The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Popular Islamic parties

Abu Aardvark mentioned in a recent post that a "popular Islamic party" might see the light in Egypt, and noted that he hadn't seen much on it so far. I was hoping to post about this earlier, but things being as busy as they are, I am doing so only now.

The basic story, as Al Jazeera reported, is that Khaled Al Zaafarani, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has announced his intention to form a political party, the "Reform, Development and Justice" party.

This has created some controversy in Egypt. For the regime, a party even loosely affiliated with Islamists is unacceptable -- which is why they have denied licenses to "moderate Islamist" parties time and time again and have frozen ones that get taken over by Islamists, like the Labor Party.

But Zaafarani's party is also controversial for the Muslim Brotherhood. Sharq Al Awsat of 19 March reported that Muhammad Habib, deputy of the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Muhamad Akef viciously lashed out at Zaafarani and distanced the Brotherhood from the (potential) new party, even accusing him of exploiting his family relationship with an eminent member for the Brotherhood (Ibrahim Zaafarani, a former head of the Alexandria Doctors' Syndicate and a "Class of '95" political prisoner) to "carry out propapaganda for his [party] project." Shark Al Awsat also said that Zaafarani was advised by the security services not go ahead with his intention to make his request to the Political Parties Council. Zaafarani also apparently caused a ruckus at the recent second Alexandria conference on reform, where he distributed leaflets about the new party's platform and had a run-in with security.

The precedent for Zaafarani's idea is the Al Wasat (The Middle) party, which emerged in the mid-1990s as former Muslim Brothers got together with a few secular Muslims and Copts to try and form a moderate Islamist-leaning party. They have tried several times (three or four, I think) to apply for a party license and have been denied every time. The last time was in October, around the same time the Al Ghad party was created. (Praktike has blogged about Al Wasat recently, and the post and comments are interesting.)

For a more historical look at Al Wasat, I am reproducing an article that appeared in the Cairo Times in 1998, when the party was denied its license for the first time:

The party that never shall be
Even in a moderate form, political Islam is a no-go

The party that many viewed as the last, best hope for Egypt's legal opposition will not come to be. On 9 May, the Political Parties Tribunal of the Administrative Courts rejected the final appeal of the Wasat (Center) Party for legal status, upholding a year-old decision by the Political Parties Committee of the Shura Council to deny the party a license.
The original decision was no surprise: the Shura committee routinely denies party licenses on any number of grounds--in the Wasat's case, they claimed that the party's platform was not sufficiently different from other those of parties to warrant a license of their own. But the tribunal has overruled the committee's decisions before--in 1993, for example, they declared that the Democratic Nasserists were not just another variation on the leftist Tagammu, and granted the group a license, allowing it to become one of the more active and outspoken forces in Egypt's legal opposition.
The Wasat, however, was something else. Its platform pays lip service to political Islam--declared anathema by the current government. And many of its founding members, like lawyers Essam Sultan and Mohammed Salim Al Awwa, engineers' syndicate activist Abul Ella Maadi, and journalist Salah Abdel Maqsoud, were former Muslim Brothers--declared by the president and the interior minister to be nothing more than terrorists in disguise. That the Wasat included prominent leftists and Christians did not seem to make a difference.
The Wasat stretched the definition of political Islam, however. The would-be party considered people rather than scripture as the ultimate source of authority, and interpreted Article 2 of the constitution, which claims that "Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation," to mean that Islamic tradition should be an inspiration to lawmakers, rather than a source of law in itself. One of Wasat's main ideologists was, in fact, a Protestant Christian, Rafiq Habib, who argues that Egyptians--Muslim and Christian alike--are members of an Islamic society; Egyptian democracy should, therefore, take on an Islamic cast so it is accessible to the majority of the population. Institutions like awqaf (religious endowments) and social forces like qabaliya (kinsmanship) are not anachronisms that need to be thrown away; rather, Habib argues, they are the potential foundations of a healthy, thriving, democratic society that the current regime, in its rush to imitate the West, has either suppressed or allowed to decay.
So why the state's concern? First, there's always the danger of senior Muslim Brothers suddenly flooding into the Wasat and bringing its platform back around to the more reactionary form of political Islam that they espouse. The Brotherhood's leaders have publicly condemned the Wasat's founders as schismatics from the original movement (Brotherhood spokesman Maamoun Al Hodeiby makes unpleasant gurgling noises whenever the Wasat's name is mentioned in interview), but the state can never be sure that the whole fracas isn't a front.
More dangerously, the Wasat, if legal, might attract the loyalties of middle-ranked Brothers in the provinces. These people--who aren't tightly controlled by the Brotherhood leadership in Cairo--command considerable political capital, thanks to their involvement in charitable institutions. The state went to considerable trouble, and incurred considerable international condemnation, in suppressing the Brotherhood through a series of military trials in 1995. The Brotherhood's senior leadership essentially surrendered, abandoning all public activity and sharply curtailing contact with the press. It was this inaction, largely, which persuaded the Wasat founders to break away and form their own party. If they succeeded, and rallied the demoralized provincial Brothers to the banner of political Islam raised anew, the state would have to go and repress them all over again.
What happens to a party deferred? "We will think about different kinds of public roles," says Habib. "Maybe we will choose another kind of institution to work through--cultural work, or a civil society organization, as an alternative [to a political party]. Or maybe we will attempt a party... with a somewhat different platform." The state, apparently, can keep political Islam at bay indefinitely, but it cannot stamp it out.

For an even more in-depth look at Al Wasat, I highly recommend reading our own Josh Stacher's scholarly article -- Post-Islamist rumblings in Egypt: the emergence of the Wasat party -- in Middle East Journal, which appeared in 2002. It's rather hard to find if you don't have access to a university library, so I'm putting in full here. But here's the abstract:

This article examines the emergence of the Wasat party initiative in Egypt. Whether such a group constitutes a political development in Islamic groupings in comparison to the traditional paradigm is the main focus. The Wasat is analyzed within a post-Islamist framework. The influences on the initiative, the reason for its establishment, and its apparent inclusive ideology will help to determine if a post-Islamist project may be emerging. If post-Islamist rumblings are underway in Egypt, we may expect to see eventually the development of an "Islamic democracy."

I am not sure what links there are between Zaafarani and the Wasat. Zaafarani used to have a seat on the executive committee of the Labor party before the split inside it between the Islamists and the more regime-friendly figures in it took place. My feeling is that he is probably a more conservative Islamist than the Wasat type, like Abu Ela Madi. I doubt he'll get far with his party, though.