The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Sheikh Yasser Borhami on Morsi and Shariʿa

In this week's In Translation article — provided by the hive mind at Industry Arabic, which you should immediately hire for all your translation purposes — we hear the views of Sheikh Yasser Borhami, who heads the Da'wa Salafiya movement of Alexandria and is in effect the spiritual head of the Nour Party.

Borhami and Da'wa Salafiya have emerged as the most important voices of the Salafi movement in Egypt, and the most willing to engage in electoral politics. Borhami is one of Egypt's most influential preachers, and his decision to back the Nour Party marked the first major foray by Salafists onto the national political scene. In a recent Brookings paper on the Egyptian Salafi movement, Stephane Lacroix writes:

The Nour Party was founded by an informal religious organization called the “Salafi Da‘wa” (al- Da‘wa al-Salafiyya), whose leadership is based in Alexandria. The origins of the Salafi Da‘wa date back to the late 1970s, when its founders – students at the faculty of medicine at Alexandria University – broke away from the Islamist student groups known as al-Gama‘at al-Islamiyya (“Islamic groups”). Among them was Yasir Burhami, currently the dominant figure in the organization. The Salafi Da‘wa’s stance against violence and refus- al to engage in formal politics made it relatively acceptable to the Mubarak regime. To be sure, the group did at times endure repression; its leaders were kept under close surveillance and were forbidden from traveling outside Alexandria. However, the Salafi Da‘wa often benefited from the covert support of the regime apparatus, which tried to use Salafis to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. 

Borhami is not involved in the day to day running of the party, but exerts a dominant influence on its key decisions  — such as backing Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh rather than Mohammed Morsi in the first round of the presidential elections, insisting on a constitution that gives priority to Shariʿa, or refusing electoral alliances with secular parties. The interview that appears below made some noise because of Borhami's insistence on new wording for the future constitution's reference to Shariʿa, which would favor a Salafist interpretation of Shariʿa and its influence on shaping legislation. 



Borhami tells al-Shorouk: We’ve agreed with the Muslim Brotherhood to strike the word “principles” from the article on Shariʿa in the constitution

By Mustafa Hashim, al-Shorouk, 30 June 2012

Q: What is your take on the fact that the Administrative Court has postponed the hearing on challenges to the Constituent Assembly until September?

A: It is a good opportunity for the Constituent Assembly to hurry up and finish writing the Constitution before the appeal can be reviewed again…I think it is a good decision and a beneficial judgment.

Q: Is it possible to both reach an agreement with political actors as well as complete the constitution before this date?

A: Everyone wants to finish drafting the Constitution before September. Specifically, the 1971 Constitution is good overall, except for some of the articles in some sections that are in need of review. Also, almost all political actors agreed on the powers given to the president. But there are some articles about which immediate agreement is necessary. And they will be agreed upon if the members of the assembly submit themselves unto God – may He be worshipped and exalted – and to expressing the will of the nation, which they represent.

Q: The Muslim Brotherhood announced that they do not intend to change the constitutional article on Islamic Shariʿa. Do you disagree with them?

A: We insist that the article be drafted on the basis that “Islamic Shariʿa is the principal source of legislation” rather than on the principles of Shariʿa.[1] We will not give up on this matter. The Muslim Brotherhood has assured us that they agree with us regarding the formulation of the phrase “Islamic Shariʿa” without “principles.” What is so upsetting about Islamic Shariʿa? Does Shariʿa bother anyone? We have not stated our views on Shariʿa, but we do say that we want the Shariʿa that God has sent down to us. Is anyone afraid of Shariʿa, the Shariʿa that achieves justice, welfare, and wisdom? This is a very peculiar matter. How can one say that people are afraid of Shariʿa?[2]

Q: You want to omit the word “principles.” What is the problem regarding the term?

