ABU HUMMUS, Egypt — The head of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, Younes Makhioun, warned against what he described as deviations in the road map developed by the military council in Egypt under the leadership of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the aftermath of June 30.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in the garden of his rural home, Makhioun confirmed that these deviations threaten the success of the road map and go beyond the transitional phase. He accused the current regime in Egypt and the civil forces led by the National Salvation Front (NSF) of practicing a policy of exclusion against the Islamist movements, and of committing the same mistakes as the previous regime and Mohammed Morsi.
Makhioun, who announced that his party will not field any candidate in the next presidential elections, revealed to Al-Monitor that his party does not mind supporting a candidate with a military background for the presidential elections, provided that this candidate has ended his military service.
Makhioun said that any Islamist candidate who would run for the presidential elections has weak chances and is doomed to failure. He stressed that his party will run in the next parliamentary elections alone, without any alliances with civil forces or Islamist movements.
Al-Monitor: How does the Al-Nour Party assess the amendments made by the 50-member Committee on the illegitimate 2012 constitution? Do you have any comments on the article that prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion? Does this threaten your existence in the political scene?
Makhioun: As far as the constitutional amendments are concerned, we have objections in terms of both form and content, because the way the constitutional amendments were made encroaches upon the will of the people and wastes the votes of the electorate. There were two referendums, one on March 19, after the Jan. 25 Revolution, and one on the 2012 Constitution. The people agreed on a principle whereby any consensus on the constitution should go through the people — through an elected body from the parliament, which is elected by the people. This is what happened with the [Constituent] Assembly of 2012, whose members were chosen from the parliament and the Shura Council. The amendments should also emanate from the parliament. This is the principle agreed upon by the people, that only the parliament or a body elected by the parliament can directly deal with the constitution. What happened, however, was contrary to what the people had agreed upon, and a 10-member committee was appointed based on no criteria at all. This committee was appointed by someone who was not elected by the people, but rather appointed. This constituted the point of our first objection.
The same thing happened with the 50-member committee tasked with amending the constitution. This committee consists of members who are appointed by an appointed person who was given the right to develop the criteria for the selection of the 50-member committee. This person is the prime minister, who is also appointed, not elected by the people. The selection criteria of this committee’s members were not debated, and these are serious errors in terms of both form and content, and we are against this.
The third point of objection is that the 10-member committee was tasked in the road map with amending some articles of the constitution, and we were surprised by the fact that this committee went beyond the task of amending, and even established a new constitution and meddled in most of the articles, knowing that there were basic articles that were supposed to remain untouched, especially articles related to [the state’s] identity, Sharia law and many articles related to social justice.
The committee meddled in all of the articles in an annoying way, knowing that it is not entitled to do so because it includes six judges, and the judiciary is not supposed to meddle in politics. Most of the amendments were political or related to politics. The issue of the survival of the Shura Council or not, the proportion of workers and farmers [in the committee], the relationship between the authorities, and the electoral system — how is the judiciary involved in this?
The 50-member committee was supposed to be the one making these amendments because it represents the people. It was supposed to lay down its vision and let the 10-member committee draft whatever is reached by the People's Committee concerning the executive, partisan and political authorities within a constitutional and legal framework. This is why we objected to the form. As for the content, we naturally have many objections to the amendments, and we are trying to get our objection through to the 50-member committee through our limited representation in the committee. This is also one of the reasons behind our objection to the composition; the Islamist movement was completely excluded and marginalized and the Al-Nour Party was only represented by one member. Most of the committee members are socialists, secularists and liberals, and I think that they are making the same mistakes that they used to blame the former regime and Morsi of committing.
Al-Monitor: What about the prohibition of the establishment of political parties based on religion?
Makhioun: We obviously refuse this text altogether for several reasons. The first reason is related to the criteria on the basis of which we assess or determine whether a given party is religious or not. There are no criteria at all. This leaves us to think that this issue will be left for the interpretation of judges or for political whims, noting that this article did not exist in any [former] Egyptian constitution. It emerged during the reign of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak in the amendments made in 2007, with the aim of ousting the Islamist movement.
This takes us back to the time prior to the Jan. 25 Revolution, and this is the point of our first objection. They ought to explain to us the criteria they will use to determine whether a party is religious or not. The second point of objection is: when my party calls for the activation of the second article of the constitution whereby Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation, does this mean that my party is religious? Under this article, the Wasat Party was banned in the era of Hosni Mubarak, being a religious party, and then it was allowed after Jan. 25 under this very article. This shows that this is a malleable article that is interpreted and applied based on political whims.
