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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 October 2005, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Egypt may allow first Islamist party
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst, Cairo

Prayer at a Cairo mosque
The moderate al-Wasat party advocates reform of Islamic Sharia law
An Islamist party in Egypt - which says a Christian can be head of state in a Muslim society - may become the country's first legal religious party before the end of the year, if a court rules in its favour.

Founders of the al-Wasat party have been trying for nearly 10 years to get a permission to operate. The party has already had its application turned down twice.

The Egyptian constitution bans political parties with a religious agenda.

It has long been argued that religious parties may sow sectarian conflict.

Muslims too are not able to grasp the idea of an Islamist party with Christian members
Abul Ila Madi

But unlike other Islamist groups, al-Wasat has invited Copts (Egyptian Christians) to join its ranks.

The party manifesto also says a Christian can become head of state in a predominantly Muslim society - a radical departure from orthodox Islamist ideology.

Egypt has a sizeable Christian minority, estimated at 5% to 10% of the population.

They complain of marginalisation and discrimination. There have been repeated incidents of sectarian violence and the emergence of militant Islam has only exacerbated their fear and sense of alienation.

'True Islam'

But al-Wasat says it is committed to giving Christians full citizenship rights.

Abul Ila Madi, one of the founders and chief ideologues of the party, told the BBC that "the majority has no right to impose its beliefs on the minority - or to ignore the rights of the minority".

Pope Shenouda III spreads incense at Cairo Cathedral during a midnight mass on Coptic Christmas Day
Copts make up 5% to 10% of the Egyptian population

He adds that that it is an uphill struggle to convince both Christians and Muslims of the viability of his party: "I have Christian friends in Egypt. Many of them are convinced by our political ideas - but in the current climate in the country, they are afraid to join us.

"Muslims too - are not able to grasp the idea of an Islamist party with Christian members. So, we have a problem with both sides.

"We need to convince the majority that [our vision] is the true Islam and at the same time convince the minority to become partners."

But Mr Madi has yet to win his legal battle with the state before he can hope to win the hearts and minds of a sceptical Christian minority and the incredulous Muslim majority.

Application delay

Under Egyptian law, the programme of a new party has to be different from that of existing parties to be granted a licence to operate.

We may be faced one day with someone who says Islamic Sharia calls for banning Christians from presiding over Muslims... this is the dark side that is not mentioned clearly when they paint the rosy picture of Copts getting equal rights
Youssef Seidhoum
Editor of the Coptic newspaper, Watani

The last time al-Wasat applied for a licence, the committee in charge of licensing political parties - which is controlled by the ruling National Democratic party - concluded that al-Wasat did not meet this condition and rejected its application.

The founders appealed against the decision, and a panel of legal experts concluded that the party programme was indeed distinctive. A court was due to rule on the matter on 1 October, but the decision has been postponed upon the request of the government.

Mr Madi says the government lawyers claimed they needed more time to read the 10-page report written by the legal experts back in June. Predictably, he suspects foul play. He says the ruling NDP does not want his party to contest the forthcoming parliamentary election due in November.

Appeal to the religious

The party manifesto could become a vote winning formula by appealing to religious sentiments of broad sectors of Egyptian society without disenfranchising the Christian minority.

Most Egyptians are religious and that is why al-Wasat believes that both Christians and Muslims in Egypt share fundamentally the same conservative outlook.

Al-Wasat - which means moderate in Arabic - calls for the implementation of Islamic Sharia law - but it adopts a modern interpretation which gives women and Christians full citizenship rights and guarantees freedom of expression and belief.

If al-Wasat were leading the government, apostasy - changing one's religion - would not be punishable by death as mainstream Islam requires.

But applying Islamic Sharia law is precisely what worries Egyptian Copts.

Reformed Sharia

Youssef Seidhoum, the editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani, welcomes al-Wasat's offer of full citizenship rights, but has concerns about government under Islamic Sharia.

"We may be faced one day with someone who says Islamic Sharia calls for banning Christians from presiding over Muslims. And we are going to give you Christians all the citizenship rights that do not contradict Islamic Sharia," Mr Seidhoum said.

"Now this is Islamic Sharia - and this is the dark side that is not mentioned clearly when they paint the rosy picture of Copts getting equal rights."

Nevertheless, al-Wasat offers itself as a moderate alternative to the country's most powerful Islamist group, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which has condemned its ideas.

But if al-Wasat gets its licence, and if it can win the trust of Egypt's Christian minority, it will be a dramatic breakthrough for political opposition in Egypt.

Islamists could at last have a platform that is legal and which seeks to offer a new balance between traditional Islamic values and secularism.

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