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Egypt’s Mohamed Kamal: Islamists Should be Integrated into Egyptian Political Debate

Interviewer: Sharon Otterman
Interviewee: Mohamed Kamal
November 8, 2005

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Mohamed Kamal, a prominent member of a new generation of reformers within Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party [NDP], says that while he does not favor legalizing the banned Muslim Brotherhood in its current form, Brotherhood members must be included in a debate over the proper relationship in Egypt between Islam and the state. "I think the best way to deal with Islamists is through politics, not through security means or using a security mentality," he says.

Forty-year-old Kamal is a member of the NDP's unelected Policies Secretariat, which is headed by Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's son. He says he and other party members are working to transform Egypt from a single-party state with the NDP at the helm into "a multiparty political system, a political system where you have alternatives to the majority party."

Many of the NDP's more reform-minded politicians have so far lost their legislative seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, which began November 9 and will continue through December 7. This has led some analysts to question whether the government will aggressively pursue goals of democratization and political reforms in its next term. The NDP's continued control over government, however, is beyond question. With the second of three rounds of voting complete, the NDP was on track December 1 to control parliament with a wide majority.

Kamal received a doctorate in 2000 from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. He was interviewed by Sharon Otterman, former associate director of cfr.org, on November 8, 2005, in Cairo the day before voting in the parliamentary election began.

What will be the top points on the legislative agenda of the National Democratic Party (NDP) in the next parliament?

Our program includes major amendments of the constitution to introduce more balance between the different branches of government; enhancing the role of parliament; ending the state of emergency; legislating an anti-terrorism law to replace the state of emergency; introducing a new elections system to help political parties to be more represented in parliament; introducing a quota for women in parliament; introducing a new system of local government; and empowering local government on the legislative and executive prerogatives. So these are the major and important reforms that the new parliament will deal with.

When would you expect the state of emergency to be lifted?

The process of dealing with all of these amendments, all of these legislative and constitutional issues, will start immediately with the election of the new parliament. When this will end, I cannot give you a specific date now, but the process will start immediately.

Some people say the new anti-terrorism law will be so strict there will be little real change and few additional political freedoms.

How would they know that? Have they seen a draft? These are just speculations; we still haven't developed ideas in the party about it. I don't think it will differ from anti-terrorism laws that exist in several other countries. Its application will be restricted to combating terrorism, not to combating political dissent or anything of that sort. So it will be used mainly to deal with terrorism, which is still a big challenge for Egypt.

Outside of formal campaign periods, legal political parties are restricted from basic political operations, such as handing out pamphlets and holding rallies. They have so many restrictions on them that they have been unable to operate fully. Will this change?

We at the party believe it's important to enhance the role of [other] political parties. We believe that political parties should be the main instrument of practicing politics. And when political parties are weak, people practice politics through the mosque, through illegal organizations, through professional syndicates, and so on, which is not good. We are in favor of reviving party politics in Egypt and I believe that in the period following the elections, political parties will enjoy more freedom of action, because it's good for democracy.

I cannot tell you exactly what parties will be allowed or not allowed to do, but I would say that the NDP is convinced that there is a need to strengthen political parties, legitimate political parties, and political parties will have more freedom of action.

Egypt's National Democratic Party is often described as containing an old guard of officials close to President Hosni Mubarak who are reluctant to back reforms, and a new guard of younger, more reform-minded politicians close to the president's son, Gamal. You are considered one of the leading figures of the party's new generation. What are this generation's goals?

The party definitely has today, I would say, at least three generations. There are the so-called founding fathers of the party, and this is probably the World War II generation. Then you have the middle generation that socialized politically during the Free Officers Revolution of 1952. And then you have the so-called new generation, people in their thirties and forties. Each generation has different life experiences, sometimes different educational backgrounds, and different outlooks concerning Egypt and its relations with the world.

The main goal of the reformers is to make Egypt part of the world, with its economic norms and its political norms. Many of those who belong to this group are exposed to what's going on outside of Egypt. They have lived, or have been educated or are in touch with what's going on, and realize that Egypt has changed, the region has changed, and the whole world has changed. And they want to keep pace with this change. They want Egypt to be integrated into this modern world.

Is there a consensus now throughout the party that democracy is the way forward for Egypt?

Yes, I believe so. Reform in general, not just political reform, but economic reform as well. You know, it's a learning process. If we look at economic reform in Egypt, it took many years before we settled on our economic orientation, and you had many people who were against privatization and smaller government. It took a lot of struggle, a lot of convincing, and so on. In terms of political reform, we know what the destination is, but we are still going in this process. We haven't reached the final destination yet.