Second, I guess that this article is intended to be a sword hanging above the neck of the parties that have an Islamic reference, in order to dissolve them at any time. As we know, any party should necessarily have some reference. For instance, are they going to accept that a party formed on socialist, secularist or Nasserist basis is banned under the constitution? So, if the matter is totally unacceptable for them, it is also totally unacceptable for us. Thus, why are parties allowed to be formed on a Nasserist, socialist or secular basis, and not allowed to be formed according to an Islamic reference? What can prevent any party from having an intellectual reference? There is no article banning parties that have an intellectual reference in any place.
Al-Monitor: What are the most important lessons learned from the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, for both the Al-Nour Party and the political Islam movement in Egypt? Does [the Brotherhood’s] failure imply the failure of the Islamic project and a religious state?
Makhioun: I do not think that the Muslim Brotherhood and these practices represent the Islamic project or the Islamic movement in any way. Their affiliation with the Islamic movement is just a slogan. It is untrue and unfounded. Let’s not blame the Islamic movement for the Brotherhood’s mistakes. The Brotherhood’s mistakes have nothing to do with the Islamic project. Through the Brotherhood’s presence in power, we have seen that its project was not an Islamic project from the beginning, but rather a Brotherhood project par excellence, in order to enable the Brotherhood to control the state’s main posts and prioritize the group’s interests over the country’s interests.
The advisor to Morsi, Mohammed Fouad Jaballah, mentioned that some of the reasons for his resignation included the group prioritizing its own interests over those of the country, and the guidance bureau’s interference in presidential affairs. We should not judge the Islamic movement for the Brotherhood’s mistakes, because the Islamic movement did not get the chance to suggest its program from the beginning. Moreover, everyone who dealt with the Al-Nour Party has found that there is a big difference between the party and the Brotherhood, when it comes to its behavior and dealing with and including others.
We told the Brotherhood that a single faction cannot assume responsibility alone. Yet it did not take our advice. There must be a genuine partnership between all national forces, especially during the transitional phases and in times of turmoil after the revolutions. We must also differentiate between the post-revolution phases and times of stability, when democratic principles and institutions are well-established.
During the transitional phase, everyone should be included and we must benefit from the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood. We learned that the faction that rises to power should focus on public interests and prioritize public interests over partisan gains and narrow personal interests. Thank God we did not make these mistakes and we already advised the Brotherhood. Yet, it did not heed our advice, and the result came on June 30 due to of these errors.
Al-Monitor: How do you evaluate the Egyptian political scene in the current phase? In your opinion, is the road map set by the military council under the leadership of Gen. Sisi going in the right direction? What are the obstacles that prevent the return of public peace and reconciliation initiatives?
Makhioun: There is definitely a derailment regarding the road map, and we have pointed that out. These derailments represent significant obstacles to the success of the road map. First among these obstacles is committing the same errors that the Brotherhood was criticized for, namely one specific faction controlling the political landscape. This faction is represented by the NSF, leftists and socialists. It is as if we removed the Brotherhood and replaced it with another faction with the same controlling and exclusionary [approach]. This was obvious in the formation of the government. The prime minister, his deputy, and many others ministers are members of the NSF. This was also clear in the formation of the Supreme Press Council, the Supreme Council for Human Rights, and the 50-member committee [charged with amending the constitution]. All this confirms that there was a sort of exclusion of the Islamic faction. This is an indication of failure and will lead to instability and further division in society.
We, along with the NSF, called for a neutral government of technocrats — not a partisan government — to manage the transitional period, under which many elections will be held. This will allow the elections to be held within a climate of integrity and away from questions regarding the electoral process.
The second mistake are the expanded security practices and abuses. Undoubtedly, there were pronounced abuses in the way security agencies dealt with demonstrations, whether those of the Brotherhood or oppositionists in general. Third is the closure of some television channels without legal grounds. We refuse the closure of any channels without a legal ground, and we refuse the closure of any channels based on an administrative decision. This is what happened. There is only one voice that speaks, and the other side does not have a chance to speak. Under this climate and the emergency law, I do not think that constitutional amendments will be brought about, that the elections will lay the foundations for the next phase, or that there will be preparations for the presidential elections under the state of emergency or exceptional circumstances. These things, which a state is established upon, should rather take place under normal conditions. This is what we are complaining about regarding the transitional phase and the road map. I think that if this issue drags on, it will endanger the road map .
