How does the leader of a moderate Islamist party navigate Egypt’s precarious political scene after spending two years in prison and without risking a return to life behind bars?
For 58-year-old Abul-Ela Madi, founder and leader of the Al-Wasat (centrist) Party, it has meant remaining silent and avoiding any media contact for eight months before deciding to make a cautious comeback earlier this week.
Madi was arrested, together with his deputy Essam Sultan, in July2013, during a sweeping security clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Both faced charges of inciting violence in the Beit Al-Sarayat neighbourhood of west Cairo. Madi was released last August after exceeding the two-year pre-trial detention period.
Three Brotherhood figures facing the same charges were released on bail days later — Rashad Bayoumi, a member of the group’s council, Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud, a lawyer, and Helmi Al-Gazzar, a member of the Brotherhood’s dissolved political arm the Freedom and Justice Party.
Sultan, Al-Wasat’s co-founder, a 52-year-old, clean shaved outspoken lawyer who faces additional charges of insulting the judiciary, remains in custody. Though he is being held in the notorious maximum-security Al-Aqrab prison, it did not prevent him from being elected unanimously to Al-Wasat’s supreme committee during the party’s General Conference elections.
The elections — held every four years — were the first sign of life in the Moqattam headquarters of Al-Wasat Party following a three-year hiatus during which the party’s leaders were incarcerated.
Following his re-election, unopposed, as party leader, Madi gave his first public speech since his release. He used it to assert his, and Al-Wasat’s, comeback, and in the process furnished a history of the party since the 1990’s. His carefully worded speech served as a profile of the “civic, moderate and centrist” party and a vehicle to convey where Al-Wasat stands today.
He was keen to distance the party from the Muslim Brotherhood of which he was member until his defection in the 1990’s. Al-Wasat is “a project that is independent of the Muslim Brotherhood, different from them and a contender,” he asserted.
The party rejected “all forms of violence exercised by state and non-state actors” and was committed to peaceful political activity in compliance with the law and the constitution.
Following Madi and Sultan’s arrest the party joined an umbrella alliance of Islamist parties and movements — including the Muslim Brotherhood — which opposed Morsi’s ouster and considered it a coup. The party quit the alliance within less than a year. No explanation was offered, prompting speculation that Al-Wasat had found itself at odds with the alliance’s strategy.
“The most important message here is Madi’s public recognition of the current regime,” said Tarek Al-Malt, a former member of Al-Wasat who resigned from the party in 2014.
He described Madi’s speech as politically savvy and realistic. “It showed a realisation that Al-Wasat, like any political party, needs to remain active under any condition and must do so by resorting to every possible legal and constitutional channel.”
In his speech Madi described Al-Wasat as a communication “bridge” between various political forces. He argued that Islamists are an integral part of the national fabric “but should not monopolise discourse in the name of Islam”. Addressing both the authorities and Islamist groups, he said Al-Wasat “will seek a full return to the path of democracy and the right of everyone to exist politically as long as they remain committed to the rules of peaceful political activity, human rights and a separation between politics and dawa [proselytising]”.
The timing of the party’s general conference coincided with political and security tensions amid calls for demonstrations on 25April — Sinai Liberation Day — to protest the recent Egyptian-Saudi maritime deal in which Cairo ceded two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. As a result the conference received less media attention than usual. After issuing a handful of statements Madi himself was unavailable for press calls, and his phone was switched off.
In an interview with the independent Masr Al-Arabia website, Madi dismissed any possibility of reconciliation between the Brotherhood and the state given the absence of any signs of will from either party.
“Reconciliation has become a terribly exhausted word,” he said. “A comprehensive political solution is the only hope for Egypt’s many crises.”
Since its inception Al-Wasat has struggled to distance itself from the Brotherhood despite the public hostility between the two groups before the 2011 uprising. Al-Wasat was the first party to be granted a valid political license following Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. It was officially recognised in February 2011, within a week of Mubarak’s removal. When the Brotherhood formed its own political party and then quickly ascended to power both in parliament and the presidency, Al-Wasat’s leaders inched closer to the group.
That chapter seems closed for now as the small Al-Wasat Party seeks to find a raison d’être in Egypt’s tense political climate and attempts to offer its own version of moderation at a time when few appear interested in the message. What observers are watching, though, is what Madi says he will not do — mediate between the Brotherhood and the state if and when the time is ripe.
“If anyone is capable of that role it’s Madi,” says Al-Malt.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly