Q&A: Brotherhood spokesman talks power, polls, parliament and presidency

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 28 Dec 2011

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghazlan speaks to Ahram Online about poll results; incoming parliament; recent clashes; democratic transition; crime and punishment; presidential elections; and the Salafist question

Brotherhood's Mahmoud Ghuzlan (Photo: Internet)

Dr Mahmoud Ghuzlan is an official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the political arm of which – the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – performed even better than expected in the first two rounds of voting in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls. The FJP has so far secured some 48 per cent of the seats in the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, followed by the Salafist Nour Party, which has so far managed to capture 24 per cent of seats in the assembly. The surprisingly strong electoral showing by the two parties will likely give Egypt’s Islamist current more than a two-thirds majority in the People’s Assembly, giving it considerable influence over future legislation.

In an exclusive interview with Ahram Online, Ghuzlan, who is also a member of the Brotherhood’s influential Guidance Bureau, discussed the FJP’s startling electoral successes; the Islamist absence from recent confrontations with the military; the transfer of executive power to an elected authority; recent charges against the group of foreign funding; the twin issues of Islamic Law and personal freedoms; upcoming presidential elections; and the nature of the Brotherhood-Salafist relationship.

Ahram Online: How do you explain the unexpectedly strong electoral showing by Islamist parties, especially the FJP and the Salafist Nour Party, in Egypt’s ongoing parliamentary polls?

Mahmoud Ghuzlan: The reason why Islamist groups managed to secure a large number of votes in the first two rounds of elections was because our Salafist brothers entered the political scene following a long absence – not just because of the Brotherhood. This means that Islamists will no doubt remain representative of many national forces in Egypt.

So far, nearly 20 political parties have competed against us, which is unprecedented in the history of Egypt’s parliament. In the end, polling results will reflect the influence of every force in the political street. Ultimately, the decision will be made by the people.

AO: Were you surprised by Salafist parties’ strong electoral performance? Especially in light of the fact that many Salafist leaders had initially opposed the January revolution?

MG: In reality, the Salafists are not a homogenous group. Yes, the larger sects within this group opposed the revolution and believed they should never rebel against the temporal ruler under any circumstances. They were not allowed to run for parliament, since this is equated with shirk [polytheism], while they viewed democracy as a serious sin, if not apostasy.

Apparently, however, their views changed overnight and they entered the political arena when they felt their numbers were large enough and they had achieved sufficient public support. During Mubarak’s 30-year rule, they were permitted to work in mosques, and were therefore able to establish a broad popular base. They relied on this when they entered politics and contested parliamentary polls within this context. 

Still, there were some Salafists who took part in the revolution and were present in Tahrir Square from the outset. Although they weren’t many, some supported the revolution and went to the square even though the large majority of Salafists had opposed the idea.

AO: Where do the Brotherhood and FJP stand on recent proposals to transfer authority from the ruling military council to the speaker of Egypt’s incoming parliament?

MG: The Brotherhood and the FJP are not demanding that the ruling military council hand over power to the speaker of parliament. Brotherhood members who have shown support for the idea were simply expressing their own opinions. We agree that presidential elections should be held sooner rather than later, based upon proper constitutional procedure.

AO: The Brotherhood has been absent from recent sit-ins and demonstrations – not to mention violent confrontations – in and around Tahrir Square, a policy for which the group has been subject to considerable criticism by its political rivals. How do you respond to these criticisms?

MG: There is strife in the country and we don’t know who’s behind it. The military council knows, but is hiding the truth. There are hired criminals in the square and the military council knows full well who they are. A senior army officer has said that there were certain states funding these criminals in an effort to sow domestic strife and promote instability. He mentioned these states, but, since these states provide Egypt with aid money, the ruling council doesn’t want to provide any more details about them.

AO: Would the Brotherhood ever engage in clashes with the military if it felt such an escalation was necessary?

