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In Conversation with Egypt's Al-Nour Party Spokesman - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Nader Bakkar (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Nader Bakkar (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—While the trial of ex-president Mohamed Mursi gets under way in Cairo, another legal process with the potential for even more profound implications for Egypt’s future is in train—the amendment of the country’s constitution, following the suspension of the document adopted under Mursi in 2012.

The process, undertaken by a committee of 50 appointed members, has been at the center of increasing rumor and speculation in Egypt and abroad, with news of disagreements over issues like the role of Islamic Shari’a law trickling out to the public.

The membership of the committee has also been controversial. The 2012 constitution was drafted by a small group of Mursi’s allies in the Islamist movement before the referendum that approved it—albeit with a very low turnout. This time around, the Muslim Brotherhood has no presence on the committee, and the Salafist Al-Nour Party has only one seat, leading to accusations that they are the “token Islamists” in the process, in stark contrast to last year.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with the Al-Nour Party’s spokesman, Bassam Al-Zarka, about his party’s role in the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, and the controversies that have accompanied both his party’s involvement and the debates within the committee.

Asharq Al-Awsat: First, what is the reason behind the withdrawal of the Al-Nour Party’s Bassam Al-Zarka from the constitutional committee? Does it point to an internal dispute on events in Egypt?

The departure of Bassam Al-Zarka from the constitutional committee was a personal decision due to a specific incident where, in his view, there was inappropriate behavior by some colleagues in the 50-member committee that led him to withdraw from the session. The matter was not limited to the Al-Nour Party, it was followed by a similar incident involving [Coptic] Bishop Anba Boula. That decision was also personal, neither Al-Nour Party nor the Church withdrew solely as a result of these incidents. A meeting was held with Zarka, and he said he could not proceed in this manner and asked to be excused from representing the Al-Nour Party on the committee.

On the Constituent Assembly, where I was a member alongside Zarka when we drafted the 2012 constitution, it was very difficult for someone to leave the committee and a replacement to be found from the party, because the selection was through elections. In the current committee, selection is by appointment.

Q: In your opinion, which selection method was better with regards to constitutional committees?

Without a doubt, the method of election is preferable to the method of appointment, because it provides a clear standard.

Q: Why did you not object or insist on this matter, give than it is a prerequisite to guarantee objectivity?

Actually, we [in the Al-Nour Party] expressed our view on this at the time. However, we did not want to complicate matters and wanted the process to get underway. We objected to the establishment of the committee in this manner but still participated after we registered our position, in order to uphold the higher national interest.

Q: Do you have concerns for the constitution following such incidents?

We do indeed have concerns due to the imbalanced way in which the committee was formed.

Q: How will the process of amending of the constitution go forward? Is a referendum necessary?

From the beginning, we adhered to the roadmap and to the 2012 constitution, which was approved by 64 percent of voters. When we agreed on the constitutional declaration on July 3, talk was about constitutional amendments, not a new constitution. The amendments should have been presented to the next parliament, which unfortunately did not happen. Consequently, the constitution will go directly to a public referendum.

Q: Do you expect that a consensus will be reached on the new constitutional amendments, with the current disagreement on some articles?

Unfortunately, there is more than one problem left unresolved by the current constitutional reform committee, and which still requires resolution. One example is Article 219, which impacts on Article 2, which is related to Islamic Shari’a. We have proposed more than one option. Among them is the complete omission of Article 219, and with it omission of the word “principles” and its replacement with “Islamic Shari’a,” or adding Article 219 to Article 2, or adding a new article stating that no laws that contradict Islamic Shari’a can be enacted. However, the real problem is that there is an unjustified fear in some people of discussing Islamic Shari’a.

Q: Who are those who most fear Shari’a law?

There is plenty of fear towards it due to the inaccurate portrayal of the Islamic Shari’a in the media. We are talking about an issue that is not alien to us, as it is a matter that should have been applied in the era of President Sadat. However, fate prevented him from doing so and the matter has been delayed until today. He [Sadat] asked Dr. Sufi Abu Taleb, the Speaker of the People’s Assembly at the time, and Sheikh Abdul-Halim Mahmud, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, to enact Shari’a through legislation.

In that regard, there is a document signed by representatives of Al-Azhar and the Church, before the takeover by Pope Tawadros II, agreeing on four articles: Articles 2, 3, 4 and 219 in the 2012 constitution. Unfortunately, the positions changed for the 2013 committee.

Q: In your opinion, what is the reason behind the change in positions on Shari’a?