Al-Monitor: What about the reconciliation initiatives?
Makhioun: Regarding the reconciliation initiatives, the Brotherhood had a sort of intransigence and unrealistic demands that were known to be difficult or impossible to achieve. As we know, the demonstrations are not an objective in themselves, but rather a pressure tool to achieve a goal or to reach a dialogue, where the political prospects are known. There was a sort of determination to bring back Morsi, the 2012 constitution, and the [dissolved] Shura Council. Following what happened on June 30 and its repercussions, it is now known that Morsi’s return has become impossible. This goal was unrealistic. Even on June 30, there was a sort of underestimation. The Brotherhood did not interpret the scene well, and dealt with it with a sort of disdain. It was surprised by what happened. We took part in multiple reconciliation attempts. Although there was inflexibility on both sides, the Brotherhood wasted many opportunities and what was available to the Brotherhood yesterday will be difficult to get today. As time passes, the Brotherhood’s ceiling of demands will be lower. This is the result of intransigence and its lack of response to the suggested initiatives.
Al-Monitor: Do you agree with the NSF parties’ request to hold presidential elections in Egypt before the parliamentary elections? If the Al-Nour Party does not field a presidential candidate, is it possible that it will support a candidate with a military background? Does your experience with the Brotherhood prevent you from supporting any Islamist candidate for the presidency at the current stage?
Makhioun: We have declared our position. We are committed to the road map, we believe that parliamentary elections must be held before presidential elections, and this for several reasons. The first reason is that any manipulation of the road map will cast a shadow of doubt and suspicion, especially since a state of confusion prevails over the political scene. Moreover, such an amendment would be interpreted as targeting specific things and specific figures. The second reason is that we believe it is better to hold parliamentary elections first, so that the upcoming president will be elected while the parliament or the legislative authority is already in office. This will prevent the president from controlling the executive and legislative powers. We want the next president to be elected while there is a parliament that enjoys legislative power and a power of supervision, and in the presence of a government elected by the people.
With respect to the presidential candidate that the Al-Nour party will support, it does not matter if he does or does not have a military background. What is important is that he must be competent and must be a civilian and involved in civil action. This candidate may have a previous military background, since what is relevant is competency. However, it is important that the candidate must not be serving in the military while submitting his candidacy documents and this applies in all countries. For instance, in the United States former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a military background and was a president for more than one term. Charles de Gaulle, who was a military commander, became president of France. And John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, was also a candidate competing against Barack Obama in the US presidential elections. In general, a military background in and of itself does not prevent any person from exercising his right to run in elections, and eventually it is the people who have the final say and who choose the winner.
Regarding our support of an Islamist candidate, our position was fixed even before the candidacy of Morsi and after the Jan. 25 Revolution. In our opinion, no Islamist candidate or any candidate affiliated with any particular Islamist group or faction must be supported as a candidate for the election, because this will increase the political polarization in the street.
We wanted a president who enjoyed a consensus from the people, a president who is not against the Islamic project but at the same time who is accepted by the people. This president must not be affiliated with any specific faction, so as not to lead the country into a state of division in the street. We believe that no Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist candidate should run in the elections. This was the opinion espoused by the Brotherhood at first, and they confirmed it several times, but I do not know why they changed their minds and supported a Brotherhood candidate.
I think that even if an Islamist candidate runs for the next election, his chances will be weak following [Egypt’s] experience with Morsi, who I believe committed major faults. Thus, any Islamist candidate will have weak chances in the next election if he is affiliated with a specific Islamist current. We will support any national candidate and there are numerous pious, nationalist, competent persons in Egypt, since Egyptians are very pious. We support any party who is not anti-Islam and against the Islamist current, and who at the same time is agreed upon by all.
Al-Monitor: What about your preparations for the parliamentary elections? Will the loss of your Islamist allies lead you to form alliances with civil powers?
Makhioun: When Morsi set the date for the elections — which were to be held according to the list or single-member systems — we made our preparations and an electoral convention was held to choose candidates at the level of the republic. Yet, the fast developments led to the cancelation of these elections and then the events of June 30 occurred. Nowadays, we do not know if the elections will be held under the list, single-member or mixed-member proportional system, we will wait and see. However, we started working on selecting the appropriate candidates and figures, especially after the changes that occurred in the political scene and on the Egyptian arena.
