Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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'No partners in power'

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

El-Za'farani
Ibrahim El-Za'farani
Ibrahim El-Za'farani is a prominent Muslim Brotherhood activist. He joined the organisation when he was still a student at Alexandria University's Faculty of Medicine. A member of the Physicians' Syndicate since 1986, he served on the syndicate's board for four years. In 1990, he was elected secretary-general of the Physicians' Syndicate in Alexandria. He has been detained three times for belonging to an illegal group that seeks to overthrow the government: first in September 1981, then again in 1995, when a military court handed him a three-year prison sentence. He was set free in 1998 but was imprisoned again for two months last February

Some argue that the Islamists' discourse on civil society is limited by a rigid textual interpretation.

I disagree. Certain texts are compulsory. They broach no compromise and must be accepted without question. There are very few such texts, however, and these are mainly concerned with rituals of worship. The rest of the sacred text is subject to reinterpretation, especially texts that regulate human relations (Mu'amalat).

There is also the concept of flexibility of the text, whereby principles are established without the delineation of their detailed application. It is left to the Muslims to decide how to apply the principles to suit their circumstances. It is illogical for the text, which is everlasting, permanent and general, to provide detailed rules for particular circumstances.

Some like to refer to certain concepts as evidence that the Islamist project for civil society -- issues of minority and women's rights, for instance -- does not respond to all the emerging situations through which Muslim communities may pass. I believe these are old topics which have no value at all.

Some views on women or minorities, therefore, could be deemed historical rather than basic principles of the Islamic system.

The Islamists have been accused of transforming the professional syndicates into arenas of conflict with the state.

When we ran for elections in the professional syndicates, we never dreamed we would score land-slide victories. We were only hoping for a few seats, not the majority. A chief reason for our victory was the situation in the syndicates before the Islamists entered the picture, rather than real support. Before the Islamists took over, the syndicate boards rarely convened and the election turnover was always very meagre.

We offered a model for a good agenda, organised work and fair, free elections. People did not elect us because we pray more than others or have beards but because we manage to get things done efficiently.

This experience should have nurtured democracy in Egypt. These spaces should have been left to function without any state intervention because the development of democracy ultimately hinges on a collaborative relationship between state and civil society institutions.

But you have focused on the political at the expense of the civil component in one of civil society's most important structures. Has this not given the government an excuse to strike?

We were playing a social, professional and political role. These three dimensions of the professional syndicates cannot be separated from one another.

To depoliticise the professional syndicates is meaningless, because originally the syndicates are semi-political lobbies. They are a buffer between professionals and the state, through which professionals may address their interests or grievances. Therefore, syndicates cannot be divorced from politics.

The problems society faces, whether poor services or a lack of basic rights, are the same problems professionals face every day. The syndicates that have been politically active have performed well professionally.

But the Islamists are accused of undermining the syndicates' structure in order to push their own world-view through.

Perhaps we seemed to be playing at politics when we held several seminars at which we stated our categorical rejection of normalisation with Israel and when we carried out relief work for the Bosnians. But it was only because the state apparatus and other political forces -- particularly political parties -- kept a low profile on some national issues and issues affecting the Muslim world that we seemed to be the only organisation involved in politics, when we should not have been.

There is also a tendency to explain every move made by Islamist-led boards with the all-too-common idea that 'the Islamists want to take over'. This resulted in an exaggeration of the Islamists' power in the professional syndicates. But no one spoke about the campaign to inoculate millions of Egyptians against hepatitis virus B or our campaign against bilharzia. Would you call this political activity? They gave a political significance to all the relief work carried out by the Physicians' Syndicate just because the majority of board members are Islamists.

The seminars we held on political issues were only part of the task of spreading political awareness among syndicate members. We had the full consent of the board and the syndicate chairman, who is a member of the NDP. We are talking about educated members of society who cannot be forced to do this or that.

Admittedly, we have enjoyed a monopoly, but this was only through the ballot box, and the trend was being toned down as the other forces in the syndicates organised themselves and put forth persuasive agendas, just like the Islamists.

How would you assess the performance of the Islamists in the syndicate?

I have to admit that we have made some mistakes. It is true that we virtually monopolised all the seats, except for the chairman's, but this is how the experience should begin: the powerful, well-organised Islamist trend got all the votes at first, but as people became more experienced and involved in the voting process, perhaps fewer votes would have gone to the Islamists in forthcoming elections and people would have had more than one trend to choose from.

If the government had given the professional syndicates a chance to operate freely, perhaps the Islamists would not have stayed in power long. People did not always elect Islamist candidates. But the state's patience was running thin.

I think the Press Syndicate sets an example of what a professional syndicate should be. All the political trends are represented on its board: the Nasserists, the leftists, the Islamists, the secular nationalists. This is what the other professional syndicates were meant to be like.

The second point is that, if the political and social forces are meant to serve the nation's interests, the Islamist trend must be integrated with them, so that it does not become the 'Other'.

The state's move against the syndicates has been attributed to the Brotherhood's failure to condemn the violent activities of the other Islamist groups.

This accusation is groundless. We have always denounced violence and statistically, violent activities were carried out in areas where the Brotherhood was banned.

But I don't think the state refuses to accept the Islamist trend because it has no legitimacy. The state cannot accept competition from any political force, Islamist or otherwise.

The problem is not the legality or illegality of the Islamists, it is rather the state's refusal to tolerate any partners in power.

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