“Our [political] party is overtly secular and we do not shy away from announcing our real position. We believe in the separation of religion and State, and religion and politics. We will work towards achieving that end.”
This is how Hisham Auf, co-founder and deputy of the founders of the Egyptian Secular Party, began his talk with Watani. The new secular party which is still under foundation, has been exposed to a fierce media campaign that claimed it propagates ‘atheism’, immorality and adultery.
What prompted you and others to found the Egyptian Secular Party?
We are going through hard times, on both the regional and local levels. Many in the region appear determined to drag us backwards to the Middle Ages when regional relations were based on religion and customs such as ethnic cleansing, slavery, war spoils, and other decadent practices prevailed. Today, efforts to return the region back to this era [under the pretext of returning to pure Islamic values] have led to the collapse of four States: Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. This makes it all the more important for us to steer clear of religious sectarianism and establish a stream that calls for secularism.
On the local level, there were attempts to impose religious rule on Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. The Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) gained power and Muhammad Mursi, a MB, was elected President in 2012, albeit with a narrow margin. Egyptians rebelled against Islamist rule and overthrew Mursi in 2013 after exactly one year in office.
Today, we still have to reckon with Islamist terrorism and with the after-effects of the Islamist rule even though it is no longer there. The Salafis who, like the MB, call for the application of pure Islamic teachings, are everywhere. The conservative Islamic institution of al-Azhar, the world authority on Sunni Islam, enjoys unprecedented prerogatives. The Salafi Nur Party is operating freely and has declared its intention to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections, even though our Constitution bans religious-based parties. The argument they use to justify their intention is that they are not a religious-based party. Basing on their declarations and actions, this argument is almost laughable.
Deplorably, the political parties currently active on Egypt’s political scene have done nothing to stem the Islamist political tide; they do not reject Salafi influence nor do they even mention the need for a secular State. They are busy attempting to make political deals. We do not monopolise secularism, but no-one else has shown the remotest interest in positively establishing a secular State.
How does the party view secularism?
Secularism, as we see it, is not only about civil rights, but also involves an economic perspective directly connected to the livelihoods of Egyptians. Over the past decades, Egypt incurred huge losses on account of attempts to impose Islamic rule. To cite but one example, terrorist operations by Islamists who called for religious rule wreaked havoc with Egypt’s tourist industry and cost the country billions of Egyptian Pounds in attempts to fight terrorism. If used instead for development, the country could have reaped a rich harvest.
Moreover, discrimination against Copts led to a ‘brain drain’ that depleted Egypt’s creative and hard-working human resources. We lost many of our best and brightest, at a time when other countries tactically planned to attract them.
The absence of freedom of literary and artistic expression also pulled Egypt’s cinema and creative arts back, despite the fact that Egyptian cinema has to its credit more than a hundred years of rich experience that pioneered this field in the entire Arab World.
How does the new party intend to target the Egyptian street?
We will try to reach the public through the professional syndicates, universities, and social networking. We will attempt to raise interest in our work through exposing taboo issues such as the forced displacement of minorities—more often than not Copts—basing on sectarian reasons, discrimination against women, female circumcision, and many other issues. At a later stage we will tackle the rampant corruption in local government.
Currently, however, we will try to gain ground through earning points with the public. Our target is not yet to become a majority party, only a minority with influence and impact.
Some believe that you endeavour to separate only Islam from the State; could you comment on that?
Yes, many do think we are trying to disengage Islam and the State. But the fact is that we are against all connection between politics and any religion or cult. Our problem is not with the Church or Islamic institutions, but rather with the State whose mission is to serve citizens, not to guarantee them a passage to Paradise.
A case in point is the issue of family law for Christians, especially where marriage and divorce are concerned. The story goes back to the era of Muhammad Ali in the 19th century when the Egyptian State decided to register marriages and divorces for the sake of securing issues of lineage and inheritance. Owing to the strong religious feelings in the community, the person chosen to act as this ‘notary’ was in case of Muslims a scholar of sharia and, in case of Christians, a priest.
The system persists till today. Muslims have no problems with issues of marriage, divorce, or remarriage since the laws in this regard follow Islamic sharia which is accepted by all Muslims. But some Christians feel the Church is overly strict in its divorce laws and would like more lenient laws. We as a secular party have no issue at all with the Church applying the teachings of the Bible, but the State should do its bit in registering the marriage and divorce of any citizen who chooses to have a civil marriage. Again, this does not in any way mean that we wish to force the Coptic Church to go against its principles because, simply, this is not our business. We only seek to give individuals other options, because ‘rigidity’ in such issues only serves to increase the number of informal, unregistered urfi marriages that secure no legal rights for wives or children.
Does the party intend to field candidates for the coming parliamentary elections?
Our first priority now is to build the party base. It is not right to rush into the elections without securing that first.
We would like to know the party’s attitude towards the issue of the ‘Egyptian Identity’ as opposed to currents that say Egypt is predominantly Arab Muslim.
Our party is built on two bases: secularism and Egyptianness. But our identity as uniquely Egyptian should in no way mean that we are against Arabs. Politically, we are committed to Egypt’s treaties with other countries and our obligations towards the Arab World with which our history, interests, and very lives are intertwined. Egypt should nurture good relations with her Arab neighbours and cordial sentiments towards them. But we are no Arab nationalists, only Egyptian. Egypt comes first.
How do you see the current situation in Egypt, and what are your main issues of concern?
We do not see matters from a 0/1 perspective. We back the current State and all its institutions, but we see space for a lot of improvement.
We strongly back the State in its war against terrorism.
Education tops our list of priorities. It has to be based on critical thinking not the rote learning which best produces the terrorist, fanatic non-critical mentality.
The party is against spending State funds on religious education, as in Azhari schools and institutes; we believe that religious education may be handled by civil societies. We also object to the current practice of teaching religion—whether Islamic or Christian—in schools. This only works to emphasise the divide between pupils or students of different religions. If needs be, religion may be taught as one inclusive curriculum for all, or ethics may be taught instead.
We have a specific stance vis-à-vis al-Azhar. We see that it is unwarranted for the State budget to include some EGP11 billion a year of taxpayer money to spend on an institution concerned with a specific religion or ideology.
An issue of special concern for us concerns what we term ‘defective’ laws, among them the law of disdain of religions. There is a very thin, ill-defined line between criticism and disdain. Consequently, the law has been used oppressively.
There are also the issues of rampant discrimination against non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, and women in the fields of government jobs; universities; high ranks in the police, judiciary and army; inheritance; domestic violence; forced displacement and suchlike.
The Egyptian Secular Party seeks modern constitutional rights which translate into well-defined laws, and is totally against traditional methods that bypass the law and root the principles of clan or tribal loyalties and privileges. This only serves to create a parallel State that conflicts with the modern State.
How do you see the future of Egypt?
The entire world is marching towards modernity, and Egypt cannot afford to be left behind.
12 August 2015