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The Strong Egypt Party, the Constitutional Decree, and Gaza: An Interview with Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh

[Strong Egypt Party's official registration at the Supreme Court in downtown Cairo on 31 October 2012. Image by Zeinab Mohamed via Flickr] [Strong Egypt Party's official registration at the Supreme Court in downtown Cairo on 31 October 2012. Image by Zeinab Mohamed via Flickr]

Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh was a leading candidate in the 2012 Egyptian presidential election held last May, garnering approximately seventeen percent of votes cast in the first round (compared to approximately twenty-four percent and twenty-three percent for the two eventual run-off candidates—Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, respectively). He is a physician by training, and has been the president of the Arab Medical Association since 2004. Abul Futuh is a former member and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, having served on the Guidance Bureau for over two decades. During that time, he was a vocal critic of Mubarak's regime, speaking out against authoritarianism and corruption, and consequently spending several years in jail. In April 2011, he resigned from the Brotherhood shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy. Then in July 2012, Abul Futuh established the Strong Egypt Party, which styles itself as economically progressive and socially moderate political group. Despite its declared opposition to President Morsi's constitutional decree, the Strong Egypt Party has abstained from joining with the opposition. Refusing to join the protests and sit-ins in Tahrir Square, Abul Futuh and Strong Egypt have announced plans to organize their own march.

This interview was conducted with Abul Futuh in Chicago on 26 November 2012 during his first visit to the United States since the eighteen-day Egyptian uprising that toppled Husni Mubarak. While Abul Futuh was critical of the constitutional decree during the interview, he also made unsubstantiated claims against the aims and methods of the opposition to the decree. Even though he is no longer a formal member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the interview Abul Futuh was critical of the opposition's orientation towards the group. At a time when the opposition appears to have coalesced and stood firm in its rejection to the constitutional decrees, Abul Futuh alleges that "elements of the opposition" are more interested in "settling scores" with the Muslim Brotherhood than they are in pursuing the national interests. This is a serious charge in light of the stakes of the constitutional decree, the stated intention of opposition forces to escalate their mobilizations, and the level of repression to which protesters are being subjected. However, despite being asked for details in the below interview, Abul Futuh refused to identify those elements or provide any concrete evidence.

Abdullah Al-Arian (AA): What is your reaction to the constitutional decree of President Mohamed Morsi?

Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh (AF): The transition toward democracy required a number of steps to reach its end: the election of a president, which has occurred; and the election of a parliament, which occurred with thirty million votes, but which regrettably was dissolved in the political struggle between the military council and the revolution. More important than these as concerns the composition of a democratic society is producing a constitution, which is at the root of the current problem.

The Strong Egypt Party has been critical of the decree, even while accepting some parts of it. The primary reason for our opposition is the president’s insulation from any oversight or review of his decisions. This is a danger for the nation, especially during this critical transitional period in which, in the absence of a parliament, the president holds de facto power and authority that is not legally recognized. The issuance of laws and decrees, whether by the parliament or by the president, are always subject to judicial review, but this decree nullifies that and immunizes all decisions by the president from criticism by a court. Even if it is a temporary measure, it is a dangerous one that should not have been taken as a matter of principle.

We also agreed with some elements of the decree, including the policy changing the appointment of the general prosecutor, effectively removing the current holder of that position. This reflected the popular will, as all political forces were united in their call for the removal of this prosecutor, who represents the abuses of the old regime and has been responsible for the imprisonment of the opposition and the protection of the most corrupt elements in society. A second element is the call for the re-trial of individuals implicated in violence against the protestors. All previous investigations were compromised to the point that none were ever convicted. The third element I agree with is allowing the Constituent Assembly to complete its work of forging a new constitution. Egypt has been without a constitution since the 25 January revolution. We cannot afford to go on another two years without a constitution as the president enjoys powers that far exceed his authority.

AA: What is the latest in your relationship with President Morsi? How do you see his government’s relationship with the other political forces in Egypt?

AF: There is nothing new in the relationship. I continue to hope that Dr. Morsi governs through a partnership with all other significant political factions. However, it emerged in the recent constitutional decree, which surprised everyone, that he did not consider the opinions of others on the major implications of this decree. It was expected that he consult with the heads of all the main political parties in Egypt about the nature of such a decree, its timing, and its implications. He should be inclusive in forming his decisions on significant and strategic issues, with the hopes of reaching a broad consensus. This was the point made to him in the early individual meetings he had with me, Dr. [Mohamed] el-Baradei, Hamdeen [Sabahi], and others.

AA: What is your reaction to the most recent escalation of protests in Tahrir Square, Mohamed Mahmoud St, and other areas across the country?

