Makhyoun, who has been working for the Salafi Da’wa for more than 40 years, speaks about his initial decisions after being elected as the new president of the party. He says the party is steadily preparing for the upcoming elections while trying to stabilise its internal structure following the resignation of ex-party leader Emad Abdel Ghafour, his deputy and another 150 members.
The father of six veiled daughters and a son sporting a long beard, Makhyoun encapsulates his party’s stance towards females and minorities.
Dr. Makhyoun, you were originally a dentist. Tell us when you entered politics and what your political background is?
I have been in politics ever since I began preaching more than 40 years ago. There is no separation between politics and preaching. There are many issues that we discussed with people during religious lessons and speeches that directly relate to politics and the state. As part of our role as preachers, we explored the state’s relation to Islamic shari’a, corruption in politics, and many other internal government issues.
We shared our insights on how to solve many of the problems facing the country. But when we expressed our opinions, we were banned and we were put in jails. Our role in politics started a long time ago. When the time came to go public and practice politics on a partisan basis, including through media appearances, we started to emerge on the political scene. We never shied away from politics because we do not see a distinction between politics and religion. Islam manages people’s affairs, including affairs of a political nature. After the revolution of 25 January 2011, freedom and justice were restored and we were given the chance to express our opinions freely. We seized the opportunity to enact change and express ourselves politically through our comprehensive reform programmes. We realized that everybody was able to express a certain political view except us, the Salafis. For this reason, we established Al-Nour Party as the political arm of the Salafi Da’wa.
Some argue that the Islamist movements emerging today, including Salafi parties, lack the political know-how needed in a country experiencing a democratic transition. How would you respond to that?
This is completely untrue. Politics has two meanings. There is the common definition of politics and the one those promoting political Islam ascribe to. For most politicians, politics is based on deceptions, betrayals, groundless coalitions, and the notion that “all ends justify the means”. In our view, however, politics has an Islamic meaning. From our perspective, politics is tied to morals and values. We refute the concept of “all ends justify the means”, and we pursue political negotiations through clarity and transparency. That is why we are more capable of practicing politics than non-Islamist politicians.
In Islam we have something called legitimate politics. Any political case has to be referred to Islam.
Despite our inexperience in politics, we impressed the world with our achievements in the last parliamentary elections. Everybody was impressed with our organization and hard work on the ground. Al-Nour Party’s mixing of politics and preaching resonated with the people. Our performance in parliament was impressive and our positions were clear. We are fully aware of the concepts of politics, refuting all claims that we cannot engage in politics. Before the 2011 revolution, nobody, whether Islamist or not, practiced politics. Therefore, Islamist parties have no less political experience than non-Islamist parties. There used to be a ruling political party, followed by a few small, artificial parties that aimed at nothing but a delusional picture of democracy. So, if lacking political experience is a weakness, then all political parties must share in this criticism.
There were developments within Al-Nour Party that led to the resignation of the former head of the party, his deputy and a considerable number of members. How do you think such disputes have negatively affected the image and reputation of Al-Nour Party?
This is untrue. No major conflicts have shaken the party. There were no disputes and no divisions. The number of members who resigned was not that high. Only former president Emad Abdel Ghafour, his deputy Youssry Hammad and a small group of members resigned. They adhered to a different vision than that of the rest of the party. There was a big disagreement between Abdel-Ghafour and the high executive board, which used to administer the party. The ex-president and his followers protested against the internal elections of the party. They resigned without announcing their decision publicly through the media. We covered up the situation and held meetings to resolve the conflict. However, the controversy remained until they officially resigned. The other members who resigned did not include any of the important leaders of the party and their number was not that significant. They did not exceed 150 members.
Al-Nour Party is strong because of its deep attachment to the Salafi Da’wa. It is widely popular among Egyptians and it is present in all of the country’s 27 governorates. In Alexandria alone we have about 80,000 members. The party is structured on internal institutions, making it impervious to the departure of previous members or the addition of new ones. Therefore, the resignation of these members did not make much difference to the party.