I prefer to speak about facts, and there are plenty of details. Al-Azhar suggested Article 219. Even for the legal instruments, we said that anything of Islamic nature or linked to Islamic Shari’a must go through Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar alone is concerned with specific matters of Shari’a and any issues with Islamic aspects. Therefore, interpretation of Shari’a is a matter for Al-Azhar and not for any Islamic party or Islamic political movement. Having said that, a party has the right to base itself in its Islamic identity, but Al-Azhar is the interpreter of Shari’a.

Q: What is your opinion of the “Islamic” representation on the committee, and is it enough?

First, there is only one representative for the Al-Nour party, as well as Dr. Kamal El-Helbawy. With regards to other Islamic parties, they are the ones who rejected participation in the 50-member committee. As for the decision to appoint Dr. Kamal El-Helabwy, with all due respect to him, he is known for attacking Islamists. It may have been better to select an independent Islamic figure; the choice of Dr. Helbawy raises questions, just as the selection of one person from the Al-Nour Party is not enough. This brings us back to the problem of the lack of set measures for selecting only one representative for the Al-Nour Party. In the 2012 constitutional committee there were 17 members from the Al-Nour Party, and that was formed through elections. Therefore I ask: Why is there only one person from the Al-Nour Party? This also raises questions.

Q: What is your opinion of the ongoing demands of the Muslim Brotherhood and their leaders regarding the legitimacy of President Mursi? What would you say to them, especially since they criticize the position adopted by the Al-Nour Party?

We must understand the reality and deal with it, and it is important to understand that the mistakes made by the Brotherhood in the past year are behind the complex scene we are witnessing now. There were many opportunities for negotiations but they were wasted by the Muslim Brotherhood, one after another. It became very clear that it was impossible for President Mursi to return in light of the population’s refusal, as well as the refusal by the state itself and its institutions. How could Mursi govern, and with which institutions? Moreover, the popularity of the Brotherhood is very low.

We face two possibilities: either the Brotherhood insists on dramatizing the issue, or they acknowledge that what happened last year was a mistake on their part and quickly reintegrate into political life.

Q: Do you foresee the possibility of the Brotherhood admitting their mistakes and integrating back into society?

Unfortunately, they are working on dramatizing the issue, as it is apparent that the ongoing demonstrations are futile and devised to delay the process. The fatalities each time reassert the fact that the leaders of the Brotherhood are still following the same approach.

Q: Following recent violent incidents, has Egypt entered a new phase of terrorism?

It is difficult to say that—and we are not talking about entering a decade of terrorism, as was the case in the 1980s. Of course, the position of the Al-Nour Party is very clear, and we reject any form of terrorism. However, there are reservation about the approach adopted by security forces in handling political opposition and their disregard for life. Even their handling of civilians demonstrates great recklessness and disregard for human life. This is unacceptable. We do not want an ineffective police force or a police force that oppresses human rights.

Q: There has been a lot of talk recently about the future president and nominating Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. What is your opinion on this, and does the Al-Nour Party intend to nominate an Islamic figure for the presidency?

What I can say about this issue is that the question of presidency is not currently on the agenda. The Al-Nour Party has specifically not put forward any names for presidential nominees for the future. Talking about it now is premature.

Q: What about talk of nominating Sisi?

The Al-Nour Party does not have a negative view of Sisi’s nomination, if it is as a civilian, not a military man. We do not have any reservations on the matter. We have no reservations about the issue and we can address the issue if and when it happens.

Q: Do you expect that the crisis in Egypt will end rapidly?

There is no doubt if Egypt’s situation is stable, then the whole Arab nation will be stable. Egypt is passing through a difficult phase, but it will overcome it. I think that Arabs will recognize that their crises and problems will be solved through unity. The solutions to these crises do not lie in the East or West, they are in our own hands.

Q: Is there communication between the Al-Nour Party and the West?

The Al-Nour Party, both prior to June 30 and afterwards, communicates with all world states. We will communicate with the Europeans and Americans as long as we are a political party, especially as we are playing the role of mediator in the reconciliation process.

Q: On that note, have mediation efforts failed to achieve political reconciliation?

Let us call it community-based reconciliation. The leaders of the Brotherhood are unwilling to end the crisis, and since then talk has turned to community-based reconciliation with young followers of the Brotherhood, as well as their families, and persuading them that they are part of the community. As for the leaders, they have wasted many chances, and cooperating with them to end the problem has become extremely difficult.