AF: Part of these events stem from anger over the constitutional decree. It signals the strong rejection of all or some parts of the decree. But there is also a portion, not insignificant, of these protests that is concerned with settling scores between the Muslim Brotherhood and other political trends at the expense of the national interest. Unfortunately, some of the opposition forces practice their opposition at the expense of the nation.

AA: Who, specifically, do you refer to?

AF: It is difficult to mention them by name, but this is known on the scene.

AA: In your view, does this include the revolutionary youth, or some of the former presidential candidates?

AF: Not necessarily (the youth); it could be some of the former candidates, or some other political parties.

AA: What resolution do you propose for the current crisis over the constitutional decree?

AF: I don’t believe that the crisis is over the decree itself. I think it is a symptom of the larger impasse caused by [the president] governing unilaterally. It is also symbolic of the problem of some opposition forces insisting on stalling the political process in pursuit of their own goals, even if they are at the expense of the nation. If these two things are resolved, I believe we can move forward. The president cannot rule in unilateral fashion, just because we are in a period of transition, after the revolution. It is not reasonable or wise for he who governs to say “I received a majority of votes. My party received a majority of votes. Therefore, it is our right to govern unilaterally by virtue or representing a democratic majority.” This logic may work in countries unlike ours that are not going through a transition or experiencing any instability. On the other side, the opposition—or a segment of the opposition, to be precise—should reconsider its tactics to coincide with the broader national interest, and not its own personal interests of settling its scores with the Muslim Brotherhood.

AA: If the Muslim Brotherhood firmly believes in democracy, considering that it has emerged victorious in every election they have contested thus far, do you think that it believes in pluralism or a genuine respect and consideration for the views and opinions of others?

AF: There is no doubt that we are experiencing a democratic transition. In a society that lived through six decades of repression, imprisonment, one-man rule, and the absence of pluralism, all of these issues have yet to be resolved and cannot be resolved in a few months. We are still in a transition from the supremacy of one person’s view to a multiplicity of views and democratic practices. These issues will continue to create difficulties until the situation stabilizes.

AA: How do you see the work of the Constituent Assembly and what do you foresee in the impending documents?

AF: I believe that the committee has put in tremendous efforts in this regard. On the whole, the constitution does not contain any dangerous content, except in a small number of issues, in our point of view. The media campaign against the constitution has not raised any substantive issues. A small contingent of the opposition has not raised substantive objections to the content of the constitution. The Strong Egypt Party may be the only one to have raised substantive objections regarding some of the chief articles of the constitution that I did not anticipate would be included. There are three main elements we rejected in the strongest terms, which we expressed in writing to the president and to the head of the Constituent Assembly.

First, we categorically reject granting the military a distinct status. The military is an institution of the state, which we value, but it should not be granted its independence from the remainder of the governing institutions. Therefore, the provisions related to the military should remain unchanged from the 1971 constitution. The second issue is that there is no provision related to social justice or the rights of the poor in the current constitutional draft for a country in which seventy percent of the population lives in poverty. The third issue relates to the powers of the president. In spite of the consensus that this should be a parliamentary-presidential system, in which the president is empowered to handle issues of security and foreign relations, and the political majority in parliament are empowered to form the government and address remaining political matters, unfortunately the circulating drafts of the constitution have deferred too many powers to the president, potentially transforming Egypt into a purely presidential system rather than a combination of parliamentary and presidential.

There are a number of smaller issues that are not as strategically significant, including the addition of provisions related to the Shari‘a. We believe that the reference to the Shari‘a should remain as is, without any additions. But they have attempted to add language detailing their interpretation of the Shari‘a, probably to appease the Salafis, but there was no need for it.

AA: In your presidential campaign, you obtained the endorsement of most of the Salafi parties. What is your relationship with them currently?

AF: I did not obtain the support of the Salafis. They announced their endorsement of my candidacy, but I did not receive their estimated three to four million votes. While they declared their endorsement of my candidacy, they did not actually support it for their own reasons. I won’t speculate on that, or add to the voices that say this was an intentional betrayal or a scheme on the part of the security agencies. But to say that they actively supported me is untrue. Furthermore, in a presidential race, no candidate can reject the endorsement of any group, regardless of whether he agrees or disagrees with it. But in the end, their endorsement brought with it more negative consequences and lost more votes than it added, although I stated at the time of their endorsement that I had major differences with them and they also stated that they endorsed me in spite of their differences with my positions. They believed that they were picking the best candidate for the presidency, and not as the leader of all believers (Amir al-Mu’minin).

AA: Do you see the current polarization in Egypt as being one between religious forces on the one hand and civil or secular forces on the other? And do you believe that any political party is capable of bridging this divide?

