Emad El-Din Abdel Ghafour, chairman of the Salafist Nour Party

Sherif Tarek , Monday 12 Dec 2011

Nour Party chief gives Salafist perspective on ‘secular’ vs. ‘civic’ state; political reform; international relations; future of tourism; and women’s rights

Emad El-Din Abdel Gafour
Al-Nour Party president Emad El-Din Abdel Ghafour (Photo: Sherif Tarek)

For months after the January 25 Revolution, Salafists have done ‎little to alter their image as Islamic hardliners. Moreover, some ‎of them have substantiated the perception that they are, in fact, ‎‎“extremist” through a host of controversial media statements.‎

However, in recent weeks, after the Salafist Nour Party scored ‎huge initial gains in the first round of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak ‎parliamentary polls, party leaders found themselves compelled ‎to quash popular fears of their plans for the country’s future. ‎

Nour Party head Emad El-Din Abdel Ghafour has joined many ‎party spokespeople in frequent television and press ‎appearances, seeking to explain the party’s perspectives and ‎assure an anxious public about the Salafists “moderate” ‎credentials.‎

As part of his plan to maintain communication with the media, ‎Abdel Ghafour on Sunday hosted a handful of reporters at Nour ‎Party headquarters in Cairo’s upscale Maadi district. The 51-‎year-old Abdel Ghafour, a founding member of the Salafist ‎Calling and the Nour Party in Alexandria, defined the politics of ‎the newly established party. ‎

A democratic, but not secular, state

It has never been entirely clear what kind of state the Nour Party ‎envisions. As a group with an Islamic frame of reference, some ‎have suggested that theocracy is what they are after. More ‎recently, nonetheless, the party has called for a “civic” state.‎

Abdel Ghafour told this reporter: “A secular state means one ‎that is separated from religion – and that we do not accept.”‎

By “civic,” the outgoing Abdel Ghafour explained, the ‎Nour Party does not mean “secular.” ‎

‎“We mean one that is based on democracy, the power of law ‎and human rights,” he said. “We do not want a religious state, ‎but we also do not want the nation to be unrelated to religion. ‎That’s why we are keen to keep Article 2 of the constitution.”‎

Those associated with the liberal current, on the other hand, ‎might refer to a secular state by using the word “modern” or ‎‎“civic.” The latter word, however, apparently has a different ‎connotation among Islamists and conservatives.‎

Three dimensions of reform

Speaking of the reforms the Nour Party hopes to achieve, Abdel ‎Ghafour gave an overview of the party’s objectives and ‎downplayed widespread allegations that an ultra-conservative ‎society is what the party was angling for.‎

‎“We have three dimensions of reform,” he said. “The first is on ‎the political scene. We simply want the people to choose their ‎rulers and representatives through a democratic system. The ‎president, parliament, local councils, university leaders – ‎everything should be left up to the people.‎

‎“Secondly, we want to improve the deteriorating security ‎situation Egypt has seen for nearly one year since the uprising,” ‎he added. “We believe some [interior ministry] leaders are ‎working to keep the status-quo; some of them must be ‎replaced.‎

‎“Last but not least, we seek economic reforms,” he went on. “It ‎was the financial crunches during the tenure of [ousted ‎president] Hosni Mubarak that mainly triggered the revolt. With ‎the resources it has, Egypt could be a major global economic ‎powerhouse, but only with thoughtful planning.‎

‎“We are only a political party. We wouldn’t, for instance, try to ‎force social changes by eliminating certain traditions or habits ‎we think are inappropriate. We cannot oblige anyone to do or ‎not to do anything – that would be against our beliefs.”‎

Abdel Ghafour also reiterated his preference for the ‎parliamentary, rather than presidential, form of governance, not ‎unlike the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party ‎‎(FJP).‎

Support for advisory council

Opposite to the FJP and the majority of Egyptian political forces, ‎nevertheless, the Nour Party has endorsed the formation of a civilian ‎advisory council by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed ‎Forces (SCAF).‎

Controversy over the proposed advisory council erupted after ‎SCAF member Major-General Mukhtar Mulla said that the ‎incoming parliament would not represent all segments of ‎society, since the country was still “in the early stages of ‎democracy.”‎

Abdel Ghafour met with members of the proposed advisory ‎council just before he sat down with reporters. “At the meeting, ‎we categorically refused this stance [that not all social segments ‎would find representation in parliament],” he said. “The ‎parliament alone represents the people.

‎“We agreed that the People’s Assembly and Shura Council [the ‎lower and upper houses of parliament, respectively] are solely ‎entitled to form the 100-member constituent assembly.

‎“The document of outgoing deputy prime minister Ali El-Selmi’s, ‎which aimed at circumventing the contribution of political forces ‎in the drafting of a new constitution, was unfair and absurd,” he ‎said. “The advisory council, on the other hand, will just set a ‎framework.

‎“The advisory council would simply recommend that judges, ‎women and Copts, for example, should constitute such and such ‎percentage of the 100-member constituent assembly, and no ‎more.

‎“In any case, I think the coming constitution will be similar to ‎the 1971 one. I would say only between six and ten articles will ‎be amended,” he added.‎

International relations and treaties

What about the Nour Party’s vision for Egyptian foreign policy?‎

‎“Of course we must respect all international treaties – this is a ‎given. Relations with other countries should be based on respect ‎and mutual interests,” said Abdel Ghafour.‎

‎“I believe Egypt’s international friendships are limited. I would ‎love to diversify these relations,” he added. “An example of what ‎I’m saying is that the Japanese administration sent us a letter ‎saying it would like to help Egypt and cooperate with it in ‎several ways.

