Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Hizb Al-Wasat Al-Jadid [The New Center Party] is the first political party in Egypt licensed to operate following the 25 January revolution, after its previous application for legal status was rejected by the former regime. This is the first political party in the history of Egypt that openly proclaims that it intends to follow Islamic Sharia principles as part of its general framework. Abu Ila Madi is the founder and president of the New Center Party, and he is a well-known Islamist and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The New Center Party, or the Wasat party as it is being called in Egypt, is drawn from the Wasatiyya (centrist) school of thought; this is a liberal interpretation of Islamic Sharia law which gained popularity among some young Islamists in the 1980s and 1990s. The Wasat party is seeking to interpret Islamic Sharia law in a manner that is consistent with the values of a liberal democratic system, viewing Islamic Sharia principles as being wholly compatible with the principles of pluralism and equal citizenship rights.
Abu Ila Madi – whose party has been described as a Muslim Brotherhood off-shoot – spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the political situation in Egypt following the revolution, and his hopes for the future.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the significance of the timing of the ruling that you obtained with regards to the establishment of the New Center Party?
[Madi] We could not have found a better time [to establish a political party] than the present time. We give credit to the 25 January revolution and the environment it created after it toppled the regime and removed all the [political] pressures. We have arrived on the political scene at a time when the [Egyptian] people have reconciled with politics; we are fortunate.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you have to say to those who believe that this is something that will help the older more established parties, as they already have infrastructure in place to capitalize on this, rather than the newer political parties like your own?
[Madi] Actually, people will join and participate with the more serious parties, regardless of whether they are new or well-established…because the [Egyptian] people now know what is going on. The people know who was [politically] active, and who used to accept the crumbs from the former regime, they are aware who was [politically] serious and present in the street and who was not. The people surprised themselves and the whole world [by rising up against the former regime]. They were aware of everything that was happening under the former regime, and our political capital [as a party] lies in our credibility. We now have a new [political] map that is being formed after millions took to the streets. The majority of them will participate [in politics]. Until now, 100 buildings have been offered to us to serve as our party headquarters, all by way of donation, in addition to this, some people have raised our party’s banner without us being aware of this. This causes us feelings of concern and responsibility.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you say that this poses a challenge to you and your party?
[Madi] Yes; we are now facing two major challenges: Organizing our membership and making use of and classifying the existing [political] cadres; this is because we intend to obtain the membership of some existing [political] cadres, as well as a presence in the street. We began active [political] operations from the first day that the ruling was issued; we have daily meetings with new members and sessions in most of the [Egyptian] provinces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is your party preparing for the forthcoming parliamentary elections which may be held within the next few months?
[Madi] Yes, we are preparing and we are ready even if the elections were held tomorrow. Many former MPs are offering to join our party, including some former MPs of the National Democratic Party [NDP]. However we are screening this list and we will not accept anybody who is corrupt or who has question marks over their reputation. We have asked the ruling [Supreme] Military Council to hold the parliamentary elections after one year, rather than in just a few months. We also asked for an amendment to the political parties’ law in order to minimize any risks and give all the new and existing parties a chance to prepare and establish themselves so that the election results truly reflects Egypt’s social diversity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Won’t this just prolong the transitional period?
[Madi] We have no objection to that on the condition that a transitional presidential civilian council is established to supervise the entire transitional period in order to ensure a transition which achieves the minimum of the protestors’ demands, especially with regards to liberties and democracy. The general climate is conducive to introducing new political forces and ideas to [Egyptian] society, allowing these new parties a chance to obtain representation in parliament. This is why the forthcoming transition is extremely important. Thus we will have two initial transition periods; namely, a period under a transitional council, and then an initial presidential period during which a constituent assembly will be established and a new constitution drawn up.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion about the constitutional dilemma relating to the new president’s oath?
[Madi] We have a solution to this which we submitted to the military council. The presidential elections can be held first and the president would take the oath before the general assemblies of the state council, the constitutional court, and the state judiciary. The makeup of the [forthcoming] parliament is extremely important and should represent the new [political] forces properly.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why is there such focus on the makeup of the new Egyptian parliament? In your opinion, if the elections were held today who would win?
[Madi] If the elections were held under the current conditions, there are two forces that are capable of mobilizing and preparing themselves [for the elections], whilst all the other parties would be unprepared. This is a situation which would lead to an imbalance. Only the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the NDP have the ability to obtain the greatest number of [parliamentary] seats [if the elections were held today]. However we need a new [political] map, particularly since the [forthcoming] parliament will have a different political makeup.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support the dissolution of the NDP?
[Madi] No, because the idea of disbanding a party is opposed to freedom. At any rate, the NDP is over. But what is required is for it to return the state properties – offices, headquarters, land, state funds – that it seized. The NDP should be uncovered so that people can see what it was truly like, whilst those of its members who have been implicated in corruption should be held accountable for their actions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about NDP members reorganizing and returning to the political scene in a different form or under a different name?
[Madi] I am not worried about that in view of the maturity of the Egyptian people who now know who was with them and who was against them. There is no point worrying about the circumvention of the revolution or a counter-revolution because the masses will not allow anybody to deceive them. They are alert to any such behaviour and are ready to return to the streets once again.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people are saying that the former regime has not collapsed at all. What is your opinion of this?
[Madi] The head of the regime has been toppled; the Egyptian regime was based upon an extended network around one individual, with all the threats ending at the presidency. In order to be able to overthrow this regime we had to overthrow its leader. But there are still some figures that were part of the former regime who remain in state institutions, indeed most provincial governors, the senior security figures, and the heads of many other state institutions and bodies were in fact appointed by Mubarak. We are monitoring the situation, and the majority of [political] factional sit-downs have been engineered by national figures. Committees should be formed to study the demands…but it is true that remnants of the NDP remain in all major state bodies and institutes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean to say that the trial of senior NDP figures is not enough?
