It came as a surprise to many when, in January 1996, a group of young Egyptian Islamists, mainly from the cadres of the outlawed but still active Muslim Brothers, announced the formation of a new Islamist party in Egypt. Al-Wasat, the founders claim, is a civil party with an Islamic identity. The name, al-Wasat (Center), signifies their intent to be a moderate party, oriented toward neither East nor West, neither capitalist nor communist, but rather somewhere between cooperating with the West and waging war against the “un-Islamic” elements of Egyptian society. The application to register the new party has been submitted to the state party committee, which has until the end of May to respond. Keeping in mind that, since the introduction of the party law in 1977, this committee has yet to approve the registration of any new party, the struggle to register al-Wasat is likely to be resolved only in the courts. On March 3, 1996, I spoke in Cairo with two founders of al-Wasat about the goals of the new party. In light of recent gains made by the Welfare Party in Turkey, we also discussed the pragmatic approach of Turkish Islamists and its significance for the new Egyptian party.
Abu al-‘Ila Madi, 38, a mechanical engineer, has been active in the Islamist student movement since 1977. In the 1980s, he concentrated his organizing efforts on the professional associations. Today, he is secretary-general of the engineers’ association and head of the liaison committee for the coordination of all of the professional associations. Rafiq Habib, 37, a Ph.D. in psychology from ‘Ayn Shams University in Cairo, now works as a writer and researcher on the Arab-Islamic identity of Egypt. On April 2, 1996, Madi was arrested by the Egyptian authorities along with 12 members of the Muslim Brothers. According to the Interior Ministry, Madi is accused of threatening the internal security of the state and trying to reactivate the Muslim Brothers through the activities of al-Wasat. Following the renewal of the 15-day detention order on April 17, 1996, for an additional 30 days, it was decided by presidential decree that Madi, along with 13 members of the Muslim Brothers, would be put on trial before a military court.
What was the idea behind the foundation of this new party? Does the Egyptian political landscape need another Islamist organization?
Madi The idea to enter the party system began many years ago. After ten years of concentrated work in the professional associations, we felt that it was time for us to develop our own political thinking and structures. We could either join one of the already existing parties or form a new one. We chose the second option. It was inevitable that our generation would do this. Our decision was also a reaction to government pressure put on the Islamic movement. In January 1995, many of our friends, among them the assistant secretary-general of the doctors’ association, were arrested. Last March, the state passed another law to further limit the activities of the associations. In May 1995, the government took control of the engineers’ association. In June, the new restrictive press law was introduced and many human rights organizations came under attack. Dozens of moderate Islamists were sentenced in military courts in late 1995. In November 1995, the elections were rigged. I gained a lot of experience as an independent candidate in Helwan, an industrial suburb of Cairo. Twelve other founding members of our party were candidates in the Islamic coalition formed before the last elections.
In al-Wasat press statements, you claim that al-Wasat is a civil party that does not contradict Islamic principles. What do you mean by this?
Habib Our Islamic identity is both religious and cultural. When we speak about al-Wasat, we refer to a cultural identity which all people, whether in Egypt or any other Arab country, have in common, be they Muslims or Christians.
So you, as a Christian, can join the ranks of the new party?
Habib As an Arab Christian, I identify with the value system of the Arab and Islamic civilization which expresses my feelings and preferences.
Madi Western countries, such as Germany, for example, have Christian Democratic parties. I have a Muslim friend in Germany who is a member of the ruling Christian Democratic Union. Al-Wasat is a civil party like the Union — our culture is Islamic, while theirs is Christian.
What are the main goals of the party and how do they differ from the other already existing Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brothers?
Madi Our thoughts are more developed, more moderate and more open-minded, than those of the other Islamist groups. Most of us are young; we use modern language to express our thoughts and we are open to cooperation with the West. We have taken elements from many different perspectives.
Habib The Muslim Brothers have yet to elaborate a specific political program. Our thinking is more social than political. Our work is based upon the concept of umma (Muslim community) as civil society.
Are these terms synonymous?
Habib Umma is for us as civil society is for the West. We believe that the umma has a very important role to play in bringing about our renaissance. The umma, not the state, will be the catalyst of progress. The functions of the state must be restricted, while civil society must play a much more important role.
Many of you come from the ranks of the younger generation of the Muslim Brothers. How did the Muslim Brothers react to your new party?
Madi We are a development of the Muslim Brothers. But as any development in our region, we are confronted with many obstacles. Many in the leadership of the Muslim Brothers have reservations about our new party.
