Q&A: Reformist judge, new MP Mahmoud El-Khodeiry on Islamist ascendancy, Palestine

Ahram Online, Thursday 15 Dec 2011

Judge who led opposition to Mubarak discusses Islamist political ascendancy, 'Turkish model,' and Palestine issue; calls armed resistance to Zionist occupation a 'valid option' in face of Israeli intransigence

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Mahmoud El-Khodeiry (Photo: Ahram)

In an exclusive interview with Ahram Online, newly-elected member of parliament Mahmoud El-Khodeiry said that the so-called “Turkish model” would best suit Egypt’s post-revolution era. And on the sensitive issue of Palestine, he said that, while direct talks with Israel were needed to arrive at a settlement of the perennial Middle East conflict, armed resistance to Zionist occupation of Arab land nevertheless remained a “valid option.”

A veteran judge and staunch government critic in the Hosni Mubarak era, El-Khodeiry fended off stiff competition from Tarek Talaat Mostafa, former member of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), to win a seat in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament for the port city of Alexandria.

El-Khodeiry contested elections under the umbrella of the Democratic Alliance electoral coalition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Given his political and legal credentials, El-Khodeiry is now a frontrunner for the post of speaker of the People's Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament.

On the Brotherhood and parliament

“I appreciate everyone who supported me. The Brotherhood did, but I’m not a member of the group. But I was on the FJP’s list and that helped me a lot, given that the constituency was huge and the campaign needed a lot of work, while my financial capabilities were limited.”

The rise of the FJP and ultraconservative Salafist parties has prompted fears among liberals and secularists that an Islamist-led government might attempt to impose some form of Islamic Law. El-Khodeiry, however, plays down such fears, saying Egypt should opt for what has commonly been described as the “Turkish model.”

“All the talk about Islamists forcing women to wear headscarves, abandon tourism and dismantle the banking system if they assume power has no basis in truth,” El-Khodeiry said. “Whoever says this is simply trying to tarnish the image of the Islamic trend.”

“As an MP, I will be concerned with two main things: making bread available to all people so as to establish what we call ‘food security,’ and making every citizen feel safe in the streets,” he explained. “Any party that achieves power and fails to make these two things priorities will be snubbed by the people within a few months because the hungry won’t wait.”

“I personally believe the best example of Islamic-oriented political rule exists in Turkey, which puts feeding the hungry first,” El-Khodeiry said. “I visited Turkey three times and remember seeing many unveiled women in the streets – just as one would expect to see in Europe.”

“Nobody can prohibit this legally, but it’s different when we speak about a country’s official religious stance,” he added. “For example, when any Muslim or Christian woman visits the Pope of Rome, she wears a headscarf.”

El-Khodeiry went on to rule out an alliance between the ultraconservative Nour Party and the more pragmatic FJP. In the first stage of parliamentary polls, which covered nine out of Egypt’s 27 governorates, the FJP emerged as the clear winner with 37 per cent of votes cast while the salafist Nour Party came in second with 19 per cent.

“I didn’t expect the Islamic current to dominate the first round like this," El-Khodeiri said. "I was expecting all Islamic forces together to get 35 per cent of the votes.”

El-Khodeiry, for his part, predicts an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood (of which the FJP is the political arm) and liberal parties – not between the Brotherhood and Salafist parties. The moderate-Islamist Wasat Party, he believes, might also enter into some kind of alliance with the Brotherhood.

“We may see a degree of coordination between the three; a triumvirate consisting of the Brotherhood, the Wasat Party and the liberals,” El-Khodeiry said. “The Brotherhood will not be able to secure 50 per cent of the seats in the assembly – they’ll win around 40 per cent and will therefore not be able to form a government by themselves.”

“They will be obliged to cooperate with other forces, such as the liberals, despite the wide differences between them, which I see as a healthy sign,” he explained. “For instance, the Brotherhood wants the gradual implementation of Islamic law. But this can’t happen unless all citizens can afford a decent, poverty-free life, and that could take 20 years or more.”

“The Brotherhood and liberals both agree on this, but the Salafists want to immediately impose Islamic Law,” El-Khodeiry asserted.