A: We don’t have a problem with the word “principles”, but the Constitutional Court’s previous interpretation of the word states that it means what is “absolutely immutable and significant.” This empties the constitutional article of both its content and its truth, because there is no verse [of Revelation] or [Divine] utterance that does not allow for various disagreements both in terms of wording or jurisprudence. This word – principles – was intended to void the article entirely. Someone once said that it was a decorative article. And that’s exactly what it was under the former regime. We will not accept or tolerate this. In our mind, this amounts to a betrayal of Shariʿa and the will of the nation. What won the Brotherhood and the Nour Party the majority in parliament and the presidency is their confirmed desire to apply Shariʿa.

Q: What would be the way out if there were to be any intellectual disagreement over a particular issue?

A: We believe that al-Azhar is the final authority in resolving disputes.

Q: Do you care to comment on the election of Dr. Mohammed Morsi to the office of President of the Republic ?

A: Dr. Mohammed Morsi is the first civilian president to be elected since the time of Muhammad Ali. The latter was chosen by the ulema who represented the nation. That was one of the Islamic and democratic ways for representing the nation. This is nothing new, for in some countries parliament elects the president.[3]

Q: Have you been in contact with Dr. Mursi after his election to the Office of President in order to agree on how to form the government?

A: I called him to congratulate him, but we did not talk about anything having to do with forming the government. Right now he is exploring relations with supportive political actors. No doubt, he has to take the opportunity to think and work out solutions to unresolved issues with other political actors. Of course, we are keen to be in touch with him, which shall happen soon, God willing.

Q: What are your expectations concerning the Nour Party’s representation in the new government?

A: We will work on applying our vision before the elections for the formation of the new government, which will be a coalition government of national unity in which all political actors will be represented in the same proportions that they held in Parliament. Even if Parliament were dissolved, the people gave us that share. This is the first parliament to truly be elected. Therefore, the previous proportions will be relied upon when the new government is formed.

Q: But many political actors rejected this proposal even when the People’s Assembly was still in place.

A: I think the coming government will represent all the political actors, considering the fact that the coming government will be a technocratic one.

Q: Which ministries to you want to work in?

A: We are ready with technocratic ministers who can fill a number of different positions. But I do not want to mention [particular] ministerial portfolios or the names of our candidates. What I think is important is that the matter be based on mutual understanding.

Q: Will Nour be represented in Dr. Morsi’s presidential team?

A: We know that partners from the electoral campaign and the former Parliament will have a role to play in Dr. Mohammed Morsi’s presidential team. Actually, he will determine and choose who will be his advisors. But he has not discussed this issue with us yet.

Q: Word has gotten out that the post of Prime Minister has been offered to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. What is your opinion?

A: I think that Dr. ElBaradei is not the right man for the job right now. We hope that the government with be a technocratic government. ElBaradei is a political man who played a part in Iraq that we object to.[4] We also object to his position regarding the Nubians. Specifically, he wants to make the case an international one, despite the fact that the Nubians themselves do not want to make their case an international one in the first place, nor have they ever thought of it. In general, we are working with all political actors on the ground.

Q: What demands do you have for President Morsi?

A: Actually, I have appeals more than demands because I know that everyone will be demanding something from him and I don’t want to add to the people’s demands: a decent life and restoring Egypt to a position that befits its place in the world. Also, he has exerted much effort to work with all national political actors. My appeal is that Islamic Shariʿa be re-introduced, as well as reform and [facilitating] national concord.

Q: What are the pressing issues in your opinion?

A: Restoring security and economic reform, as well as restoring the spirit of harmony between all segments of Egyptian society; restoring the spirit of cooperation, not tyranny; and restoring the spirit of cooperation, not discord.

Q: What advice do you have for Mohammed Morsi?

A: I would say that he who upsets the people for the sake of pleasing God, then both God and the people will be satisfied with him. And he who angers God for the sake of satisfying the people, then both God and the people will be displeased and angry with him.

Q: Will your previous support of Aboul Fotouh in the first round of elections affect your relationship with the Brotherhood and your representation in the government?

