Salafist Nour party leader Younes Makhioun, a former dentist, finds himself leading the Salafist party at a crucial juncture. The Salafist Nour Party helped to draft, and endorsed, a constitution that outlaws political parties based on religious grounds; however the party has also done everything in its power to cooperate with the post-Mursi authorities.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Makhioun speaks about the political situation in the country, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood and his hopes for the future.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Nour Party was previously aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, but recently a dispute escalated between the two groups and a sort of estrangement has occurred. How did this develop, and is this rift permanent?
Younes Makhioun: First, there was never an alliance between us and the Muslim Brotherhood. We formed the Nour Party after January 25, 2011 and they formed the Freedom and Justice Party. We fought the election as competitors, and the battle between us was fierce. They used propaganda and took illegal measures, utilizing any and all means against us. If a recount took place between a Nour Party candidate and another, they would align with the other so that the Nour Party candidate would not win. There was no alliance between us at all. However, in parliament we work for the good of the country and we are all in one place. Although our views are independent, sometimes our positions were consistent with those of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. At other times we differed from them depending on our interests. Our groups have very different approaches to political strategy. This was the tipping point between us and them: we rejected their desire to dominate the political arena and exclude others. We operated on the principle that everyone should be able to participate, especially after the January 25 revolution, but their approach was one of exclusion and domination. This was evident from the start of our dealings with them.
We then began to see the failures of [former president] Mohamed Mursi’s presidency, and these failures led to polarization on Egyptian streets. An opposition movement was growing and we felt the dangers of that. We, the Nour Party, put forward an initiative which was agreed on by all political forces except the Muslim Brotherhood and Dr. Mursi. Had he responded in a timely manner to the crisis, we would be not where we are today. This happened a year ago. As we were promoting this initiative, harsh attacks were launched against us, accusing us of treason and of obstructing Islamic unity. Some Islamist television channels and Facebook pages pitted themselves against us, claiming that we were aligned with the National Salvation Front and liberals, although none of this was true. We had independent positions and so they began to attack us. The opposition later evolved, moving from rhetorical opposition to an opposition in the streets organized by the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement.
When Tamarod took to the streets, they were met with an overwhelming response from people who were already complaining about the Brotherhood’s policies and their attempts to consolidate power by controlling the various arms of the government. I sat down with Dr. Mursi for about two and a half hours and told him of the dangers and offered sound advice, but he did not heed anyone’s warnings, which is what brought his reign to an end on June 30, 2013.
Q: What warnings of advice did the Nour Party attempt to give to the Muslim Brotherhood?
We asked to sit with him [Mursi] and provide some solutions, but the Brotherhood refused to listen or respond at all. Instead of offering solutions, they chose to try to overcome the crisis by launching massive crowds against other massive crowds. The Brotherhood called on us to help organize a million-man march on June 21 as a response to the marches planned on June 30, but we refused. We felt that we should not employ religion as a tool in a political conflict or frame what was happening as a religious conflict between Islamists and non-Islamists, because that simply was not true. Using religion in this way is unfounded and will lead to conflict, causing us to lose the faith of the Egyptian people. Those who came out on June 30 were not against Islam, religion, or the rule of law, nor were they against the Islamist vision, for they have never truly seen the Islamist vision actually play out. They attacked us, saying that we failed Shari’a and Islam, portraying us as enemies of religion and Islam. We believed, and still do, that this was an exploitation of religion. Public figures who were known to have violent pasts began giving speeches at their rallies.
The inflammatory speeches and violence began as though we were going to war. Then exactly what we expected to happen, happened. Schisms started to show among Egyptians. It seemed as though we were embarking on the path to civil war, and things continued to escalate as June 30 drew nearer. On June 30 itself, millions of people poured into the streets, and we saw this happen with our own eyes across villages, streets, and cities. The situation has changed completely. We put forward a plan whereby Dr. Mursi would hold early presidential elections, but he and the Brotherhood did not respond to it. The country became paralyzed, and Dr. Mursi, in reality, was no longer president of Egypt because he became completely isolated when the people poured out into the streets.
Q: How did Mursi’s end finally come?
