Speaking to Essam Al-Erian of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party and Essam Al-Islambouli of the National Salvation Front, Dina Ezzat asks where the country’s political forces stand on the next parliamentary elections
‘We have no worries about our popularity’
In a wide-ranging interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, the leader of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Essam Al-Erian said that a new parliament would be elected this summer in which the Islamists would retain their majority. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
How do you see the recent Administrative Court ruling against the electoral law?
The ruling of the Administrative Court against the electoral law was confused and it will be contested before the Higher Administrative Court as it ignored the legitimate powers of the legislative branch, in this case the Shura Council, and expected the president and prime minister, in other words the executive branch, to take charge of issuing laws. However, a law can only be passed by the approval of one third of the Shura Council, which is currently entrusted with the responsibility for legislation.
What actions do you intend to take?
Along with the appeal that the Shura Council, in its legislative capacity, will pursue independently from the decision of the presidency not to intervene, we are working through the drafting committee to issue a new law that falls squarely within our legislative prerogative.
What will this mean for the forthcoming legislative elections?
We will hold the legislative elections this year, but of course it is the executive that decides the schedule, and I am sure it will do so with an eye on the observation of Ramadan, which is not the best time to campaign for everyone. However, you will definitely see a new parliament in Egypt before the end of the year.
But do you in the FJP appreciate the larger picture within which this ruling came and do you understand the present confusion in the country?
The ruling of the Administrative Court came as part of the current political scene where there are many state bodies that are trying to assume a new role in the decision-making processes followed by the post-25 January Revolution regime and that offer horizons that are different from those of the pre-revolutionary period. We are seeing Al-Azhar seeking a national role, for example, with some perceiving this as legislative as well as national, and the judiciary, which still has to regain the independence that was compromised in the pre-revolutionary years, is also keen to play a role.
In parallel to these examples, there is also the country’s Armed Forces, which were charged with the responsibility of running the state during the interim phase and which have been saying that the military is not keen to reassume a political role. There is the example of the police, which is faced with serious security challenges along with the challenge of reworking its ways of working such that its duty of providing security does not recall the sad memories that people have about the performance of the Ministry of Interior before the revolution.
So we are not seeing a decline in the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems to be becoming less and less popular?
The Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP are not in a situation of decline at all, despite naturally occurring variations in the level of popularity of any party or political group. Critics should remember that the ascent of the FJP candidate to the top of the executive as a result of the firm will of the people contradicted the plans put forward in many quarters that were working on alternative scenarios for succession. We were the only group not grooming itself for the job, but when the people declared that it was our duty to take up the job it became our responsibility and we are now living up to it.
But aren’t you actually living on credit that is fast running out?
We have no worries about our popularity, and by all accounts the Islamists will secure around 60 per cent of the seats in the new parliament, or possibly a little more, I would say.
Are you missing the widening discontent in the country?
I disagree with the idea that we are seeing spreading public discontent with Islamist rule. I acknowledge that there are some areas of discontent, but this is not a nationwide phenomenon, far from it. There have been some spots of discontent, and it is only a matter of time before these are attended to. Things are much quieter today in Port Said and Mansoura than they were. One cannot reduce the entire country to Cairo, or reduce Cairo to what happens on the Qasr Al-Nil bridge. If someone wants to focus on these spots, then he will always be free to do so. But in any event the political forces that previously used the violence for political cover have now started to speak out in condemnation of the violence, and it is only a matter of time before things will settle down.
But these are angry and frustrated people that we are seeing demonstrate.
We are well aware that there have been deliberate attempts at incitement and agitation, as for example in recent attempts to create fake crises. We are working to explain things to the people, and we trust that they will ultimately see through these attempts.
With the expected rise in prices, it seems likely that the government will become more unpopular.
The adjustment of the prices of some commodities will be explained to the public, which is the job of all democratically elected governments, in other words, to be honest with the people about the problems we face. I am confident that the people will understand that these economic measures will be conducted in a fashion sensitive to those facing serious economic difficulties.
The regime is also being contested by various state institutions, among them the police and the army.
Again, I disagree with the idea that there is discontent within the ranks of the police, or that there have been tacit messages from the army regarding a possible coup. The minister of interior himself said this week that the police who went on strike were around no more than two per cent of the entire force, which has itself seen some 180 officers killed over recent months.
As for the Friday prayers aired on state television attended by Minister of Defence [Abdel-Fattah] Al-Sisi [and leading army generals and the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar], I would prescribe caution about any hasty interpretation because the occasion was Martyrs Day and I think that it was only fair to expect that the Armed Forces would remind the nation, as it walks on the path of democracy, that this democracy is the reward for years of sacrifices by the country for the liberation and defence of Egypt.
Of course, the president is also the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, and I do not know why he was not present at the Martyrs Day celebrations. However, what I am sure of is that the army is not interested in staging a coup, and the sooner all the parties see this, the better for the cause of stability. The president was elected for a four-year term, and the only way to challenge this is through the ballot box.