We did not lose Islamist allies. We had never allied with them in the first place. The loss may be related to the Brotherhood, but for the rest of the Islamist parties they have absolutely no weight on the ground. They are all parties — present in specific places and represented by specific personalities — that do not have a large popular base on the ground like the Al-Nour Party. We do not compare ourselves to the Authenticity [al-Asala] Party or the Virtue [al-Fadila] Party, or other parties that have no weight on the ground.
In the previous elections, we entered into a fierce competition with the Muslim Brotherhood and we did not form any alliance with them. An alliance was only formed with the Building and Development Party and the Authenticity Party. These two parties ran on our lists in the electoral zones where they enjoy popularity, after being abandoned by the Muslim Brotherhood. In turn, the Muslim Brotherhood formed the Democratic Alliance, including 33 political parties. We refused or abstained from entering into this alliance, since we know the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. We knew that this alliance would fail in the end, since the Muslim Brotherhood wanted the lion's share, and indeed our predictions came true. This alliance was finally formed among a number of insignificant parties, while almost all Islamist parties abandoned it. Moreover, the Building and Development Party and the Authenticity Party wanted to ally with us. On that basis, we will enter the next elections alone, and I think that we will not have any alliances.
Al-Monitor: Will the party’s list include female candidates?
Makhioun: This is possible. This matter falls within the scope of Egyptian culture, which is not open to women’s candidacy. This is evidenced by the fact that all liberal and secular parties in all previous elections did not nominate a woman on the top of their lists. This never happened, although these are liberal and secular parties advocating women's rights. No party has ever nominated a woman on top of its list. This matter depends on the acceptance of this idea by the people in rural and nomadic areas. Most of the Egyptian people in these regions have a societal culture that considers women as incompetent to be a deputy on behalf of the people and perform services. This is culture is prevailing and it is not limited to the Al-Nour party.
Al-Monitor: How do you comment on the acts of violence and terrorism carried out by some extremist jihadist groups both in the Sinai and other areas, and on attacks targeting churches and police stations?
Makhioun: Our position is well known. Before we became the Al-Nour Party we belonged to the Salafist Call, which for 40 years has combated this type of ideology. We made great efforts to halt this type of ideology in the 1980s and 1990s. We held debates and meetings with jihadist groups and al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and — thank God — the places where Salafists are located have been almost devoid of violence.
Our ideological position on these acts is very clear. We completely reject them, since they are far removed from Islam and religion, and involve severe distortions of religion. We are against these acts and we strongly resist them. We reject these practices in form and substance, and they are not in any way sanctioned by the Islamic religion. Islam is keen to stop bloodshed. For us, in Islam, a human life has great sanctity. God Almighty said: "Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land — it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one — it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." [Quran 5:32]
Human life is sacred and cannot be violated in any way. What is happening now is a deviation from religion and will lead the country to a type of violence with dire consequences. We denounce the Brotherhood, given that a type of rapprochement has occurred between them and these jihadist groups, particularly during the Rabia al-Adawiya protest and before it. Some of these Brotherhood figures took the podium and permitted some of these takfirist voices, which call for violence, to issue statements and talk. There is no doubt that this had done harm to the entire Islamist current. So we refused to participate in the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in. We refused to take to the streets in demonstrations when we saw that they included acts of violence, whether attacks on police stations, historic buildings or provincial administration buildings. We refused to take to the streets. We reject any measures or activities that could lead to violence or bloodshed. We completely refuse to participate in them.
Al-Monitor: And what about the threats to churches?
Makhioun: Threats from whom?
Al-Monitor: Threats from forces and groups that claim to have an Islamic reference?
Makhioun: These threats are not clear, because there are outsiders trying to inflame sectarian strife in Egypt by exploiting these events. This is evidenced by the fact that in the case of most of the churches that were burned after June 30, they have not identified those who carried out the arson. So we cannot accuse the Islamists of being responsible.
Regarding several churches, it has become clear that those who carried out the burnings are not affiliated with the Islamist current. Perhaps there are people who were paid to do this to inflame sectarian strife in Egyptian society. But, in principle, we completely reject such practices. the Al-Nour Party — and Salafists in general, before the Al-Nour Party was founded during the Jan. 25 Revolution — had protected Christian properties and establishments, as well as churches.
We are against these attacks on churches because Islam gives Christians the right to practice their religion with utmost freedom. This right is provided for in Sharia law, which also permits [Christians] to resort to their own religion when it comes to personal status issues. This is their right. Christians have live with us in Egypt for 14 centuries, and they were not persecuted in any way. They lived with the Egyptian people in utmost peace and harmony. All of these things involve outsiders, and we reject attacks on Christians, whether on persons, properties or houses of worship.