On the army and constitution

On the supra-constitutional principles that the ruling military council attempted to introduce on more than one occasion in the past few months, El-Khodeiry said: “These are not supra-constitutional principles, but principles essential to any respectable constitution. I believe anyone who tries to breach them or not abide by them is not really thinking about the future.”

“I voiced objections over the way the principles were drafted, however … I attended some of the meetings and discussed the formation of these principles... but in the end, the document lacked two points, which prompted me to reject it,” he said.

“First of all, to make the People’s Assembly effective, it must be voted for by the people," El-Khodeiri stressed. "This document, however, came from the army, and the armed forces do not represent the people. Secondly, it is unacceptable that no one can discuss the budget of of the military council."

Speaking on the part of the document devoted to civilian rights, he added: “I imagine that this is the base-line of any constitution, and the Islamists cannot protest it … I’m against anything that leads to discrimination against citizens. I’m also against parliamentary quotas for women and Copts. I want a parliament that represents everybody in accordance with the people’s choices. There’s no difference between a Muslim and a Christian, a woman and a man.”

Dealing with Israel

Israel, whose diplomatic ties with Egypt were badly strained after the killing of five Egyptian soldiers on the border in August and the subsequent storming of Israel’s Cairo embassy by angry protesters, has expressed its “deep concern” over Egyptian Islamist parties’ strong electoral showing.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, for his part, has made no secret of his worry that Egypt’s new post-revolution political dynamic could have an adverse impact on the 33-year-old peace treaty between the two countries.

Security concerns already linger over the strategic Sinai Peninsula, which has seen several attacks this year by unknown saboteurs on the pipeline that pumps Egyptian natural gas to Israel.

“Israel, which violates the rights of our brothers in Palestine and imposes a blockade on them, is the most dangerous threat that we face,” El-Khodeiry said. “Ousted president Hosni Mubarak used to pander to Israel and the US in exchange for allowing him to groom his son Gamal for the presidency. Mubarak also exported gas to Israel against the wishes of the Egyptian people.”

“Mubarak was a ‘strategic treasure' for Israel, but such policies have ended,” he added. “We will no longer allow the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel at below-market prices.”

Surprisingly, the 71-year-old judge had initially expressed approval for the attacks on the pipeline, but later backtracked following his election to parliament.

“Yes, I had called for that [neutralising the pipeline] because Israel was stealing from our people,” he said. “One of Egypt’s prime sources of energy, which itself is insufficient to meet all our needs, goes to Israel. We were sick and tired of demanding that the authorities halt the practice.”

“Now that I’m a part of the decision-making process [as an elected MP], however, I shouldn’t endorse this,” El-Khodeiry said. “We can secure our rights through legal channels by amending the gas agreement with Israel.”

Many Egyptian political figures, including presidential hopeful Hamdin Sabbahi, have reiterated their refusal to normalise diplomatic ties with the self-proclaimed Jewish state due to its illegal, six-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel claims that its crippling siege on the coastal territory is a precaution against weapons reaching Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, which governs Gaza – having swept 2006 legislative elections – and is branded a “terrorist” group by Tel Aviv and Washington.

El-Khodeiry, for his part, believes that direct talks with Israel are necessary to reach a long-term settlement of the festering Palestine-Israel conflict. Armed resistance to Israeli occupation, however, “remains a valid option,” he stressed.

“No Egyptian accepts what has happened to Gaza, where the Palestinians have been punished – both politically and economically – for freely electing their government,” said El-Khodeiry. “Is that a crime that deserves such a response?”

“The Palestinian issue in general should be solved via negotiations with Israel, but if Israel rejects this solution, then resistance is the only option,” he added. “All laws, all religions allow the right to defend oneself.”

“We should support the Palestinians by all the means at our disposal – even by arming them if necessary,” El-Khodeiry asserted.

“However, I’m not ready to repeat the experience of 1967; Egypt needs power that was not available before the defeat of 1967. We had no army, no system and no government,” he said. “One day we’ll be stronger, and Israel will have no choice but to stop its warmongering and take us seriously.”

“Look at how Turkey dealt with Israel after the Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla was attacked in 2010,” the parliamentarian concluded. “Now that’s a strong country.”

Translated by Hatem Maher and Sherif Tarek

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