Egypt examines possibility of Islamist party

CAIRO — Nearly 10 years ago, Abul-Ela Madi was jailed when he first proposed creating an Islamist party in Egypt. Now, he seems closer than ever to achieving his dream — and if he does, it will further alter his country’s already changing political landscape.
If Madi’s Al Wasat Party is approved, it will launch a new experiment in incorporating Egypt’s powerful — but long banned — fundamentalist forces into politics at a time when the government of this key US ally in the Muslim world is promising greater democracy.

After a few months in jail when Madi sought to establish his party in 1996 and two subsequent rejections by the committee in charge of licensing new political parties, a state council court panel in June recommended approval for Al Wasat. An appeals court is to rule on October 1, but the court has never reversed such a recommendation.

“I never lost hope,” Madi said with a big smile as he sat in his downtown office. “Anyone with a cause has to have a huge reservoir of hope and optimism to change a black reality.” While the approval would come too late for Al Wasat to field a candidate in the September 7 presidential election, it could participate in parliamentary elections set for November.

The road to gain legal status for Al Wasat has been rough.

Madi was opposed both by the government of President Hosni Mubarak and his former colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood, believed to be the country’s most powerful opposition force.

The Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and biggest fundamentalist group, is still banned by the government, despite renouncing violence in the 1970s. The government says it will not allow parties whose platform is based on religion.

Many have touted Al Wasat — which means “the centre” in Arabic — as a possible way for the Brotherhood’s fundamentalist constituency to participate in politics, and Madi has tried to play up Al Wasat’s moderate platforms to secure its approval.

An engineer by training and a devout Muslim who wears a trimmed beard, Madi will shake a woman’s hand — something many religious hardliners refuse to do.

He says his organisation is secular and, like mainstream Egyptian society, includes Coptic Christians, a minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, as well as unveiled women.

The group says that Sharia, or Islamic law, is open to interpretation. It stresses tolerance, equality between the sexes and does not forbid women or Christians from a leadership role.

But in the eyes of the hardline Brotherhood, these stances are blasphemous.

“We will never participate in Al Wasat, we are taking two very different paths,” Mohammed Habib, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, said in an interview. “They have exceeded what are principles for us, like the possibility of a Copt becoming president and a woman becoming a leader,” he said.

Madi, 47, was jailed five times, first as a university student in southern Egypt. He started in politics with the Gamaa Al Islamiyya, or Islamic group, but left when it espoused violence and before it assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981.

In 1979 he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, but split with the group in 1996 and applied for the creation of Al Wasat.

Still, the government arrested him and a number of his colleagues, suspecting that his project was just a front for the banned Brotherhood.

Madi believes that Islamists are partly to blame for the tumultuous relationship with the government, and the fear in which they are held by the country’s ruling elite and secular citizens.

“The Islamist trend is a problem and part of the cause.

The fact that it’s not included in a political life is causing a problem, as are feelings of oppression and exclusion, which have pushed some to violence,” Madi said.

“But the Islamists didn’t address the fears of the regime and the elite, and the ideological differences became a personal conflict,” he added.

One way to address such fears is to stress democratic goals, he said.

“We want a balanced relationship with America, and we’re not in a position of eternal animosity with the regime,” Madi said. “We are part of efforts to renew reforms in democratic thought and practice here.” Madi is a leading member of the largely secular anti-Mubarak movement known as Kifaya, Arabic for “enough.” He takes pride that the movement was born at his house, when key Kifaya leaders — including Copts — met for a meal to break the fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan two years ago.

For the government, Al Wasat could provide a way to peacefully channel conservative Islamic forces in Egypt at a time when Mubarak is under US pressure for reform — and when Egypt fears a revival of militants after recent terror attacks in Sinai.

The regime wants “to present an Islamist group with a reforming face,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a researcher of political Islam. “To what extent Al Wasat will fit the role the government wants them to play, remains to be seen, and their fate…depends on that.”

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