One June 30, the Nour Party, and myself personally, were called upon to attend a national dialogue meeting with Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo. The Freedom and Justice Party, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Christian Church, youth movements, the National Salvation Front and representatives of the judiciary were also asked to attend. When I asked about the purpose of the meeting, it was described as a miniature national dialogue.
I sent the secretary-general of our party to the meeting because many roads were blocked and I could not attend. He informed me that the matter was over and that Dr. Mursi had been deposed. We found that a new reality had imposed itself on Egypt. Dr. Mursi was removed from power, and we had the choice nit to embrace the roadmap or remove ourselves from the political process. We decided to participate so as not to put the whole Islamist movement in one basket and isolate ourselves completely. We hoped to correct the misguided notion that all Islamists were violent, accused others of blasphemy, and rejected society. We also did not want to get caught up in the rhetoric of violence and blasphemy that came out of Rabaa Al-Adawiya. But perhaps we will be outcasts anyways. Perhaps we will be eradicated with the public’s blessing.
Q: Do you support holding parliamentary elections first or presidential elections first?
Our position is clear. We are committed to the Constitution and the roadmap, and will continue to be until their achievements can be felt on the street. Of course, both options have their pros and cons. The parliamentary elections should come first so that the next president will be inaugurated with a legislative power in place. Currently there is a promise [of] a presidential figure present, but we lack a legislative power. We want parliamentary elections to be held first, but if it they are not, we will not impose our opinion on others. As for the election system to be used, we support a mixed system of group lists and individual candidates. This will benefit the parties and encourage them to nominate the best candidates. Voters will base their selections on political platforms and policy, and not on the personalities of the candidates.
Q: What about those who say that the average Egyptian voter does not understand the list system?
If this is the case, it can be remedied. We are talking about a system that will determine our future for decades to come. Egyptian society must confront the issue of partisan loyalties and bribery. This is a big problem, which has enabled incompetent individuals to join the House of Representatives who do not represent the Egyptian people. Money and partisan loyalties will always be factors. We want there to be lists that contain specialists and technocrats. Let the electoral system be based on 50 percent group lists and 50 percent individual candidates. By allowing individuals to be elected, the people can choose to nominate whoever they want, and group lists will include the technocrats who will be chosen based on their policy platform, not on the basis of personality.
Q: Are you prepared for the upcoming elections?
Yes. We have federal campaign headquarters and campaign headquarters in each province. We had already begun when Dr. Mursi announced elections, but the administrative court canceled the decision. We have begun selecting candidates and evaluating past candidates. We are working around the clock, however there is not much more we can do until we know the type of electoral system that will be used. How we approach the elections and whom we choose will vary according to the electoral system.
Q: It seems that public opinion wants presidential election to be held first. And there is also a strong push for Sisi to be nominated as a presidential candidate. What is your position in this regard?
First, we made clear our position as a party regarding the nomination of General Sisi. We will not publicly express our opinion regarding any presidential candidate until all candidates have been nominated. We still do not know if General Sisi will run or not. It is still not resolved. Second, when we evaluate a candidate by himself, we might feel that he would not be a good fit. But when compared with others who are running, he may be the best choice of them all. Therefore, our position will not be settled until all candidates have declared they will run. Only then will we know who is the best choice, and only then will we announce our position, God willing.
Q: It’s often said that what Egypt needs now is a strong leader. Do you agree?
This too has its pros and cons. We do not want to cling to a person or group of people, or believe that he is some sort of Superman who can accomplish everything. This could have the opposite effect. Egypt is facing many difficult problems, and pinning all of their hopes on one person could be dangerous. He likely would not be able to solve all the problems for a variety of reasons, which would only disappoint the people. We do not want people to idolize anyone. We want to build sound state institutions. Whoever the president, we will work with him and stand behind him as long as this is the will of the people. This issue needs to be examined closely, and it is in no way resolved.
Q: The general impression of the Nour Party, due to its actions in parliament and elsewhere, is that it seems to focus the majority of its energy on articles concerning Shari’a. Muslims make up the vast majority of the Egyptian population, and Egypt is facing many problems concerning the economy, politics and so on. Do you have policy platforms regarding these issues?