AF: I don’t believe this split exists in Egypt. I believe it has been manufactured by the media to create divisions within society. There are no overtly secular forces within Egypt. We don’t have forces that are explicitly rejectionist of religion, as they do in Tunisia or Turkey. It is also not fair to say that Islamically-oriented parties like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis are not civil parties. They are civil parties. At the same time, it is not fair to say that what are called civil parties like al-Dustoor Party or the Karama Party, or the Egyptian Democratic Party and others are against Islam. They are not against Islam or the Shari‘a. This distinction is inaccurate and misleading.

AA: You have been critical of the IMF loan being pursued by President Morsi. What are your objections to it?

AF: Our party has rejected the politics of international loans. We believe that it is not the solution to our economic problems.

AA: What effects do you believe it will have on Egypt’s economy?

AF: Nearly one-third of the state budget is wasted just in paying the interest on loans. Another third is devoted to salaries, and another third goes for services and subsidies. When you add additional loans, this simply deepens the need to repay the interest on those loans. But more importantly, this does not resolve the economic issues facing the country. We need to cut the administrative costs of the state, to revise the payroll policy with a new minimum wage and a lower ceiling, without needing to add additional expenses for salaries. Additionally, IMF loans do not aid in the development of national projects, but are used for basic expenditures, not to expand the source of revenues, as any good economy requires. The Egyptian economy is dependent on the Suez Canal, foreign remittances, and tourism for its revenue, but needs to expand into other sectors as well.

AA: Have you had a chance to review the President’s recent decree that attempts to manage state labor unions more directly and puts off many of the most pressing demands of Egyptian workers? If so, what are your thoughts on this move?

AF: I have not seen the particulars of this decision or reviewed the text, but many groups, including workers but also doctors and others, have engaged in strikes and actions to express real and legitimate demands and calls for their rights. But it is also appropriate to expect that individual parties, whether labor unions, professional syndicates, or other groups, will temporarily put aside their demands to provide the new government and the new president to address the pressing problems facing the entire nation. No one expects that the deeply rooted problems of corruption dating back 60 years will be solved in a matter of months, or even one year. Dr. Morsi needs to address the people in that spirit, that there are deep problems that will take time to solve and require the patience, perseverance, and unity of all people to address together. He should explain to people what these problems are, how and when they can be solved. There has to be a degree of transparency and clarity to all of these decisions, so that people can be better aware of what is happening, that is missing in the patronizing speeches that he delivers.

AA: How do you explain the posture of the Supreme Constitutional Court toward the revolution over the last two years?

AF: I believe the history of the Constitutional Court is an honorable one, as it consistently stood in favor of the rule of law and against injustice, regardless of whether its rulings were ever implemented. The attempts to paint it as having overstepped its bounds and taken on executive powers is, in my view, exaggerated. At the same time, the court has made some major errors in its ruling to dissolve the Parliament, in spite of my disagreements with the Parliament and the way it conducted its affairs. In its ruling, the court relied only on the letter of the law, but traditionally, the Constitutional Court has relied on three frames of reference in its rulings: the first is the law, the constitutionality of the issue; and the second is the national interest. This could affect the timing of the ruling, as has happened in the past, in which rulings were delayed for three or four years so as not to lead to instability by dissolving a parliament only a few months after it has been elected. The other element that the court did not take into consideration is the popular will. This was the first parliament that was not elected based on fraud, and was selected by the votes of thirty to thirty-two million Egyptians.

From the beginning of the revolution, in my view, the suspension of the 1971 Constitution hindered the activity of the Constitutional Court, whose role should have also been suspended. On what basis can it rule on whether an issue is constitutional or unconstitutional if there is no constitution? Therefore, its role has been purely speculative, and since then it has become deeply politicized by ruling on the basis of constitutional decrees, whether they are issued by the ruling military council or the elected president. The work of the court should have been suspended until the passage of a new constitution.

AA: There is clearly a deep fear, resentment, and lack of confidence in the growing role of the Muslim Brotherhood within the institutions of the state. To what do you attribute this and how do you believe it should be addressed?

AF: Without a doubt, there is a manufactured fear-mongering campaign and provocation against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has its roots in the Mubarak era and which empowered itself through the repression of the organization. Some of the opposition forces that lack any substance have relied on these Mubarak-era tactics to advance their own political interests. This is an unethical manner in which to conduct political competition. Those who rely on these tactics signal their political failure. Instead of building their own organizations and political parties and competing with the Muslim Brotherhood for the votes of the people, they simply try to provoke fear within society. I believe that there is no place for that behavior against any political faction. Even with my major differences with the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, their decisions, and their actions, we have to acknowledge that they did achieve their political gains, whether the presidency or the largest share of the parliament except through the popular vote. As a result, even as someone who disagrees with them, I have to respect the popular will and learn to work with them rather than defame them. I believe that most Egyptians have healthy disagreements with them and do not give into the fear-mongering that takes place. There is also an international component to this, as some forces outside the country would like to destabilize the Muslim Brotherhood by spreading fear of them.