How far does the Salafi Da’wa, located in Alexandria, affect the decisions taken by Al-Nour Party?
The Salafi Da’wa was established in Alexandria. The Da’wa provides the party’s legitimacy. However, Al-Nour Party is administratively independent from the Da’wa. Internally, we have a presidential team, a high executive board, and a general secretary for every governorate. It is exactly like the relationship between the Freedom and Justice Party and the Supreme Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood. We were conceived by the Salafi Da’wa in order to express its political ideology. And this is common around the world; there are many political parties that reflect the political perspective of certain social or pressure groups. We use Al-Nour Party to convert the theoretical vision of the Salafi Da’wa into a practical one. The Salafi Da’wa is only concerned with Islamically-legitimate issues. While we are similar on methodological grounds, we differ on organizational grounds.
You are currently preparing for a presidential council within the party. As president of the party, what will be your next steps moving forward?
The provision of a presidential team is part of the party’s internal charter. We will gradually establish all the internal institutions within the party. After we have completed the presidential team, we will have to work on forming the party’s Senate and governance council.
We have the executive board, which was also formed by the general assembly. This board is composed of 50 people and is headed by myself. Its mission is to set the general policies of the party and approve all decisions. The presidential team is composed of the president, his deputies and assistants. It also brings together the general secretary of the party and all those responsible for the secretaries of the party’s branches across the country. The presidential team has the executive power to take decisions. It is composed of about 10 people and it presents its decisions to the executive board for approval. Next week we are having a meeting to elect members to the presidential team.
I also focus on establishing the party’s committees. We have committees in almost all fields; agriculture, industry, education…etc. Every committee has its vision and mission within its field of specialty. Ultimately, we are aiming to have around 25 committees. Currently, we have many committees that need to be completed and their programmes need to be revised. During Abdel-Ghafour’s presidency, the committees did not count more than 10 members.
How is Al-Nour Party preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections?
We are definitely preparing ourselves now. Although we are aware that we are a new party, it is also true that everybody was impressed by the organisational skills that led to our success in the recent parliamentary elections. (Al-Nour Party secured 111 out of 498 parliamentary seats in the 2011 elections). We are currently working to establish our members’ eligibility to run in elections. Focusing on developing their skills and abilities, the party is helping its members improve their political knowledge and adeptness.
We are also forming “electoral complexes” which receive applications from citizens who would like to run for parliament as either individual members of Al-Nour Party or from within the proportional lists of the party.
In every village, we have electoral complexes that raise awareness about the party, its mission, vision, and relation to the Salafi Da’wa. We give a handout to those who apply and then we start filtering the applications to see who is most qualified to compete as an Al-Nour Party candidate. We have set certain criteria to assess these potential candidates. The criteria include the individual’s personal qualification, education, and social background. After receiving all the applications, we send them to a more general electoral complex that acts on the level of the governorate. We study the applicants again and then send their files to the party’s higher board to decide on the final selection.
Do you have any plans as to whether your party plans to establish alliances with other political parties for the upcoming elections?
We need to clarify that there is a difference between alliances and coordination. Alliances mean that we run in joint proportional lists and that is a difficult task to achieve with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). This is for two reasons. The first is that we are both large parties that are widely popular. If candidates of Al-Nour Party and FJP ran on the same lists, we would both lose seats. This would be a loss for the Islamists. If we spread ourselves over several proportional lists, we will increase our probability of securing more seats in the parliament. For example, if every list includes four candidates, we can potentially end up with eight seats. But if we all joined the same list, we would limit our chances of winning a larger number of seats.
The second reason that an alliance with the FJP may prove difficult is that some members of Al-Nour Party do not like the Ikhwan, and vice versa. Why would we have candidates from both parties on the same list? For example, if a voter favors Al-Nour Party candidates but dislikes FJP candidates, he will likely not vote for a list that features candidates from both parties together. But if our candidates run separately, the voter will have a greater choice and will be able to select the leaders he truly wants to represent him. Running on the same list would be a loss for both parties. However, when it comes to individual candidates, our parties can coordinate. This is very probable. So, we agree to coordinate for individual candidates but not for candidates running on proportional lists.