MG: The word “clash” isn’t in our vocabulary; we are conciliatory. We support the military council’s remaining in power until it hands over executive authority according to schedule. We are not opposed to the idea of presidential elections being held ahead of schedule. But right now, the country needs rational thought, the establishment of viable state institutions and movement towards the transfer of power [to an elected civilian authority].

AO: Coptic-Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris recently alleged that the Brotherhood had received millions of dollars from a foreign state, Qatar, to run its parliamentary electoral campaigns. How do you respond to these claims?

MG: These are lies and fabrications, and the person who made these statements should be interrogated.

AO: How will the relationship between the Brotherhood’s FJP and the Salafist parties play out in parliament? Will the relationship be marked by conflict, or will an Islamist alliance be forged?

MG: Talking about an alliance now is premature, but as I mentioned earlier, the Brotherhood is conciliatory. We believe that Egypt’s problems are immense, and no one group alone can shoulder the burden and solve all these problems by itself. Therefore, since the beginning, we have supported what is known as the Democratic Alliance [electoral coalition], which included the Nour Party, the largest Salafist party. After some time, however, the Nour Party left the alliance to contest the elections on separate electoral lists, and that’s up to them. We respect the decisions of all political forces.

We try to avoid conflict and aim to resolve problems through dialogue and mutual understanding. We remain members of the FJP-led Democratic Alliance, which includes ten other parties, a few of which are Islamist while the rest are liberal and nationalist. In short, we’re keen to deal with everyone for the public good.

AO: Does the FJP plan to remain under the umbrella of the Democratic Alliance electoral coalition when drawing up a parliamentary bloc?

MG: Naturally, we’re hoping to do this since it benefits Egypt and in order to avoid hostility and disputes.

AO: Before the elections, the Brotherhood said it would contest less than half of the seats in parliament, but then ended up contesting all of them. Many of your detractors criticised the move, accusing the group of reneging on its promise. How do you respond to this charge?

MG: First of all, we didn’t contest 100 per cent of the seats, although it was a large number. We must remember, however, that many of the candidates perceived as FJP candidates actually belonged to other groups within the Democratic Alliance.

When we said we wouldn’t contest more than 50 per cent of the seats, that was when it was believed that the elections would be on the basis of individual nominations. It would have been easy to nominate half workers and half farmers – this would have been more controlled. But what happened was that the process changed in mid-course, to one in which one-third of the seats would be reserved for individual candidates while two-thirds were based on electoral lists. At the time, there were 40 other parties in the Democratic Alliance so we were forced to change strategy.

For example, in the case of one list with ten candidates in one constituency, not all of them would win – but the top five would head up the list. Parties said they wouldn’t nominate candidates except to these top five positions, so we were forced to fill the lists with candidates from number five to number ten. But we also refused to remain at the bottom of lists that would not win, since that would mean we were carrying other parties’ candidates to victory, while we stood by and watched. That simply doesn’t make sense.

At the same time, the law requires that one professional and one worker be at the top of the list. When we asked them to nominate workers and farmers, however, they said they didn’t have candidates for these categories. Neither did they have female candidates as required by law. Some presented lists with 300 candidates and tried to convince us that they had grassroots support, even though we knew if their leader nominated himself separately from the FJP list he wouldn’t win. Therefore, many parties left the Democratic Alliance and we ended up with this. It was unintentional.

AO: The Brotherhood has also said it does not intend to field a presidential candidate. Is there a chance it will change its stated position on this?

MG: This is a final decision that is not subject to change; it’s a clear-cut matter. We changed our position [on the number of seats being contested] during elections because the electoral process changed and new criteria were imposed on us that had not been there before. As for a presidential candidate, he is only one person and we said we would not nominate a candidate. So far, we haven’t found anyone among the candidates to support.

AO: On the issue of personal freedoms, there has been mounting criticism of political Islam in general. How do you respond to these criticisms?

