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.”