As for alliances with other parties, we are still undecided. It is likely that we will collide with other Islamist parties like Al-Asa’la, the Construction and Reform Party, and others, as we have in past elections. You have to know that such Islamist parties are limited to certain constituencies, unlike the FJP, which is active in almost all governorates.
Do you consider Al-Watan party, now headed by former Al-Nour Party president Abdel Ghafour, a fierce rival in the next elections?
We have very good relations with Al-Watan Party on a personal level. We only differ in terms of our political ideology. Their political progamme is not yet fully formed, so we withholding judgment until the party has a chance to develop.
But are you planning to either coordinate or collide with Al-Watan Party?
It is too early to decide on such a matter. This is not an individual decision; it is a resolution that has to come from all the members of the high executive board.
The recent resignation of Abdel-Ghafour and his deputy has left a negative impression on us as party members. We had given Abdel-Ghafour complete responsibility over the party, only to suddenly find out that disagreed with some of our views and secretly collided with other figures such as Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. This has given us a bad impression of him.
What are your expectations for the coming elections?
We are going to compete fiercely with the aim of securing as many parliamentary seats as possible. I expect that we will win more seats than those secured in the last parliamentary elections. I have observed that people noticed our credibility and our strong stance regarding the issue of implementing Islamic shari’a. People have also felt this during the drafting of the constitution in the constituent assembly. You have to know that Egyptians, by nature, are fond of their shari’a and want to apply it in their daily life.
This is not my personal opinion; I am basing this on the results of several opinion polls conducted by internal and external organizations. In the Constituent Assembly, and particularly in the committee where I used to work, we have received around 7,000 requests demanding that Islamic shari’a to be the main source of legislation. Therefore, people have renewed their trust in this issue. Also, during our participation in the previous parliament, we managed to offer help and services to people throughout the day and night.
There are some concerns, particularly from minorities in Egypt, regarding the implementation of shari’a. How would you respond to this?
This is not true. Minorities, namely Copts, do not see the genuine comfort and honesty except within the framework of Islamic shari’a. In 1985, late Pope Shenouda stated that Copts in Egypt had lived in peace thanks to Islamic shari’a. He said that if foreign rules had to regulate Copts, they would never find better than the rules of Islam.
Also, our Islamic shari’a guarantees non-Muslims their full right to freely practice their religion. Our Islamic shari’a obliges us as Muslims to protect them, their properties and houses of worship. Their rights are not granted by Muslims as a favor, but rather it is a strict duty in Islam.
Copts have lived peacefully in Egypt for many centuries. Individual incidents of attacks on churches were orchestrated by foreign hands, which aimed to split the country in two. After the revolution, there was no single attack on Copts reported. We as Salafis have been protecting Christians and their churches. They have witnessed this security themselves.
I believe that foreign hands try to paint a negative impression about Salafis, in order to make people of Islamists more generally.
Some Copts are now asking to join Al-Nour Party’s proportional lists. One well-known Coptic female politician has asked me personally to join the party. We are still debating if we will have Christians in our lists. It depends on their qualifications. After dealing with us closely in the previous parliament, Copts have changed their opinion about us and want to coordinate even more.
What is your stance regarding the rank of female candidates on proportional lists?
We object to having female candidates in the top third of the list. I have rejected this idea during national dialogue sessions held in the presidential palace. Having women in a certain place in the proportional lists means that we give them special treatment and this is considered a kind of discrimination that goes against our recently passed constitution. Our constitution ensures that all citizens are equal regardless of gender.
There are other minorities who could also ask to be ranked higher in the proportional lists, such as persons with disabilities, Copts, or the youth. Why do females in particular want to be ranked higher? Our objection to this idea comes from our conviction that a candidate’s qualifications should be the main criterion on which they are judged, not gender.
However, we appreciate the role of females in society. There is no religion on Earth that values women as much Islam. Women raise all the men in society but this work is not acknowledged in the media. Women work on the ground and we do not have to show them off to highlight their role in life.