31 July 2011
When the liberal Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar (Free Egyptians) political party was formed following the 25 January Revolution, it became a major focal point. While it gained many supporters, it was also widely criticised, and so were its founders. Watani talked to Naguib Sawiris, the Coptic tycoon who founded Al- Misriyeen al-Ahrar.
Why did you decide to form a new political party instead of considering coalition with other parties such as Al-Gabha (The Front) or Al-Misry al-Dimocrati (The Egyptian Democrat) who were already on the scene?
Diversity is needed, and for the time being liberal parties need to gain momentum and attract the largest number of supporters. But we will be forming a united front with other liberal parties for the upcoming elections, especially that now parties which claimed to be liberal went on to forge coalitions with the Muslim Brotherhood. The coalition between ‘liberal’ and religious-based parties has now compelled true liberals into uniting to take a firm stance. We will not let Egypt turn into another Iran. We do not want a religious State; a State has no religion, it is the human being who embraces a certain religion. Neither is there, the world over, such a thing as a ‘civil State with a religious reference point’ as some quasi-Islamists claim.
What is the reason behind your choice of Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar for the party’s name, instead of Al-Ikhwan al-Misriyeen (The Egyptian Brotherhood) that you originally intended?
We first intended to name the party Al-Ikhwan al-Misriyeen in order to counter Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoun, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), but I decided I desired no clash with the MB. At Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar we, Christians and Muslims, respect all regardless of religion, and believe we should all coexist as Egyptians, so we thought we would exclude the previously proposed name and not provoke the MB.
Does the party count on garnering votes from Egyptians abroad in the upcoming elections?
Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar is the only party that participated in international seminars abroad. We believe that Egyptians abroad constitute a point of strength that sustains the road to democracy, especially in that they live within different communities and have diverse experiences from which we can benefit. I believe they should participate in the coming legislative and presidential elections; any circumvention of this right is a violation of the Constitution.
Who is the prospective party head for Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar? And how many parliamentary seats will the party run for?
We have not chosen anyone yet, but we will soon run elections in the party to select a head. I will not nominate myself, since I do not wish to look as though I plan to impose my opinion on the party. My main aim in founding the party was for me, my children and family to live in a civil State. I cannot live in a religious State, since this contradicts personal freedom.
Our party is open to everyone and includes people from all walks of life, from various regions, social classes and religions. We should renounce sectarian-based thought and embrace citizenship-based thought.
The party will be running for all the seats, considering our expected coalition with other liberal parties.
Will the party financially support its nominees during elections?
No, every candidate is on his own budget. I personally cannot financially support the party, because this will be imposing the founder’s funds on the party and I am completely against that.
The party has been criticised for embracing western, liberal, secular thought, and you came under fire for ‘insulting Islam’ and ‘deriding the Islamic veil for women’. How do you defend that?
The party is indeed a liberal, secular party. Some consider liberalism and secularism as insults, but I think we should all agree that religion is a relationship between God and man which the State has nothing to do with.
I never ‘insulted Islam’. It is unacceptable for the media to take words said in an interview out of context. I had just used a very common expression invoking ‘religion’ in general, and used by most Egyptians to express discontent.
As for my opinion regarding veiled women, as a liberal I believe that attire is a personal freedom. But I do see that Egyptian women’s style of clothing has been lately changing, with the veil becoming a staple scene on the Egyptian street. Such attire is far removed from our traditional Egyptian culture.
What if Egypt ends up under religious rule?
If this happens we will confront it with all legal ways possible, especially since it would be a violation of the Constitution and would drag Egypt to a very serious turn. With all due respect to both Islam and Christianity, we absolutely renounce a religious State. If Egypt becomes an Islamic State, Copts will definitely be marginalised and belittled, even though as Egyptians they lay claim to the same rights and duties as Muslims.
Will the party exert pressure on the Military Council to postpone the legislative elections?
I am against pressure; I am more for civilised, peaceful dialogue. As a 50,000 member-strong credible party, Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar can attempt a dialogue with the Military Council to point out that the elections should run within a peaceful, safe, transparent climate and that this is reason enough to postpone them. The problem is that even though religious parties do not hold a public majority, all their members are active. The silent majority acts as though it does not realise the extent of the danger Egypt faces at the hands of supporters of a religious State
I appeal to all Egyptians to join liberal parties, because this alone can ensure the birth of a civil State.
How do you assess Coptic participation in political life?
The general passivity of Copts lies behind the problems we today suffer from, but this passivity has been ongoing throughout the rule of former regimes. I call on the Copts to leave the comfort of their homes and join truly liberal parties. This is a turning point in the history of Egypt, and if Copts choose not to be active, let them not complain about what is yet to come. Christ Himself expects us to bravely but peacefully pursue our rights. It must be admitted, however, that Copts have, since the sectarian trouble in Umraniya last November, taken a very positive attitude towards demanding their rights.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Until a couple of months ago I was very pessimistic, but after the success of Al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar I can look at matters more positively, even if cautiously. One cannot simply overlook the instability that is still everywhere around us. But still, I am optimistic.