Tag Archives: Nour

#Egypt: Sharia and the new constitution

While the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party lost the battle over Egypt’s new constitution, it is likely they will survive politically, and could even take the lead in the Islamist movement
Egypt’s new draft constitution provides better protection for fundamental freedoms and human and minority rights as well as for women and youth, and gives special attention to socio-economic rights, such as education and health.

However, a major issue, among many others, attracted attention throughout the process of drafting of the constitution: the place of Islam and Sharia law in public life.

As expected and already shown in the first draft submitted by the 10-Member Committee of experts on constitutional law, the text prepared by the 50-Member Committee has been stripped of all references to Sharia, inserted by the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, in the 2012 Constitution, and emphasised the “civil” character of the state. This process provoked a bitter debate between liberals — who dominated the committee — and the only representative of the Salafists, the member of Al-Nour Party, supported from time to time by Al-Azhar Institution, represented by three members on the committee.

But the balance of power within the 50-Member Committee, given the general political context after the fall of the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, did not allow Nour Party to assert its ultraconservative views. The party’s representative was beaten in almost all issues of “Islamic identity” that he defended.

This was particularly the case when the controversial Article 219, introduced under Nour Party pressure in 2012, which gave a strict definition of the “principles of Sharia,” was eliminated from the draft constitution. According to Article 2, the principles of Sharia are “the main source of legislation.” The attempt of Nour Party to introduce, after the abolition of Article 219, a definition of “the principles of Sharia” in the preamble of the new draft constitution also failed.

The new text thus returns to the formula of the 1971 Constitution, in effect under former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, which merely mentions the principles of Sharia as “the main source of legislation” without giving them a particular definition, leaving their interpretation to the High Constitutional Court (HCC). Deleted Article 219 limited the powers of interpretation of the HCC, considered as too liberal by Islamists.

The 2012 Constitution also granted Al-Azhar a say, though not mandatory on legislators, on issues related to Sharia. This situation generated fears of the expansion of the role of the religious institution in political and public space, and even, for some, the establishment of a theocracy. This provision is deleted from the new draft constitution, with the agreement of Al-Azhar, which does not want to intervene in the thorny issues of politics.

In the same vein, Article 76 of the 2012 Constitution has been deleted. It provided that a crime may be inferred directly from the text of the constitution, without explicit mention in the penal code. Legal experts interpreted this provision as paving the way for the application by courts of punishments under Sharia law, without the need for prior legislation on specific categories of crime.

The inclusion in the preamble to the draft constitution of the formula “civilian government” is another indication of the de-Islamisation of the national charter. The term “civilian” was neither in the 1971 Constitution nor, a fortiori, in that of 2012.

After the unfortunate experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the liberals, supported by representatives of the three Egyptian Churches — the Coptic, Catholic and Anglican — insisted on introducing this term to cut short any attempt to Islamise the state in the future. This desire to emphasise the civilian character of the state gave rise to an intense debate with the Salafists, which had been joined by Al-Azhar. Nour Party was opposed to any inclusion of the term “civil,” as for them it reflects Western and secular values. The liberals wanted initially to use the formula of “civil state,” which was rejected by Nour Party and Al-Azhar, because for them it could mean a “secular state.” The compromise formula was, finally, “the establishment of a democratic and modern state,” with a ”civil government.”

On another level, the draft constitution prohibits in Article 74 the establishment of political parties on religious or sectarian bases. It thus returns to the formula of the 1971 Constitution. However, the question of religious parties remains. These parties, 11 in total, were created after the popular uprising of 25 January 2011, under the constitutional declaration of March 2011, promulgated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which also prohibited the establishment of religious parties. The latter, to circumvent the difficulty, avoided making clear reference in their statutes and programmes to their religious nature, but their action and discourse betrayed this dimension. The political context of March 2011 is certainly not that of December 2013, at least for what is left of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), currently frozen.

It is likely that the Salafist Nour Party, the second political force after the FJP in the last parliament, which was dissolved, will survive this prohibition. It is the only Islamist party that agreed to the roadmap announced by the army following the dismissal of Mohamed Morsi 3 July. It also participated in the drafting process of the constitution and refrained from withdrawing from the 50-Member Committee despite the setbacks it suffered, when virtually all of its demands were rejected. The party called on its supporters to vote “Yes” for the draft constitution in the upcoming referendum in January.

This position can be explained by the fact that Nour Party is aware that the wind has turned and that the Islamists have lost the dominance they gained after the fall of Mubarak. Its leadership is both realistic and ambitious. It certainly lost the battle of the constitution, given the new balance of power established after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, but taking into account the weak anchor of liberal parties in the electorate, it keeps the hope and the ambition of inheriting the dominant position of the FJP in parliament and in political life.


Egypt’s Salafis Emerge As Powerful And Controversial Political Force

by Leila Fadel

A protester holds a Quran at a Salafi rally for the enforcement of Islamic Shariah law last fall in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Repressed during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the country's ultra-conservative Salafis have seen a resurgence since the Arab Spring uprising.


A protester holds a Quran at a Salafi rally for the enforcement of Islamic Shariah law last fall in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Repressed during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s ultra-conservative Salafis have seen a resurgence since the Arab Spring uprising. El Ghany/Reuters/Landov

The uprisings of the Arab Spring unleashed a new political force in the region — Salafis. These ultra-conservative Muslims aspire to a society ruled entirely by a rigid form of Islamic law. Their models are the salaf, or ancestors, referring to the earliest Muslims who lived during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.