‘Our demands have been shrugged off by the regime’
In his interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, opposition figure Essam Al-Islambouli said the “legal confrontation” between the regime and the opposition was set to continue
A lawyer of firmly Nasserist persuasion, with pictures of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser decorating almost every room of his downtown Cairo office, Essam Al-Islambouli defended members of the then outlawed Muslim Brotherhood during the regime of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak against what he insists was their unjust persecution.
Now, however, he is dedicating his efforts to opposing the government of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi through his membership of the Public Current, led by former presidential frontrunner Hamdeen Sabahi, and the National Salvation Front. Excerpts from his interview with the Weekly appear below.
How do you see the recent Administrative Court ruling against the electoral law suspending the elections?
The ruling of the Administrative Court that was issued over the weekend to suspend the parliamentary elections pending a decree from the Constitutional Court on the constitutional nature of the electoral law, or the lack thereof, was a reminder to all concerned that the Egyptian judiciary is alive and well and has not been suppressed.
The ruling takes a firm step to disallow the unchecked expansion of the president’s prerogative rights. This is its most significant aspect aside from the fact that it gives the regime a grace period in which to reconsider its unfortunate political choices that have forced the opposition to take the decision to boycott the elections due to the lack of an unbiased electoral system and not because of any shortcomings in preparations, as the Muslim Brotherhood would like to claim.
However, the ruling can be appealed against.
The ruling of the Administrative Court is based on Article 41 of the constitution, which was drafted and passed by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists without the consent of the rest of the political spectrum. This stipulates that the prime minister should participate with the president in issuing the electoral law among other executive decisions.
So you think it will not be uncontested?
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party along with other parties from the wider Islamist coalition are currently working on drafting an alternative law to replace the one referred by the Administrative Court to the Constitutional Court in order to avoid a delay in the parliamentary elections of around six months pending the completion of the process by which the Constitutional Court will decide the fate of the current law. However, from a procedural point of view this process will not work because the rules and precedents show that if a matter is presented for the consideration of the Constitutional Court it must remain there pending the court’s decision.
The Brotherhood and the FJP both say that the opposition is not ready for the elections and is simply inventing obstacles.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other members of the Islamist coalition are keen to speed up the electoral process irrespective of the debate over the constitutional nature of the law and the complaints of the opposition over the lack of an unbiased administrative body that would prepare for and execute the elections. We have said over and over again that we need to have an independent and unbiased government in order to supervise the electoral process, but our demands have been shrugged off by the regime.
From a pragmatic point of view, boycotting the elections may not be a wise decision.
Our participation in the elections has been prevented by the presence of an unbiased administrative body and a biased electoral law, though the latter has thankfully now been stopped by the Administrative Court. These things have been designed to fit the popularity base of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The present law grants an equal number of seats to a constituency of less than a quarter of a million inhabitants to another one having three or even four times that number in violation of the constitutional reference to “equitable and fair representation of inhabitants”. This is not even to mention the fact that the judicial supervision of the elections is restricted to the main polling stations, where only vote-counting takes place, and does not cover the subsidiary stations where the voting actually takes place.
These are just some of the many things that people tend to overlook when they dispute our decision to boycott the elections. How are we supposed to go into elections to join a parliament over which the Constitutional Court has had no say when even under the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak that was not the case?
But as a result of your decision, the Muslim Brotherhood could end up controlling the legislative and the executive?
The Muslim Brotherhood regime knows very well that it is losing popularity and that the sharp decline in its approval rate will plunge further with the application of the austerity package that is being demanded by the International Monetary Fund. This is precisely why it wants to rush the parliamentary elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood has failed to honour its word of working in collaboration with the other political forces. It has failed to reject the tradition of agreeing on one thing with the other political forces and then doing exactly the opposite. It has acted to take control of the state bodies and to impose its will, which is precisely the reason that it has been launching attacks on the independent media when it has control over most of the state-run media.
All I can say here is that we are now seeing the real and long-veiled face of the Muslim Brotherhood that is currently controlled by the followers of its most radical figure Sayed Qutb. This is not a face that people like, something that has been made clear not just by the repeated demonstrations that have taken place, but also by the results of the student union elections in many universities where Muslim Brotherhood groups are losing out to groups from other political affiliations. This is not to mention the repeated attacks that have taken place against the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party in several governorates, forcing the Brotherhood to remove signs from its offices.
Are we looking inevitable failure in the eye?
We all have to admit that the problems we are facing today are the outcome of the lopsided political process that started with the 19 March 2011 referendum over amendments to an already suspended constitution and that allowed for the mismanagement of the transitional phase. What we should have done was to draft a constitution first and then work on establishing the state bodies.
Today, we don’t just have a convoluted political process, but we are also facing confused and disturbing economic challenges and we are seeing the threat of citizens bearing arms against each other. We might be reaching a point at which it will become inevitable for the Armed Forces to step in in a way that will be different from their running of the interim phase after Mubarak was forced to step down and Morsi was sworn in as president.