What does the final destination for Egyptian democracy look like, in your opinion? Does it resemble European-style parliamentary democracy?

It is rotation of power. It is a multiparty political system, a political system where you have alternatives to the majority party, whatever that party is. It's a political system that empowers women, that is based on citizenship rights, not on religion. It's a civil system not a religious system. It empowers civil society, and cherishes freedom of expression and civil liberties.

Some observers and analysts believe that democracy can only come to Egypt if the NDP is weakened and unseated. What is your reaction to that?

I believe you can reform the system from within. It has happened in other places, it happened in Mexico, in South Korea. All political parties keep reforming. The Labor Party in the United Kingdom did it and came back with new Labor, and so on. So it's natural for a political party to evolve and be reformed. And that's what the NDP is doing. Our goal is to maintain a political majority. This is the legitimate goal of any political party. But for some reason if the voters voted the NDP out of power, we will accept that.

The Muslim Brotherhood has taken the spotlight in this election, at least in the international sphere. It is still banned, and yet its candidates, who are officially registered as independents, are permitted to campaign under their own name and slogan for the first time. Why has there been this change?

Our view towards the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't changed. We still consider them a banned organization, an illegal organization, we still adhere to the law that prevents the creation of a party based on religion, and that's what they want to do.

What's new and what's happening today in Egypt is that we are in a campaign season. And the Brotherhood nominated candidates for the parliamentary elections. And like other candidates from other political parties, they have the right to campaign. They have the right to do that. But when they violate the election law, the campaign regulations, then we protest against that and we ask the proper authorities to implement the law.

Does their slogan, "Islam is the Solution," violate the campaign law?

Yes, I think their slogan violates the campaign law that prohibits using religious slogans in campaigning. We have filed a complaint to the election commission to protest this violation of law.

Is there any chance in the future that they could be legalized?

Any group of people in Egypt can submit a request to establish a political party. So they have the right to do that, but they have to abide by the political parties law, which prohibits the establishment of a party based on religion. So if they continue to say we want to establish a religious party based on the [Islamic law] sharia, then the law prohibits that. But if they want to establish a civil party based on conservative values or things of that sort, then I think they will have a fair chance to get a license as a political party. The ball is actually in their court.

How well do you think the Brotherhood will do in this election?

I think they will enhance their presence in the new parliament. They will probably have more seats. And the secular opposition parties might end up having fewer seats. And this will pose a challenge and a dilemma for the political system that we will have to deal with after the election, dealing with legitimate secular political parties that are weak, and an illegal religious organization that has emerged from the election stronger. So there will probably be a debate in the society at large about how to revive political parties and how to deal with, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, but the issue of religion and the state.

I expect a big debate in this society after the elections about the relationship between religion and state. All the parties, intellectuals from different trends, will participate in that. I cannot predict the outcome of this debate, but I think we need this kind of debate. We need to reach some kind of consensus. We need a political community in Egypt. We haven't agreed to the rules of the political game. So once we start this debate I think it will be a good beginning. And the Islamists have to be part of this debate. And they have to be part of the political process. And they have to grow from within the system, and as the system grows, I'm sure they can grow with it. So I think the best way to deal with Islamists is through politics, not through security means or using a security mentality, and hopefully we will reach some kind of consensus.

How do you think this dialogue with the Islamists might take place? Would it be structured by the government? Televised?

I still don't know. I mean, you will have some structured forums for it, some unstructured, some debates on TV, in newspapers, and stuff like that. And if the Brotherhood members are in the parliament they will talk about their agenda and you will have a dialogue in the parliament which is a formal institution.

This election is being seen as a test of the government's commitment to democratic reform. In past years, there has been violence and a lot of irregularities in the voting. Are you expecting irregularities this time?

I am expecting this election to be free and fair. However, I'm sure there will be some irregularities here and there. But this is not going to happen due to government policies. In this competitive election environment, certain irregularities are bound to happen from different candidates. But I don't think these irregularities will alter or change in any way the outcome of the election. They will be small in size, number, magnitude, and everything. The government, the president, is committed to conducting a free and fair election, with state institutions staying neutral.

The NDP has held power for more than three decades. Why should Egyptian voters believe that under NDP leadership, things will now change?

A lot of things have already changed in the past year: economic policies, the presidential election, political reform issues. So we have proven already that we have changed. We have new faces, we have evidence already that things are changing. And I'm sure we can convince the voters of this change.

There will be no going back to the way it was?

Once the genie of democracy is out of the bottle, you can't bring it back in. I am sure of that.

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