Al-Monitor: Why did you refuse to take the post as deputy prime minister in Hazem el-Beblawi's government? And how do you access his performance? Do you have any comments on Dr. ElBaradei's choice to withdraw from the government?
Makhioun: First of all, when we call for something, we are the first to implement it. So when we call for a certain principle, we are the first to implement it. Our point of view was that the government should be composed of technocrats, that it should be a neutral government that is non-partisan, to lead the transitional stage. So when we were offered a place to participate, and we are partisans, how can we call for a neutral, non-partisan government and participate in it ourselves? Furthermore, based on our principles, we will not participate in any government unless it is elected by the people, and not a certain ministry. I think that the government's performance is weak, and it there has been a big failure in its performance. It hasn't differed much from Hisham Qandil's government when it comes to dealing with events. The government does not have a clear vision or plan, and signs of a crisis have appeared once again. Thus, I think that its performance is weak, extremely weak.
With respect to ElBaradei, this is his issue, and there are a lot of facts and information not available to the Egyptian people. This is the nature of the third world, where most information is not available to the people. The people do not know the background concerning any decision. Many things are unclear and we do not know the true reason that ElBaradei resigned. You should ask him, but it appears, according to what he said, that he resigned as a result of his opposition to some practices that did not please him. Are there other reasons we don't know about? Maybe you can ask ElBaradei this, but we respect his role in opposing the acts of violence carried out by the security services. Likewise, we respect his statements that he was seeking a reconciliation and that he believes the solution to the crisis is through dialogue, not the use of violence. We appreciate these positions. But as to whether or not he has other reasons for resigning, we don't know.
Al-Monitor: What is your assessment of Egypt's diplomatic relations following June 30, whether with the United States or other countries such as Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey?
Makhioun: There is no doubt that major errors were made during the era of Hosni Mubarak, and there were errors under Mohammed Morsi. Errors have also been made during the current stage. Egypt is characterized by intensity when it comes to dealing with other states. There is no middle ground, either the far right or the far left. When there is a political dispute with another state, Egypt deals with it in an intense manner, with media outlets getting involved. This plays a big role in ruining relations with these states. If the media carries out attacks [against the other country], it can lead to ruining our relations [with that country]. With regards to Iran, I think that banning Iranian tourists from visiting Egypt was the correct decision. Iran is an enemy state, based on our assessment in the Al-Nour Party. It is a state that supports a Persian project, seeking a return of the Persian Empire under a religious cover. It aims to expand [its influence] in the region and control it. It has ambitions and goals to weaken the role of Sunni Egypt, as well as that of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. Iran is a dangerous country, seeking to export its own ideology to the Muslim world.
As for relations with Saudi Arabia, relations are good. This is what is needed. The same is true for relations with the UAE. However, relations with Qatar are bad. When talking about ties with Qatar, we also consider Al Jazeera, which is a Qatari channel. Al Jazeera is playing a very negative role in Egyptian society. I think it has goals to destabilize Egypt and the army. Al Jazeera has been dishonest in its criticism of Egypt. It exaggerates events that never really occurred. It reports on events that are not true. It plays a very negative role against the Egyptian people. Yet this does not excuse other media outlets. There is no neutral media in Egypt at this time. Every outlet is either clearly "with" or "against" the government. We hope to have good relations with all Arab countries, including Qatar and others. We must temper the severity of these attacks and try to heal the wounds and achieve reconciliation, particularly during this difficult stage.
Relations with the United States have been characterized by a kind of coldness following June 30. This is because the government believes that there is a form of US support for the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no doubt that the United States deals with various peoples based on interests. America's primary interest is Israel, and Israel's security is a red line. The main goal of all US efforts, plans and steps in the region are achieving Israel's security. We must know this, and keep in mind that this is the truth we must deal with. America interferes with an agenda that serves its own goals and Israel's interests, and we must deal with the matter from this standpoint. If it is in the interest of the United States to support the Brotherhood, it will support the Brotherhood. If supporting the military council will achieve its interests, the United States will support the military council. Wherever its interests lie, the United States will support that party. This explains US reluctance regarding these positions: it is looking out for its own interests.
Walaa Hussein is editor-in-chief of the section covering parliamentary news in Rose al-Yusuf daily. An expert in African affairs, Hussein has collaborated for Nile Channel, writing and preparing the newscast.