‎“Upon looking into the matter, I found that cooperation ‎between both countries was inexplicably weak, and I think our ‎relations with other powerful nations are similarly negligible for ‎no apparent reason,” he elaborated.‎

On the controversial Camp David peace treaty with Israel, he ‎said: “Again, we respect it like other agreements, but we would ‎like to invoke some [of its] clauses. We also want Israel to stick ‎to its end of the deal and put an end to the Palestinian ‎problem.‎

‎“Egypt’s natural gas agreement with Israel was passed under ‎Mubarak despite a lot of objections,” he added. “Some filed ‎lawsuits and instigated verdicts to stop pumping gas to Israel, ‎but Mubarak just ignored the court orders.

‎“During the reign of Mubarak, Egypt was feeble and Israel used ‎to do whatever it wanted. That must change. Egyptian public ‎opinion cannot be ignored anymore,” Abdel Ghafour stressed.‎

The impact on tourism

Egypt’s hospitality industry has been adversely impacted by ‎recurrent demonstrations and violence that swept the country ‎both during and after the January revolution. Several Salafists ‎have suggested the imposition of a dress code for tourists in ‎coastal resorts, the prohibition of alcohol and the destruction of ‎some ancient monuments that they see as “idols.”‎

Many critics fear that such laws and restrictions would further ‎cripple the struggling industry.‎

Abdel Ghafour, however, refuted such allegations.‎

‎“Some people are trying to blame the decline of tourism on us, ‎but we’re not responsible for that,” he said. “Tourists were ‎scared off by political instability that has resulted in huge ‎financial losses.

‎“Under Mubarak, tourism was based on corruption and faulty ‎planning,” he added. “Sharm El-Sheikh [one of Egypt’s most ‎prominent beach resorts] is a clear example – it was owned by ‎businessmen closely linked to the former regime.

‎“They keep saying tourism generates 12 per cent of the ‎country’s revenue,” Abdel Ghafour went on. “But, upon looking ‎into the distribution of that percentage, we find that these same ‎businessmen get the lion’s share, while almost all those who ‎actually work in tourism get crumbs.

‎“I would like to reiterate: we would never oblige anyone to do ‎anything. We simply want to safeguard existing Islamic ‎traditions, nothing more,” he stressed. “Foreigners, of course, ‎can eat and drink whatever they want in Egypt. The rules of ‎Islam do not apply to them.” ‎

Conversely, however, Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakar recently told ‎tourism workers in Aswan that the party would enforce a ban on ‎serving alcohol to both foreign nationals and Egyptian citizens if ‎it were ever to come to power.‎

On women’s rights

The denial of certain rights to women by Salafists is another ‎worry expressed by leftists and liberals, particularly given the ‎fact that the Nour Party’s electoral lists included few female ‎candidates.‎

Some critics say that party leaders added women to the lists ‎only in order to comply with a law stipulating a set quota of ‎female candidates. Nour even refused to add personal photos ‎of their female candidates on campaign posters.‎

Some Salafist leaders oppose interaction between men and ‎women at universities and in the workplace. Some critics, ‎therefore, fear that women will be all but frozen out of many ‎aspects of life, including high-profile positions in government.‎

Abdel Ghafour, again, denied such claims.‎

‎“Men are women are equal in the eyes of the law. Islam says so ‎in general and with very few exceptions, such as divorce and ‎inheritance,” he asserted. “By and large, men and women have ‎the same rights and obligations.

‎“Women have the right to run for elections, and that is what we ‎believe too. According to Islam, to be honest, it’s not preferred ‎for a woman to be president,” he added. “But, since the ‎constitution allows women to run for the presidency, we have to ‎respect that right.” ‎

The electoral contest

The Nour Party leads a Salafist coalition in Egypt’s ongoing ‎parliamentary elections, which also includes Al-Jamaa Al-‎Islamiya’s Building and Development Party.‎

The Nour Party’s Islamist coalition secured 19 per cent of the ‎votes overall in the first round of the parliamentary polls, ‎winning 33 out of 166 seats reserved for individual candidacies. ‎The party has emerged as the second biggest winner in the ‎elections, trailing only the Brotherhood’s FJP, which received 37 ‎per cent of the vote.‎

The Brotherhood’s success in the first round of voting was widely ‎expected, since the movement is considered the country’s most ‎organised and financially viable political power after the ‎dismantlement earlier this year of Mubarak’s National ‎Democratic Party.‎

The Nour Party’s electoral performance, however, came as a ‎stunning surprise to most observers. Abdel Ghafour, for his part, ‎says the best is yet to come for the party.‎

‎“We expect better results in the next two rounds of polling,” he ‎said. “Let’s not forget that in first-round runoffs, the results were ‎much worse than what we had anticipated.”‎

Immediately prior to the runoffs, Abdel Ghafour had ‎predicted that the party would secure as many as 18 seats out of ‎the 27 that it was contesting. In the end, the Nour ‎Party secured only five.‎

As for the Islamist Bloc’s post-elections future, Abdel Ghafour ‎said: “We hope that at some point we’ll see the formation of a ‎national coalition that unites many parties from all across the ‎political spectrum and that will work in the country’s best ‎interest.”‎

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