A: What made us have influence in the Egyptian street during the second round was thanks to our initial support for Aboul Fotouh in the first round. This is what God wanted for Dr. Mohammed Morsi. Even if we had supported Morsi from the beginning, we would have lost the street just like the Brotherhood did in the first round. And our support of Aboul Fotouh gave us more credibility than the Muslim Brotherhood. I met many people during the first round who said to me that they were going to choose Mohammed Morsi because we, [the Nour Party, i.e. Salafists] did not choose him.

Q: It has been said that America put pressure on the Military Council to give the victory to Mursi. What is your opinion?

A: I don’t know anything about that. I don’t believe everything that is said in the papers. But really, what are America’s interests in putting pressure on SCAF to have Morsi take the Presidency?

Q: Shafiq’s supporters say that the Military Council is in cahoots with the Brotherhood. Your comments?

A: I was surprised when Shafiq said that he accepted the results. The speech he delivered after they announced the results was a display of good form. I hope that the same kind of spirit will also be passed onto his supporters. There has to be a winner. And I would like to emphasize that, at the moment, responsibility is difficult. As for me, I congratulate Dr. Shafiq and offer my condolences to Dr. Mohamed Mursi. Concerning what has befallen Shafiq, I say to him that “we belong to God and to Him do we return.”

Q: Some believe that under the Islamists, Egypt will become a religious state like Iran.

A: The phrase “religious state” is essentially a Western term and it is derived from “theocratic state”, which is a state that Islam vehemently opposes for God – may He be honored and glorified – as it is said in His Book: “and let not some of us take others to be Lords apart from God.” The notion of Divine Right to rule, or that one should consider what the ruler or spiritual leader of the state says as having the same status as the Qur’an or Sunnah, is not extant in Islam. This is extant in Shiite thought and not in Sunni thought. The Shi’ites say that the Imams are infallible. Hence, rule under the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (Wilayat al-Faqih) is equivalent to the rule of infallible Imams. For this reason, no one has the right to object to the rule of the spiritual leader of the Iranian Revolution. As for Sunni Islam, the just ruling Caliph is not infallible. Thus, rulers can be faulted and they can also be opposed for the sake of maintaining the form of the state. Moreover, anyone who talks of a religious state is either ignorant of the truth of Islamic Shariʿa or his understanding of Shariʿa is misinformed. Therefore, I declare that Egypt – ruled by the Constitution and the Law – will not be like Iran.

Q: Some people are calling for full diplomatic relations be re-established with Iran. Do you agree with this argument?

A: Iran is one of many states with which we must work together. But we must confirm whether it is a missionary state that seeks to spread the Shi’ite sect. If the Iranians agree not to cross certain red lines both inside and outside Egypt, then I have no objection to building good relations with them. We [Nour] do not have problems with building relations with all the states of the world, even with non-Islamic states, as well as an Islamic state like Iran.

Q: What are the red lines that Iran should not cross?

A: They should not appear to be trying to spread the Shi’ite sect within Egypt. And they should help preserve social and political stability for countries in the Gulf, as well as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria; they should stop interfering with, violating, and suppressing the will of the people. After all, what’s happening in Syria should not be tolerated.

Q: What is your opinion regarding the supplementary Constitutional Declaration?

A: This is seriously painful matter. It contravenes the popular referendum of March 19, 2011. It renders the Constituent Assembly an unelected body and its work is limited thanks to the right to object given to a great number of [political] entities, such as the President of the Republic, the Military Council, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court.

Therefore, we are with the people in peaceful objection and peaceful demonstrations against this decision. We share in wanting to inform the Military Council of our objection to the supplementary Constitutional Declaration and we demand that they have the Constitutional Declaration be submitted for review.

Q: Are you also protesting in Tahrir Square?

A: Some of the Salafi youth are participating in a sit-in in the Square, but the Salafi Da’wa will be present there on a recurrent basis.

Q: What is your opinion on the decision to dissolve the People’s Assembly?