MG: Personal freedoms are guaranteed by Islamic Law. It was an Egyptian who told Amr Ibn Al-’As [who opened Egypt to Islam in the seventh century], ‘Why do you enslave people when they were born free?’ The martyred [Muslim Brotherhood founder] Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna, God bless his soul, said that ruling was a cornerstone of Islam and freedom was a pillar of power. Personal freedom of belief, action, movement, association, opinion and travel are all part of Islamic Law. Our goal is to apply Islamic Law, which itself guarantees public freedoms.

AO: But there is a divergence in viewpoints among different Islamist groups regarding the application of Islamic Law. How do you view these different outlooks?

MG: Indeed. For example, the majority of economic scholars and professors confirm that the banking system in Egypt relies on riba [interest, or profit without effort], and we know that, once we’re in power, if we were to cancel the system currently in place, the entire national economy would collapse. We’re not so foolish as to do that, but we must find alternatives to the current system while maintaining stability, and we must look into how much time the desired change would require. We need one or two years to transform the economy and move forward before we can change the system.

AO: Is this also the case with applying the hadd, or Islamic penalties?

MG: Regarding the application of Islamic penalties, this is considered a last resort. Islamic Law is everything that God has ordained for his worshippers, beginning with belief. Some equate belief with Islamic Law, but no. Scholars say that Islamic Law includes belief. In the first 13 years, the Prophet – peace be upon him – was teaching the people belief, connecting them to God, training them and reviving their consciousness so that when orders were revealed they could be implemented without supervision by anyone.

This was spelt out by Lady Aisha, who outlined this Islamic doctrine of change as told in a hadith [saying of the Prophet] by Imam Al-Bukhari, who said that the first revealed verses of the Quran discussed reward and punishment, heaven and hell. Later came jurisprudence, such as prohibiting alcohol and adultery. She said: ‘If the first revealed verses of the Quran were do not drink alcohol and do not commit adultery, they would have said, by God, we will never give them up.’

Islamic Law operates in this manner, followed by belief and worship, such as the five prayers to God, good morality and other behaviour. All these issues aim to build character from within because God does not change a people’s lot until they change from within. This is the essence of Islamic Law.

After this, you begin building the political, economic and social order. Once the order is in place, some people will rebel against it. They disobey the general order of society by committing crimes – one kills, another drinks alcohol – therefore there must be a remedy. All the countries in the world have a penal code to punish those who are unresponsive to leniency, kindness, discipline or the concept of halal [permissible] and haram [not permissible]. The penal code is the hadd [punishment] in Islamic Law.

Many people view hadd as harsh, and this is true. The rulings are severe, but the intention is deterrence, not entrapment. The punishment for adultery, for example, cannot be proven except through confession, which is unlikely. Secondly, four trustworthy and rational witnesses must see the entire act – if there are only three witnesses, this isn’t sufficient. Would someone allow himself to be seen by four people, unless the witnesses were also violators deserving of punishment? Since the penal code is strict, requirements for enforcement are also strict.

The same is also true for theft. There are a number of requisites needed, and if someone steals under certain circumstances, their hand is not cut off. Islam is not waiting to ambush people to cut off their hands or stone adulterers.

AO: This may be your interpretation, or that of the Brotherhood, but there are Salafists who believe in applying Islamic Law indiscriminately and immediately. Do you disagree with this strategy?

MG: We would disagree with this or that particular point. We have Al-Azhar [the highest religious authority in the Sunni-Muslim world] as a legislative Islamic reference for the entire Muslim world, and everyone agrees on this – including the Salafists, with whom I have spoken on the issue. They acknowledge that Al-Azhar scholars are the ones versed in the texts and laws – even Salafist leaders acknowledge this. The entire population trusts Al-Azhar, and will not believe anyone else on issues of contention.

AO: What are the Brotherhood’s priorities for society?

MG: Without a doubt, economic freedom and social justice represent our two chief priorities, followed by public security. These are the foundations for reforming any society in order to raise its stature. In the absence of security and food, no one will enjoy stability.

Short link: