Shining a light on Nour Party's plans for the economy

Marwa Hussein, Thursday 15 Dec 2011

Egypt's major Salafists advocate a liberal economy with provisions made for social justice. But a lack of policy details raises the question of exactly how the country will find the resources to implement these plans

Nour party

Barring a few points, the economic programme of Egypt's main Salafist political force, the Nour Party, scarcely differs from that of any other party in the country.

In common with dozens of other parties, the Nour Party's programme talks of social justice and reforming healthcare and education. It, too, talks of battling unemployment by encouraging labour-intensive industry and developing scientific research.
In short, the party's economic ideology seems a kind of moderate liberalism.
“The party cares about some principles: the state must protect society and private property," Ossama El-Fil, the party's economic advisor explained to Ahram Online during a telephone interview.
"We completely private property. We don’t plead for confiscation or nationalisation but the business class must also play a social role," added
El-Fil, who also serves as a professor of economics at Alexandria University.
But the party's guiding philosophy adds a vital distinction. When it comes to public property, Oussama El-Fil says Islamic law -- or sharia -- which the party has sworn to uphold, makes it forbidden to privatise things like water, energy and natural resources.
The Nour Party's focus on social justice seems clearer than that of the Muslim Brotherhood, who critics say have often paid only lip service to such ideals. In its programme and in speeches by party members, issues like healthcare, education and a redistribution of wealth are all given prominent place.
But unlike other groups that talk of social justice, the party proposes one kind of mechanism to achieve this -- the use of Zakat (the giving of a fixed proportion of one's income to the poor) and Waqf (a religious endownment that may hold or redistribute the wealth).
According to El-Fil, these Sharia-mandated practices would not be imposed in Egypt but would be strictly voluntary. Once in power, the Nour Party would in effect be entirely dependent on acts of charity to finance its ambitious social plans.
The Salafists' plans for reforming Egypt's fiscal system, restructuring subsidies or using other methods to redistribute or generate more wealth is also unclear. Fighting tax evasion was the clearest idea advanced by their advisor to increase revenues.
In other areas of reform, the party's ideas seem rather utopian.
“The people and the business community will voluntarily play their social role if the environment is adequate," El-Fil told Ahram Online.
"We will create conditions to make them able to realise gains. In the same time if they trust the government and see that it fights corruption, they will carry their social role towards society."
All this might change; El-Fil says the party is still working on revising its economic programme and may soon announce changes. El-Fil, who describe himself as a liberal Islamist, is the man charged with formulating the economic vision, discussing relevant matters with the head of the Nour Party.
Banking, however, seems a sector with a fixed place in the party's economic philosophy.
The party's platform calls for an expansion in Islamic financing options, but done gradually to avoid damaging the current system.
El-Fil acknowledges that, in practice, today's Islamic banking system does not differ significantly from capitalist banking. "It's because people who work in the Islamic banks have a background in ordinary commercial banks," he said.
Tourism is the part of the economy on which everyone is eager to hear the Nour Party's official view. Several members have made controversial declarations about plans to ban or segregate beach tourism and outlaw alcohol.
None of this is mentioned in the party's economic programme. After sustained media coverage of earlier pronouncement, members seem to
be speaking more guardedly about the issue.
"It is in our interest to develop the tourism sector and to diversify it. We think that the number of people who benefit from the sector should increase," explained Mohamad Noor, a party spokesman.
"Some businessmen monopolise the tourism business in some areas or cities while tour guides receive only a pittance."
Aiming to reassure Egyptians, the party seems to be now saying that any change in laws will be gradual and many things will not be obligatory.
"We cannot change an economic system overnight. The changes will be gradual. We can not let people starve to death solely to implement a new vision," said El-Fil.
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