AA: But don’t you think they have made some critical mistakes throughout this transition, frequently abandoning the demands of the revolutionary youth?

AF: Of course, without a doubt, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has made some fatal political mistakes.

AA: In your opinion, what are some of the most important of these mistakes?

AF: The mixing between a political party and a religious mission is one of the most important mistakes. In addition to that is the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s organization without seeking the legalization of its status. This places the president, who represents the group, in a legal bind. How can the president proclaim that he protects and follows the law when the group he emerged from remains illegal? A third problem is their desire to impose their will on others during a transition process in which they should include other political forces, especially on the most important issues with implications for the entire nation. There are, of course, other issues, but these are the most important ones.

AA: What are your thoughts on the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza and Egypt’s responsibility in resolving the crisis and ending the blockade?

AF: I believe that after the 25 January revolution, which called for freedom, justice, and human dignity, we should follow our own example by ending the blockade of Gaza. It has become a prison for 1.5 million people. They have been prevented from receiving basic needs, including medical treatment and education, by the Egyptian forces guarding the Rafah crossing. It denies their basic humanity and must end, irrespective of what is happening in the Peace Process.

AA: You have visited Gaza several times as part of a medical aid convoy, including during the most recent crisis. Can you relate what you witnessed there?

AF: I went to Gaza in my capacity as a medical doctor and saw how patients are denied access to basic treatment, especially those in need of intensive care, due to shortages of basic requirements like energy to run the equipment or critical supplies, leading to the deaths of innocent children. I have lived this tragedy personally and professionally as a doctor. We must oppose this injustice against a people whose land is occupied and continues to face a violent onslaught with the backing of the international community. No nation should have to suffer the continued dispossession and bombardment faced by the Palestinians, who deserve their freedom to live in peace and security.

AA: You came out of the student movement of the 1970s. What do you believe were this generation’s defining features and what impact did that have on the events of the uprising?

AF: The Sadat period is a unique one in that it was distinguished from the eras which preceded and followed it, whether Nasser or Mubarak, which maintained a much stronger level of repression. The political environment was more open under Sadat, which permitted for the rise of a vibrant student movement that had the freedom to grow and maneuver. It used that space to spread within the ranks of the students, establishing strong movements and organizations. Eventually this spirit moved from the university to the broader society, leading to the rise of many leaders, many of whom continue to be active in a leadership capacity despite the fact that these experiences date back many decades.

AA: Do you see any parallels with the current generation of youth activists?

AF: I think that our experience has yet to be replicated. But I believe that since the 25 January revolution, the student movement will begin to benefit from and enjoy the atmosphere of freedom to develop stronger foundations and leadership. The Strong Egypt Party has strong roots within the student movement and continues to grow every day, even though it has only been around for a short time. There is no doubt that in the shadow of the 25 January revolution, it is only a matter of time before the student movement launches leaders for all of society.

AA: What ambitions does the Strong Egypt Party have for the future, whether in terms of its broader political objective or in competing in parliamentary elections or a future presidential race?

AF: The Strong Egypt Party has clearly defined principles that we stated in the program during my presidential campaign. At the top of it is concern for the plight of the poor and issues of social justice. Secondly, it stands for social and personal freedoms, and against the state’s intrusion into matters of individual freedom, freedom of expression, or beliefs. The third principle for the party focuses on national independence. The new government must enjoy full national independence in its foreign policy, without being pressured into the orbit, whether that of the United States or any other power.

Domestically, the state must be independent and must not be brought into pursuit of the narrow interest of any one group or political party. It is for all Egyptians, not a small group of them. The fourth principle is that the party views itself as an extension of the broader Egyptian national project, internalizing in a modern way the greatness of the principles and values of Islam, in which all Egyptians take pride, whether Muslim or Christian. These values were developed by such figures as Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi, Sa‘ad Zaghloul, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida. As a political leader, Sa‘ad Zaghloul was still the son of al-Azhar, and Tahtawi and others never abandoned the principles of Islamic civilization.

In terms of the future, we are focused on building our party and expanding its structure throughout the country. We are preparing for entry into the parliamentary and local elections, in cooperation and alliance with some other political parties that are close to our views, like the Wasat Party or the Dustoor Party.

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