A: The wording of the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision is not based on constitutional law, rather its interpretation – insofar as it required the dissolution of Assembly – is what requires review. This interpretation cannot be found in the wording of the decision, but rather in the court’s reasons for the judgment. And the decision to dissolve the Assembly has already been appealed and we are waiting for the decision in 10 days. We hope to have a different interpretation of the wording of the court’s decision, which will facilitate the re-election of one-third of the seats that are individual seats and prevent the dissolution of the Assembly in its entirety. For example, if one-third of the Assembly members were to die in an earthquake, does the entire Assembly become void? It is odd that one-third of Parliament should invalidate the entire Assembly.

Q: What is your opinion about how the Military Council implemented the ruling and dissolved Parliament?

A: The Military Council was hasty in its decision to dissolve the People’s Assembly on its own. This is not one of its designated powers put forth in the Constitutional Declaration, which the people voted on in a referendum. The people chose their representatives and no one has the right to dissolve the People’s Assembly.

Q: If the ruling ends up dissolving the Assembly, will you reconsider your slate of candidates for the elections?

A: If it is proven that the performance of some of our representatives in the Assembly was not good, then we will reconsider them.

Q: What is your opinion about the performance of the Nour Party’s parliamentary bloc?

A: The problem is that we are always making comparisons based on the absolute and the ideal. This has always made the comparison like a microscope that magnifies mistakes. It should be known that any comparison should be relative. If we compared the current People’s Assembly with the People’s Assembly under Mubarak, then we would realize that there was never a People’s Assembly to begin with under the former tyrannical regime. What I mean is the comparison between what is found at hand and what is not. In the end, the People’s Assembly is an experiment that needs to be evaluated in light of the negative aspects.

Q: What is your opinion about how the National Defense Council has been formed?

A: I believe that there should have been other civilian members involved in its formation, such as an authorized representative each from the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, as well as the chairmans of the Defense Committee and of National Security Committee from the People’s Assembly, in order to strike a balance that serves the general welfare. We are adamant that the Armed Forces should continue to perform their role as protectors of the country. But, at the same time, there must be relatively greater room that allows for consultation, and the Military Council’s decisions should not be made alone.

Q: Do you support the law on organizing demonstrations in the coming period?

A: I support peaceful demonstrations but not sit-ins that stop traffic. I think that the present law is sufficient, but it must be applied. Anyone has the right to express his opinion, but at the same time this should not interfere with the welfare of other citizens and it should not be violent.

Q: What is your vision for the re-organization of the police force?

A: The police force needs qualified men who understand the nature of the new stage we are living in, who protect citizens’ rights, and who at the same time do their work with the utmost competence. This is a matter that needs to be applied gradually. But what we need right now is to cooperate for the sake of restoring the police to their natural place in society: a place based on respect for the law and for the people.

Q: What is your opinion about some of the officers growing out their beards?

A: I am certain that bearded officers are noble men, of whom society and the police force are in need at this moment. The decision to fire them should be submitted for review, especially since a beard does not prevent a police officer from performing his work at all. To the contrary, at this stage the beard will help win the average man’s trust in the men of the police force. We hope that the situation will change in this new stage.

  1. In the 1971 constitution and the current, interim, Constitutional Declaration, Article 2 states that “The principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation.” Salafists and some Muslim Brothers basically advocate dropping “principles”, which would make for a much more direct and literal interpretation of Shariʿa.  ↩

  2. Borhami’s take — “why would anyone object to Shariʿa?” — is rather typical of Islamists and Salafists in particular. Many Egyptian secularists do object, however, because they are afraid that this will lead to the implementation of Saudi-style interpretations of Shariʿa, rather than “principles” derived from Shariʿa as interpreted by Islamic scholars, and also because it ignores the large part of Egyptian law that is derived from European tradition or entirely secular in nature.  ↩

  3. Of course, Mohammed Ali was not “elected” in any meaningful sense — he seized power by massacring all other Mamluks that had been ruling Egypt at the time.  ↩

  4. A reference to ElBaradei’s role while director of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons program. In fact, ElBaradei opposed the war and did not agree to language the US demanded at the time in describing the Saddam Hussein’s regime nuclear capacity.  ↩