in line with Egypt as a country that has a long relationship with the West and where about ten per cent of the population are non-Muslims.

A correct interpretation of Islam should also accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There can be no contradiction between Islam and human rights as embodied in the declaration and in the various international conventions.

Further, there should be an agreement between all political forces, Islamists or otherwise, on the basic principles and values that govern our political system. These principles constitute the Egyptian people's bill of rights, and include the right to a multiparty system, the right to dissent, the elimination of apostasy as a political weapon, equality before the law between Muslims and non-Muslims, a free press, an independent judiciary and free and fair periodic elections. We cannot accept a tyrannical system that claims to be based on Islam.

If these principles are adopted by any political party, then it is welcome to play a role in public life; but for a political party to be based on religion is a contradiction in terms. An Islamist party in that sense -- or a Christian one, for that matter -- would not be open to all citizens but only to the disciples of the religion in question. That is not in the interest of our country or of our religion. If the Wasat Party takes this step by announcing its adherence to these principles, I believe it will be fully qualified to play a legitimate role in political life.

But those who advocate the creation of Islamist parties say that some of these principle would negate their Islamic character.

I don't agree. Islam is far more than just personal status laws or a penal code. Islam is not just about the implementation of the Shari'a, because this alone is not suitable as the basis of a political party. If a political party claims to have an Islamic character, this could only mean its members abide by Islamic ethics and morals, just like the Christian Democrats in Western Europe. Is the Wasat Party prepared to go that far? I wonder.

What is your opinion of Al-Shari'a or Al-Islah, the parties under establishment by former members of the Jihad group?

They are not qualified as political entities because they are not open to all citizens. They must renounce the application of Shari'a, because if you allow an Islamist party, you should allow a Coptic party and then you have to have a dual system of laws, schools etc. That will be the end of Egypt. Any political party should be open to all citizens; its programme must be capable of changing over time. These groups should reconsider their position. They should revise their political project to suit a modern nation-state. Laws cannot be based on religious foundations; that will never be accepted by the majority of Egyptians.

Then how, in your view, can such groups be integrated into political life?

You cannot play a role as a political party on the basis of an ideology that results in the collapse of the nation-state. We have the example of Sudan, and in Iran there is a struggle between conservatives and reformists to break free from the constraints of the religious state.

In other words, religion should not be a guide to politics but a guide to morals. These parties suffer from a fundamental lack of understanding of what it takes to establish a modern, national, progressive state. It isn't enough to renounce violence; they have to adapt their programme to the imperatives of the nation-state, which is anathema to a political party based on religion.

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