[Madi] Of course this is not enough. The revolution and the future are both still in danger. The greatest danger is posed by the symbols of corruption and profiteering. These figures must be carefully uprooted by the judiciary without resorting to generalizing or collective punishment. Our people’s aspirations and demands are for a true and genuine change of regime; therefore urgent measures need to be taken [in this regard].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, Ayman Nour, Ahmed Zuweil, and many others, have announced their intention stand for the Egyptian presidency; do you intend to compete with them at the presidential elections? What is your opinion about the presidential candidates named above?
[Madi] First of all, we have not discussed, within the party, the issue of nomination or participation in the presidential elections. However, at the end of the day all these nominations were spoken about prior to 25 January. It is too early to make a decision about presidential nomination. We are still waiting for constitutional amendments which would open the door for many figures to nominate themselves for president. I support the idea of a national consensus on a single presidential candidate who will be in power during an initial transitional period.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the committee that is studying constitutional amendments has been a cause of concern for many people, why do you think that is?
[Madi] The Muslim Brotherhood movement is a force that exists on the scene and this is something that cannot be denied. Its presence should be regulated and it should be dealt with rationally and maturely and based upon democratic rules. However in light of the new situation, the Muslim Brotherhood must firstly clarify its position, they must decide whether they are going to be an Islamic Dawa [missionary] and educational organization that focuses upon social affairs, or whether it will be a group that is involved in politics via a [political] party.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Muslim Brotherhood has said they intend to set up a political party affiliated to its Guidance Office, whilst retaining the organization as it is. What is your opinion of that?
[Madi] This is not appropriate in the current situation and the current climate of liberties. An Islamic Dawa organization is based upon [religious] principles and morals; it has no immediate [political] interests. The role of a preacher is to direct the people to choose a political leader that is the most suitable and sincere and who will have a positive influence. The preacher cannot advise people to choose himself; this would be unjust, especially as the role of religion is primary for both Egyptian Muslims and Christians. It would be best if the political party completely separates itself from the organization. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to follow the Jordanian model. They want the party to be the political arm of the movement, whilst the major decisions are taken by the organization, but carried out by the political party. This is the worst model for a [political] organization, and results in the [political] party becoming nothing more than a puppet-show. This is unacceptable. However if the [political] party is completely free and independent, for example if some Muslim Brotherhood figures leave the organizations and form a political party – as we did – then this will result in a party that does more than espouse the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you worried about a Muslim Brotherhood political party, especially given that this party will undoubtedly follow a similar framework and religious ideology as your own?
[Madi] On the contrary, we are glad that a party established by the Muslim Brotherhood movement has emerged. It confirms that New Center Party has no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. Why else would they form a party? We believe in diversity within our [religious] ideological current, and it is up to the public to decide. We are not worried because we have experience in building relations with various currents in society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you not worried about your party’s support being affected by the presence of other parties with similar manifestos, such as a Muslim Brotherhood political party, or another Islamist party?
[Madi] We are not worried; the coming battle is a battle of ideas; not an organizational battle to convince voters. Past elections took place in an environment where thuggery and bribes were needed to guard the ballot boxed and protect votes. However in a climate of freedom, all political parties need to do is convince the voters of their ideas and candidates. We welcome the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood party in an honourable competition with them and with others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your response to those who fear that Islamist parties, such as your own party and the Muslim Brotherhood party, may form a coalition in order to obtani power?
[Madi] All coalitions are legitimate but the idea should be to form a new power, rather than the formation of a coalition comprised of parties that hold the same ideology. We are ready for political coalitions rather than ideological coalitions in view of the nature of the political scene [in Egypt].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it possible for such coalitions to have a negative influence, for example on Egypt’s international agreements, such as the Camp David Accords?
[Madi] Any person who talks about the abrogation or review of the Camp David Accords is not aware of the reality of the situation. These agreements are not under discussion at present for a number of reasons, such as international balances and the wishes of the Egyptian people to build their homeland internally with freedom and democracy. This is not a priority at the present time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the West still fears Islamists coming to power in Egypt?
[Madi] Change will not occur overnight. The demonstrations which millions of Egyptians took part in were for the sake of Egyptians, not Islamists, and rather the Islamists were just one part of this. The Egyptian people are not made up of politicized Islamists, but nor is everybody who attends a mosque a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist group. Nobody has the right to exclude Islamists, or exaggerate their strength [in Egypt], putting forward a [political] model like that of Iran.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you say to those who are worried about your party’s Islamist ideology?
[Madi] No one should worry…the Egyptian people – both Muslims and Christians – are religious by nature and the Muslim culture is one of the principal components of society. The role of religion is important, but what is more important is regulating the relationship [between religion and society]. We have offered a balanced interpretation between the religious institutions and society; we have offered a cultural framework based upon modern and civilized concepts, and Article II of the [Egyptian] constitution should reassure those who are worried. Article II will remain as it is, however constitutional amendments may be made to ensure a stable social contract which nobody can tamper with.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In addition to toppling the former regime, has this revolution affected other parties or components of Egyptian society?
[Madi] In addition to overthrowing the regime and the paper parties that existed and co-existed with it, the revolution undermined the reputation of two important forces, the leadership of the Coptic Church and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. The youths from these organizations that came out [to protest] despite instructions not to, particularly on 25 and 28 January 2011, breaking a significant barrier which will result in changes in these entities themselves.