This is not true at all. Even under former president Hosni Mubarak, when we were a part of the Al-Dawa Al-Salafiya Movement, we played a big role in solving people’s problems and helping orphans and widows. We undertook projects to serve the people, including establishing convoys and medical associations that aided the people. Our activism within Egyptian society cannot be compared to that of any other party or movement. We were a part of the community. We were in the mosque and considered each mosque in every village a parliament through which Egypt might resolve its problems. We are engaged in solving problems such as [the lack of] fuel and bread. We are at the heart of society and at the heart of the nation. We are the first to try to fix society’s problems. We have specific programs within the party platform and within the electoral platform. We have a vision for reform concerning social, economic, moral, educational, health and other issues.
However it is also true that one of our biggest goals is Shari’a law because we believe that a state that doesn’t take pride in its identity is a state that does not respect itself and does not win the respect of others. Our vision of reform emanates from [the Qur’an] and the sunnah, and we believe it will benefit the country and the people. Therefore, we care about this issue and consider it a central aim. The Egyptian people feel much the same way. The Egyptian people support Shari’a. Opinion polls at home and abroad found that about 90 to 95 percent of the Egyptian people loved their religion, and that Egyptians’ support of Shari’a law was one of the highest in the world.
Q: Observers say that Egypt’s laundry list of problems, which has been neglected for years, will make ruling the country very difficult for whoever is in charge. Tough decisions will need to be made and austerity policies implemented which may not be popular. Is the Nour Party prepared to do this?
First, regarding ruling the country, and whether or not it will be in our hands, we have always stated that we will not rule, but we will help govern. After any revolution, no one faction should ever bear the responsibility of all. All who participated in the revolution and the undoing of the former regime should take part in rebuilding the state. Nor should one faction rule alone because it obtained a majority of the vote. All the people must be included in building the state, in case an uprising should take place. Our policy is that we govern, we do not rule. And the difference between ruling and governing is that governing takes advantage of everyone’s talents and expertise; that the right man is put in the right position regardless of ideology or party affiliation.
Q: Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood, or any subgroup of them, has a political future in Egypt? If so, how would this come about?
A person can fail politically, but the wheel could turn and he could find himself back on top again. A man can wade into a battle and lose, but the wheel could turn and he could return victorious. But when a man fails morally or ethically, it is difficult to return from that. The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that what we had hoped they would do, they didn’t do. I think that what they did was suicide. They chose the path of confrontation and used violence. They have not been committed to their ethics, offending many with accusations of apostasy, slander, and indecencies in all forms. There is no doubt that it has become very difficult for them to return to political life, unless they reevaluate themselves and apologize to the Egyptian people for what they did. They must reevaluate their approach and their ideology. This may take a long time, but they must reevaluate themselves so that they can reintegrate into society. We want them to reintegrate into society and be active and constructive members, but this will take time and will not be in the near future.
Q: How do you view the Arab Spring three years on?
One can easily see that there no longer remains a unified state across the entire region following these revolutions, save for Egypt. Praise be to God first and foremost, and secondly to the solidarity between the people and the army. Those who take to the streets today to engage in vandalism and violence do not act in Egypt’s interest in the least, but in the interests of the enemies of Egypt, though likely unbeknown to them. We must look at the situation comprehensively, because the fall of Egypt, God forbid, would be a catastrophe for the Muslim nation and the Arab nation. We must make every effort to remain a unified state, and then fix our problems one by one. If the state collapses, there will be nothing left to repair. Hope is in God Almighty. Countries need time to stabilize after revolutions, such as France, where it took about 20 years. In America it took decades. We do not hope the same for Egypt.
Q: Do you feel optimistic?
Yes, praise be to God. I am optimistic for several reasons. Egypt is not very sectarian, for we are all Sunnis. The army, moreover, is not a sectarian army, but an army of the nation. There is a strong connection between the army and the Egyptian people. The Egyptian people are not naturally inclined to violence, and what has happened recently is an anomaly in the history of Egypt. When the Egyptian people sense danger, they unite and stand shoulder-to-shoulder. I believe that these factors bode well, and tomorrow, God willing, will be better than today. There will be some obstacles and some disturbances, but the Egyptian people will persevere, God willing.