Democratic and Pluralistic?
Egypt could soon have a new political party. When the country's committee for the recognition of new parties meets at the end of October, it's possible that it might approve the Islamic reformist Hisb Al-Wasat (Centre Party). Jürgen Stryjak looks at Al-Wasat, which is often compared to Turkey's moderate Islamist ruling party AKP.
Al-Wasat's founder, the 46-year-old Abu al-Ula Madi, is optimistic about the chances for recognition this time, but he was optimistic twice before. "In this region, if you don't have a healthy optimism," he says, "you might as well stay at home."
The party has applied twice since 1996 without success for an official licence. Following each rejection, Madi and his colleagues have worked at revising and extended the concept of the party.
The state committee for political parties has rejected fifty applications for new parties in the last twenty-five years—mostly on the grounds that the new party did not have aims which weren't already included in the existing party landscape or that the country's laws prohibit parties which are based on religion.
Breakaway from the Muslim Brotherhood
Al-Wasat doesn't only stand for an explicitly Islamist agenda, it actually emerged as a breakaway movement from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. For over fifteen years Abu al-Ula Madi was himself active in the Brotherhood, rising to a leadership position in the Brotherhood-dominated engineers' trade union.
In 1996, together with a few like-minded people, he turned his back on the Muslim Brotherhood. He says that was "after we'd tried for ten years to reform them."
Reaction to Al-Wasat is divided: some fear that Al-Wasat could serve as a Trojan horse for the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing their ideas a new chance in a new guise. Others suspect that Al-Wasat is an attempt by the government to divide the Islamist movement and thus weaken the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both sides, however, overlook the fact that Al-Wasat is viewed with suspicion by the Brotherhood and even with hostility by the state.
Support from a variety of sources
In spite of the scepticism, which is often founded on conspiracy theories, with which Al-Wasat is regarded, the Al-Wasat concept has been winning increasing support, especially over the last few years, as it becomes ever more credible as a political force.
According to Madi, the law requires fifty supporters before a party can apply for a licence. Al-Wasat could have gathered a thousand signatures but they decided to stop after two hundred, limiting themselves to prominent and exemplary figures of public life, among them lawyers, journalists, university professors, farmers and workers.
Madi says that about 15 per cent of the supporters come from the Muslim Brotherhood. The others reflect the whole range of society, including seven Coptic Christians, 44 women "with and without headscarves", business people and secularists—people from every one of the governorships in the country. In other words, it's a fairly widely based movement.
All of the signatories apparently find their interests represented by a party which calls itself "The Centre". "Religion is an important aspect of our society," says Abu al-Ula Madi. "No political project which neglects religion can be successful in Egypt. But we see Islam not so much as a religion—rather as a civilisation in which all social groups have a part, because they live within it."
And he points to examples of democratic parties in the West which call themselves Christian, even though they scarcely operate in primarily religious terms.
New interpretation of Islamic law
While the illegal but widely tolerated Muslim Brotherhood campaigns for the introduction of Sharia (Islamic) law and a religiously-inspired state, Al-Wasat also wants to see Islamic law receive a new status.
But the party specifically allows for new, democratic re-interpretations of the Sharia. It wants to see the issues subjected to debate and a wide consensus, involving all elements in society, including secularists and women, who would have the right to ensure that their interests are represented.
The Muslim Brotherhood, says Abu al-Ula Madi, is a religious group with a missionary character; Al-Wasat on the other hand is a party with civil political aims: "That's why the Muslim Brotherhood fights us."
Madi describes Islam as a large circle with few unalterable principles. Within this circle, there is absolute freedom, democracy, and pluralism with hundreds of options.
Equality of the sexes
The party's platform, which can be found on its website, emphasises freedom of belief, the protection of private and public property rights, and the protection of human dignity. It calls for a division of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary and the holding of universal free and fair elections.
No Egyptian should be deprived of civil rights, including the right to hold public office, on the grounds of origin, skin colour, sex or religion. The platform particularly emphasises the absolute equality of the sexes, including the right to hold the highest offices in the land, such as positions in the courts, or even the presidency.
So far it's absolutely unclear whether the Committee for the Recognition of New Parties, which is dominated by President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party, will award Al-Wasat a licence or not.
The fear that parties like Al-Wasat could provide a stage for undemocratic Islamist political ideas, may influence the decision negatively, but it will never be possible to find out if the fear is justified unless Al-Wasat is allowed to prove itself in the full light of the publicity of normal political life.
"What's all this talk about political reforms worth," asks Abu al-Ula Madi, "if they don't even start out by allowing new parties?"
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
For more information about the new Al-Wasat party and the Muslim Brotherhood, click here.