To their critics, the Salafis are religious fanatics who are trying to drag the region back to 7th-century Arabia. But the Salafis maintain that they are offering the purest alternative to the dictatorships that have long dominated the region.

In Egypt, Salafis are now a vocal and powerful part of the political process.

Nader Bakkar, a young engineer, is the spokesman for Egypt’s most successful Salafi political party, Nour. He insists their ideology is not backward-looking.

“It’s not a thing that conflicts with civilization or modern society, not at all,” Bakkar says.

He sits in a hotel lobby. Nearby, men drink beer and women sit unveiled. It certainly isn’t the vision of Egypt that Nour has in mind.

Bakkar says the closest thing to a Salafi-run state is Saudi Arabia, a nation where women can’t drive and have few rights, and where people live in a gender-segregated society. It is also a nation with strong ties to the West.

Sheikh Gamal Saber, founder of a Salafi party called Ansar, is banding with other Salafi groups behind a hardline agenda that would ban alcohol, segregate the sexes and require women to wear veils.

Sheikh Gamal Saber, founder of a Salafi party called Ansar, is banding with other Salafi groups behind a hardline agenda that would ban alcohol, segregate the sexes and require women to wear veils.

Leila Fadel/NPR

“Politically speaking, the kind of Salafi regime — or the one that is very near to the Salafi regime — it is accepted worldwide,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia.

But he adds that Egypt is not Saudi Arabia, with its diverse population of Christians, Sufis and other types of Muslims.

“We cannot impose our religious point of view, our doctrine,” Bakkar says, adding that people must choose it.

Salafis In Egypt

Prior to Egypt’s revolt in 2011, Salafis were repressed. Pious men with unkempt beards were targeted by the secular and autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak, and the movement went largely underground.

Today, Salafis are out in the open and flourishing. Last year, in Egypt’s first post-revolutionary elections, Nour Party candidates won about 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. It was second only to the Muslim Brotherhood, another Islamist party, though one less rigid in its beliefs.

Bakkar brags that politically, Nour is much younger than the Muslim Brotherhood but very soon will rival the Brotherhood as the most powerful political force in Egypt.

With politics, however, comes compromise and competition. The Nour Party once was basically the only show in town for Salafis. Now it is coming under fire from more rigid conservatives who say Nour made too many concessions in the debate over Egypt’s new constitution, limiting the role of Islamic law.

Female supporters of the Nour Party flash victory signs outside a polling station in Cairo on Jan. 30, 2012.

Female supporters of the Nour Party flash victory signs outside a polling station in Cairo on Jan. 30, 2012.

Amr Nabil/AP

As a result, new Salafi parties are springing up, one founded by its own former secretary general. Others are followers of fiery Salafi Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail, who briefly ran for president before being disqualified.

In the poor Shubra district of Cairo, Sheikh Gamal Saber tells us his new party, Ansar, will give Salafis another alternative.

People pop in and out of Saber’s office looking for handouts — food, blankets and medicine.

On this day, a few young women greet Saber from the doorway. They are cold. He pulls blankets from the endless piles that are stacked to the ceiling in a storage room and hands them over. He has provided charity like this for years, and now he’s hoping it will translate into votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

“We were fooled as Salafis,” he says, calling Nour a disappointment, as he sits in his office surrounded by religious books. “The people are not the lords; the only lord is God. The majority is not the lord; the majority does not rule. God rules.”

He and other Salafis are banding together behind a hardline agenda that ultimately would ban alcohol, segregate the sexes and require women to wear the veil. How far would a Salafi-run Egypt go toward enforcing those ideals? Saber says the goal is to get Islamic law first, and then deal with its application.

A Religious Divide

Critics say Salafis are among the most polarizing elements of Egyptian society, transforming every political debate into a referendum on religiosity in a nation where most residents are Muslim. They add that the basis of Salafism ignores 1,400 years of history and uses religion to manipulate.

A popular TV satirist, Bassem Youssef, has made it a mission to battle the Salafi influence on his comedy show. In one program last month, this liberal Muslim who is known for his humor found nothing to joke about as he discussed the Salafi political agenda.

“They don’t look at us as Muslims and Christians, no, but as unbelievers, hypocrites, enemies of religion and enemies of the Lord. So we deserve to be humiliated and cursed, even if it goes as far as beatings and torture,” Youssef said.

Salafis, he says, are bullies who threaten those who don’t share their rigid views. Youssef, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, adds that he is not going to bother explaining that Islam is good. That is a given, he says.

“I don’t have to hold up a white rock and say that’s white. Everyone knows it’s white,” he says. “But regrettably, we have to do all this work to clean off this filth.”

Youssef’s words resonate with many Egyptians who worry that the Salafi influence will transform the jovial nature of Egyptian society and take the nation backward.

Egypt expert Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center says Salafis “are fundamentally illiberal.”

“They are not willing to live and practice politics within the confines of liberal democracy. So, when Egyptian or Tunisian liberals say that certain fundamental rights should be nonnegotiable, they should be guaranteed, Salafis don’t want to hear that,” he says. “For them, that’s a nonstarter.”