A popular campaign in Egypt has been launched advocating the disbanding of religiously oriented parties. The campaign started generating support and has already gathered 4,000 signatures.
The movement is now backed by Egypt's Ministry of Endowments that released an official statement in support of the campaign. Meanwhile, a religious Salafi leader, Sameh Abdel-Hamid, is calling for the dissolution of "liberal" parties, which he considers “unconstitutional.”
In his opinion, they advocate the separation between the religious and the state, and accept “Western-style freedom,” which would allow gay marriage in Egypt.
The brewing tension between non-Islamist and Islamists camps is not surprising, particularly as both sides are gearing-up for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The tension between Islamists and non-Islamists within the 30 June bloc that backed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi in 2013 is not new.
They bickered considerably about the Egyptian constitution until they reached compromise, albeit non-secular, language. The preamble of the 2014 Constitution affirms that, “The principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation, and that the reference for the interpretation of such principles lies in the body of the relevant Supreme Constitutional Court rulings.”
Article 74 of the constitution, meanwhile prohibits the establishment of parties on a religious basis. Nonetheless, last July, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld an earlier verdict in which it turned down a petition demanding the dissolution of the Nour Party.
For its part, the Nour Party frequently reiterates that it does not adopt a religious reference and stresses its identity as a political party open to members of all faiths, including Copts, a matter that alarms the Coptic Church in Egypt.
Non-Islamists in Egypt have a strong case based on Article 74 of the constitution to campaign against religiously-based parties such as the Salafist Nour Party.
The Nour Party may have reinvented its look and opened membership to Copts, but it is still a hard-core political Islamist party. Non-Islamists are right to reject the mixing of religion with politics that has infested Egypt’s political life for decades.
They are also entitled to expose Islamists’ ugly propaganda against liberalism and their deliberate blurring of the differences between liberalism and decadence.
Nonetheless, the campaign to ban religiously-based parties may not succeed, and may even misfire.
On the one hand, imposing a hasty ban against the already squeezed Islamist movements will only trigger sympathy and victimhood among their traditional supporters, who already fear alienation and marginalisation.
On the other hand, the election law allocates the majority of seats in the coming parliament to independents, a move that may allow not just Salafists, but also the Muslim Brotherhood — as individuals — to win seats in the next parliament as independents. Major General Refaat Komsan, election affairs advisor to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, said in an interview that his committee cannot stop certain factions, presumably including the Muslim Brotherhood, from joining this year’s parliamentary elections.
Furthermore, many non-Islamist parties, including Wafd and Dostour, are marred by internal struggles that may impede their chances of success in the next election. Therefore, any ban on Islamist parties will not necessarily translate to votes for already unpopular, unconvincing non-Islamist parties; and instead it may only trigger apathy and low turnout among their core supporters.
Before advocating a ban of Islamists, non-Islamists in Egypt should first do their groundwork. They need to articulate a clearer vision that grasps what and how non-Islamism can work in Egypt and how it can appeal to the apolitical public. Blurring Islam and Islamism is one of the powerful weapons employed by political Islamists.
Non-Islamists, regardless of their political affiliation should unite to demystify that blurred image to the naturally conservative Egyptian public. They also need to educate the public about liberalism and secularism and how those concepts are not anti-Islam as political Islamists like to propagate. This battle is crucial in the quest to reclaim the soul of Egypt.
In short, Egypt needs to uproot Islamism organically; not via the pesticides of formal bans.
The popular campaign against religiously oriented parties may offer a good opportunity to raise awareness about the pitfalls of political Islam, and may improve the electoral culture in Egypt.
A formal ban of political Islamist parties, however, is not a healthy way forward. Non-Islamists need first to heal their internal rifts to stand a better chance of gaining more support among conservative Egyptians. It is a long road, but the campaign trails of the next parliamentary election could be a good start.
Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, commentator and writer on Middle East issues.