The Strong Egypt Party was left in disarray this week after two leading members were detained following accusations they had plotted with members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood to destablise Egypt in the run-up to next month’s presidential election.
The party also faces the threat of dissolution after lawsuits were filed demanding its activities be frozen on the grounds it has become a religious party which acts as a cover for the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Lawyer Samir Sabri filed a lawsuit on Sunday petitioning for the Strong Egypt Party to be dissolved for violating Article 47 of the constitution which bans religious parties.
Strong Egypt Party founder Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a presidential candidate in 2012, was arrested on 14 February at his home in East Cairo hours after returning from a visit to London.
Prosecutors ordered the detention of Abul-Fotouh for 15 days pending investigations into charges which include spreading false news with the aim of harming national security and maintaining contacts with the banned Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
On Tuesday, Abul-Fotouh, together with 15 others,were added to the terroist list on alleged links to the MB which has been designated a terrorist group by the government.
Abul-Fotouh, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1970s, left the group in 2011 in protest at the way the Brotherhood’s “extremist wing” had taken control of the leadership and Guidance Bureau. When Abul-Fotouh later announced he would stand in the 2012 presidential election the Brotherhood issued a statement saying he had been expelled from the group.
In a statement issued on 15 February the Interior Ministry said “the anti-Egyptian Al-Jazeera channel paid for Abul-Fotouh’s trip to London so he could hold interviews with hostile television channels and tarnish Egypt’s image ahead of the coming presidential election.”
In response, Abul-Fotouh’s family said on 16 February that he had travelled to London on 8 February to participate in a seminar on political Islam and meet with television channels and media outlets.
“Abul-Fotouh’s interview with Al-Jazeera was no different to the many interviews he has had with local Egyptian channels,” the family said in a statement. “He expressed the same views in London that he has expressed on many occasions in Cairo.”
The statement went on to deny Abul-Fotouh met with Brotherhood officials while in London.
The Interior Ministry claims “Abul-Fotouh’s visit to London and his interviews with hostile television channels were a cover to hold secret contacts with Brotherhood leaders who live in Turkey and who seek to destabilise Egypt.”
According to the Interior Ministry, Abul-Fotouh secretly met with leading Brotherhood members Mohamed Gamal Heshmet, Atef Al-Shazli and Lotfi Al-Sayed Ali Mohamed and discussed plans “to destabilise the country amid a series of terrorist attacks targeting vital institutions”.
Prosecutors also ordered the detention of Mohamed Al-Qassass, deputy head of the Strong Egypt Party, pending investigations into charges of spreading false news and being a member of a banned group.
Abul-Fotouh and Al-Qassass founded the Strong Egypt Party in July 2012. At the time it was widely seen as providing a political home for the moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
After Egypt designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group in December 2013 some political analysts warned the Strong Egypt and Wassat parties were being used as a front by the banned group. The Interior Ministry has described Abul-Fotouh as “a Trojan Horse” which the outlawed Brotherhood is using to destabilise the country.
“When the group lost its influence in Egypt in the wake of the 30 June Revolution in 2013 its fugitive officials in Turkey and the UK began using Abul-Fotouh and his Strong Egypt Party as a Trojan Horse to spread chaos,” said the Interior Ministry.
Abul-Fotouh’s family says he severed all relations with the Muslim Brotherhood after he decided to run for president in 2012 and points out he “supported the revolution against Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and called for early elections at the time”.
Gamal Zahran, a professor of political science and economics at Suez Canal University, says that just as “the Wassat Party became a gathering place for the Brotherhood under a different name” so “the positions of Abul-Fotouh and his party shifted to become pro-Brotherhood after security forces dispersed the group’s massive sit-ins in Cairo and Giza in 2013.”
Should Abul-Fotouh and his party be found guilty of meeting with the banned group it will be the first step towards dissolving Strong Egypt, says Sabri.
Al-Ahram political analyst Osama Al-Ghazali Harb told Al-Ahram Weekly that “despite the 30 June uprising being a revolt against Egypt becoming a religious state we still have Islamist parties such as Strong Egypt, Wassat and the Salafist Nour.”
“The platforms of all three mix religion with politics, calling for a revival of the Islamic Caliphate, the imposition of a strict code of Islamic Sharia and the persecution of Christians.”
It seems, says Harb, “we closed the door on the Muslim Brotherhood only to find the Nour, Wassat and Strong Egypt climbing through the windows.”
“As secular political parties in Egypt we have given priority since 2013 to tackling economic, security and political issues. The problem of fighting political Islam and religious parties was put on the back seat,” Essam Khalil, head of the Free Egyptians Party, told the Weekly.
“But having seen how the Muslim Brotherhood and its proxies in Egypt are still trying to turn the country into a religious state political parties need to be alert and take all legal measures necessary to close down parties which mix religion with politics in violation of the constitution.”
Abul-Fotouh’s family’s statement said he visited the UK to underline the importance of separating religion and politics.
“At the seminar he attended in London Abul-Fotouh argued Islamist organisations — particularly the Muslim Brotherhood — must stop exploiting religion to pursue their political agendas,” said the statement.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly