Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—It is perhaps unsurprising that a secular center-Left party would be the first political party in Egypt to select a Coptic woman as its leader.
The party’s new leader, Hala Shukrallah, has stepped into the shoes of Nobel laureate, Al-Dostour founder and former Vice President Mohamed El-Baradei. Having graduated from the University of Cairo, she received her MA and PhD from British universities. She founded the Development Support Center in 1979 and had been working as a development consultant and advisor before she assumed the party’s leadership.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Shukrallah just days after she was elected as part leader about her plans for Al-Dostour as Egypt heads into presidential and parliamentary elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How do you feel being the first Egyptian Coptic and the first woman to win the leadership of a mainstream political party?
Hala Shukrallah: When I nominated myself, I was not concerned about being a woman or a Coptic Christian. Those who nominated me were not concerned about these two elements either, because the primary concern was issues of joint interest. I am an Egyptian citizen.
However, I am aware of the repercussions on the political scene, especially regarding women’s rights, which is my area of interest because of my own history working with women’s issues. I think many see my leadership as a breakthrough of one of the major obstacles [in Egyptian politics], which could have other positive repercussions in the future, encouraging Egyptian society to accept the idea that this [being a woman and Copt] is not a barrier to working in politics. This in itself is an important message to society at large, and the fact it has happened now means we are experiencing a change in the mentality of Egyptian society post-January 25.
The Al-Dostour party youth have the same mentality as the January 25 youth. In fact, they are the youth who are participating the most [in politics], creating a new culture from the spirit of Tahrir Square. This is the culture of the men who respectfully formed human shields to protect female protesters, or the Coptic Christians who stood up in defense of the Muslims praying in Tahrir Square. This is the culture of the revolution, which brought out the best in everybody at the time.
Q: Your Al-Dostour leadership bid was based on the slogan “one idea unites us.” How do you intend to apply this in reality?
At the start we identified our vision, and immediately saw the “one idea unites us” slogan as being able to help overcome inter-party differences and promote unity. What I noted was that despite the fact that members joined the party to effect change, as soon as they became part of it they became occupied with the internal struggles within the party. They subsequently would forget about what was happening on the larger political scene and become embroiled with this internal political reality. That is why my objective was to unite the party and I think that the time of intra-party rivalry is now over.
Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of replacing Mohamed El-Baradei, the former leader of your party, during this challenging time in Egyptian politics?
We are making our own way according to our own circumstances, and we cannot compare this with what Baradei may or may not have done if he were here. This is not what concerns me; we respect Baradei, his commitment to his principles and his decision to stand with the youth at a very dangerous time. That was important in itself. Therefore, it was natural that he was appointed honorary president [of Al-Dostour], but this does not mean that we cannot make decisions without referring to Baradei. We will be the ones who are making decisions [for the party] according to our own vision and values.
However, the Al-Dostour Party was shocked by Baradei’s decision to resign, not just from the party but also from the vice-presidency [of Egypt].
Q: Would you agree that this decision affected the party’s popularity on the Egyptian street?
I acknowledge that the party was weakened following Baradei’s resignation. However, today we are talking about launching a new campaign about securing party unity, even among members who competed for the same seats. This is in order to create a unified group to build the party together. We will also create effective democratic mechanisms, which did not exist before and which had been the cause of previous divisions within Al-Dostour
Q: How would you respond to those who question the efficacy of Egypt’s political parties and claim they do not truly represent the Egyptian people?
There can be no doubt that the political climate in Egypt has greatly affected this issue, by which I mean the oppressive political climate that did not allow political parties to reach and interact with the people. Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak did not allow political parties to engage with the general public, which in turn meant the Egyptian people were cut off from politics and political parties. This is what produced this negative view of political parties.
Today, however, it is different, because we are on the verge of a new phase, although the battle has not been won yet. There are still dangers regarding the return of the old regime, which is doing everything in its power to keep hold of society in order to fulfill its own ambitions. However, it is the Egyptian people who will decide this battle, after having realized something very important on January 25: They realized that the Egyptian people are a vital part of the political process and nobody can come to power without first engaging with the general public.
We, for our part, will do everything that we can to play the role that a political party should, namely to defend the people and adopt and defend the marginalized and poorest sections of society, defending their rights and helping them join the political battle. Our goal is to ensure they are represented and their voices are heard. This is the way to build a democratic society.
Q: There are those who see Al-Dostour as the party of the elite, and not a popular party that represents Egypt’s most disaffected. What is your view of this?
All political parties are accused of the same thing, that they are parties of the elite.
Q: Now that you have been named party leader, do you have any ambitions to secure higher political office?
I have no ambitions for anything greater than the Al-Dostour Party leadership. This is my ceiling; there is nothing more for me beyond this. In fact, I did not even want to run for the party leadership at first because I was used to working with people on the ground, solving daily problems. However the youth’s confidence in me and their calls for me to nominate myself, encouraged me to do this and achieve my hope of helping Al-Dostour lead the way in Egyptian political life.
Q: What about the political aspirations of the Al-Dostour Party? Will it put forward a presidential candidate? Are you preparing for parliamentary elections?
Our priorities are to put our house in order from within, and this is something we will be doing at the same time as the presidential elections are taking place. We have agreed to participate in the [presidential] election campaign without putting forward a presidential candidate ourselves; the party is not ready for this step. So we will monitor the situation [in the run-up to the presidential elections] and decide our position based on what is taking place.
On the other hand, we will be participating in the local and parliamentary elections. We will establish a mechanism to organize this process to allow party members who have aspirations to represent their districts as members of parliament to do so.
Q: Will the Al-Dostour party seek to secure electoral alliances before the parliamentary elections?
All possibilities are open. The Egyptian Democratic Party is the closest to us, so this may form the nucleus of an alliance at the next elections. It is a possibility.
Q: What criteria would you apply in selecting electoral allies?
This would be based on shared visions and joint stances. We must also agree on the standards and parameters with which we would enter the political battle, as well as our desired objectives.
Q: Islamist politician Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, the leader of the Strong Egypt party, recently visited the Al-Dostour party headquarters. Is there a possibility that Al-Dostour will enter into alliances with parties that have Islamic leanings?
I have to clarify that Dr. Aboul-Fotouh visited before I became leader, and that took place at his own request. It was a protocol visit which did not result in any agreements; it was to clarify his position on the elections. Egyptian parties currently monitor each other’s positions, and this is normal for this stage.
Q: As a liberal party open to all Egyptians, can you accept members who have defected from Islamist parties or the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood?
We do have youth who defected from the Al-Nour Party, which is an Islamist political party. They joined the party and integrated into it. They agree with us on all our principles, including democracy and the rejection of discrimination. This proves that these parties are not rigid and must be treated based on this principle. Sometimes they are marginalized and their behavior is motivated by anger and oppression. So when we talk about security, we call on the security apparatus to deal with all rules in the same way and to deal with each violent group according to its own circumstances.