Habib To express the wider framework of Islamic culture, which includes more than Muslims, within an Islamic party is new, and many think that this signals our departure from the Islamist movement — that we were no longer a part of it. There are also fears about how this experiment will affect the Islamic movement or the Muslim Brothers. Until now, the Islamic movement has been a loose social group. The establishment of the party as an institution risks splitting the movement into different parties or institutions.
The government has accused you of being yet another attempt to legalize the Muslim Brothers.
Madi We are being pressured by both the government and the Islamic movement. They all have the wrong view of us. The security forces fear that we are trying to legalize the Muslim Brothers, while the leadership of the Muslim Brothers fears the competition. We are being crushed between the two.
What significance do the recent successes of the Welfare Party in Turkey have for you? The experience of the Islamists in Turkey seems similar to that which you have in mind.
Habib Their experience shows us that the application of Islamic culture to a civil party can be very effective. Up until now, many Islamic movements were founded exclusively upon a religious base. The Welfare Party has shown us how to be politically active Islamists within a civil party. It also proves that there are benefits to both the Islamic movement and governments when Islamists operate from within the political system.
Given the different types of Islamic movements, such as in Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria and now Turkey, how does the experience of the Islamists in Turkey compare to your situation? Turkish and Egyptian society have many things in common: a well-developed civil society; a powerful, Westernized elite and a complex struggle being waged between secularists and Islamists, modernity and tradition.
Madi The model adopted by the Islamists in Turkey is very similar to our own. The Islamists who operate from within the Turkish political system are closer to us than the Islamists in Yemen, but there are also differences. Our Islamic culture is part of our constitution. The second article of our constitution states that the principles of shari‘a are the main source of Egyptian legislation. In Turkey, that is not the case. Islamic culture is an integral part of the Arab world. True, there is a strong secular element in Egyptian society, but no one can openly speak against Islam.
The BBC is strengthening their reporting from Turkey. German newspapers now have permanent staff correspondents in either Istanbul or Ankara. There seems to be a growing sense that the future of the Islamic movement may be decided on the Bosphorus.
Habib It might appear that way now but the final decision will be made in Egypt. The future of the Arab umma will be decided here in Egypt. Here is where the cultural decisions will be made.
Madi Egypt is the center which affects other parts of the periphery. When something happens here it spontaneously affects other Arab countries. Events in Turkey may or may not affect us. Secularism, for example, exists in many Arab countries because it exists in Egypt. Historically, we have been the exporters of culture, artists and professional activities.
In Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan talks about economy, inflation and the customs union, while Egyptian Islamists have, until now, spoken only of Islamic morals, values and ideology.
Habib The Islamic movement in Egypt, when it functions as a social movement, is more ideological than pragmatic. The sphere within which the movement works is rather limited. When it becomes an institutionalized movement, it will deal more with the day-to-day politics in Egypt. For example, the Islamic student movement or the associations do address very concrete problems such as cheap study books and transportation.
This charity work deals only with the symptoms of the problem without positing a solid economic solution to it.
Habib Al-Wasat is the most important development because we are a political party and not a social movement. We present our interpretation of Islam as human understanding rather than an order from God that cannot be criticized. That is the difference between al-Wasat and the militant movements. Anyone can refuse or accept our understanding.
In Turkey, the Welfare Party is an integral part of the political system. Is a comparable situation possible in Egypt or will the government, fearing a repeat of Algeria, block any political participation of Islamists?
MadiAn important difference between Egypt and Turkey is that in Egypt, there are no independent local authorities and no independent budgets. Local councils in Egypt have no power. They can give speeches and advise the authorities.
Habib In the 1980s, the Egyptian government allowed a gradual participation of the Islamic movement. But in the 1990s, the Islamic movements were excluded from Egyptian political life. The government cannot continue this policy indefinitely without increasing the threat of instability. This would force the government eventually to integrate the Islamic movement back into the political system.
Madi There are two schools in the Arab world on how to deal with the Islamic movement. The first, in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, refuses the political participation of Islamists. Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Turkey, on the other hand, have sought to integrate Islamists into their political systems. The second school has been much more successful.
The first group has been successful, too. Tunisia has excluded Islamists, yet politically it is stable.
Habib In a small country such as Tunisia, harsh action can be taken against Islamists. In Egypt, such a response would lead to disaster. Even now, the Egyptian government must pretend to adhere to Islamic principles.
Madi Even if a strong Egyptian government tries to undermine the Islamic features of the country, it will be a disaster. We are offering the Egyptian government the opportunity to integrate Islamists into the democratic political system in order to achieve stability. All sides should welcome this attempt.