Q&A: Salafist politician Emad Abdel Ghafour

The head of Egypt’s Al Nour party talks about religion in politics, relations with Israel and democracy.

Emad Abdel Ghafour [Al Jazeera]
Emad Abdel Ghafour says that a ‘speedy transfer of authority to the civilians’ is Egypt’s only solution

Emad Abdel Ghafour is head of Al Nour party, the main Salafist party in Egypt. Al Nour came in second after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party with 25-30 per cent of the vote in the first two rounds of the Egyptian People’s Assembly elections.

The rise of Salafis and Al Nour came as a surprise to many especially outside Egypt. A year ago, Salafis had no political parties and hardly any political organisations. They also refrained from participating in politics and only focused on religious teachings from a conservative Islamic point of view.

Salafism as an ideology focuses on educating today’s Muslims about the teachings of the first Muslim generations, who are considered to be aware of the true instructions of the Quran and of the Prophet Mohamed.

Salafism, as a social and political movement, is considered a new phenomenon. After the 1967 war against Israel and the defeat of President Nasser’s version of socialism, Egyptian society turned into religion. Soon after, Salafism rose as a social movement. Today’s Salafis in Egypt are made of several groups focusing on teaching Islamic faith from a strict perspective that tries to follow the teaching of the first Muslim generation in literally everything, even when it comes to personal dress and appearance.  

After the January 25 revolution, Salafis made a large, unexpected shift by deciding to participate in politics, in order to safe-guard the Islamic identity of the nation. They formed several political parties, with the most prominent being is Al Nour. After recent elections, where they won about one quarter of the votes, the group is considered Egypt’s second most popular political party.

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Salafis and Al Nour were basically seen as an ultraconservative political group that threatened the tolerant nature of Islamic teachings in Egypt and that will isolate women, Copts, and secular groups.

After graduating from college as a physician in 1983, he has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, although he frequently visited Egypt.  

After the revolution, he led an effort to build consensus among Salafi scholars and activists on the need for Salafis’ political participation. He led the founders of the Al Nour Party and became its first president. 

Al Jazeera’s Alaa Bayoumi interviewed Abdel Ghafour in Cairo on the future of Egypt’s foreign policy, its current crisis, religion, and more. 

How do see the future of the Egyptian foreign policy?

Egypt is a pioneering and influential country. It has a cultural and religious leading role. It also has a central role when it comes to reaching a solution to the Middle East conflict.

Egypt, if strong, politically stable, and economically advanced, will be able to make the Israeli government reconsider its position before taking on another political adventure in the region.

A country with the cultural weight of Egypt, if it has freedom, will make Israel rush to reach a final solution for the Palestinian problem and to give the Palestinian people self-rule and their own state.

Do you support the two-state solution?

We accept what Palestinians accepted and we will accept what they will accept.

Will Al Nour seek to cancel or amend the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty?

When it comes to all the agreements that Egypt has signed, we have to respect them and demand their activation. There are many articles in the peace treaty that have not been activated, such as solving the Palestinian issue, giving Palestinians the right to self-determination, self-rule, and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. These are many articles whichif activated, will make the Palestinian people feel they benefitted from the peaceful process.

Some fear that you will push for a more antagonistic foreign policy, what is your response?

It is not true. The former regime is the one that led good relations with only one country, the United States, and was antagonistic with the rest of the world. Our interests are lost and neglected when it comes to relations with countries like Japan and China.

I received a letter from the Japanese ambassador complaining about the lack of economic co-operation between Egypt and his country despite the fact that his government has set up a fund to encourage trade with Egypt. It is clear that our relationship with countries like Japan were neglected because the former regime focused on strengthening his relationship only with the US.

So how do you see the future relationship with the US?

We have met some officials from the American Embassy who visited us in our office. We were also visited by a huge number of foreign ambassadors. We welcome dialogue and have no secrets. The American secretary of state has also said that she welcomes dialogue with political groups that respect the rules of democracy. 

“We reject a theocratic government,” says Salafi politician Emad Abdel Ghafour [Al Jazeera]

I want people to differentiate between the Salafis as a religious trend and [the] Al Nour Party as a political group. We are committed to the constitution under which all citizens are equal. We say that non-Muslims have the right to be nominated. And, we as a party have the right to support or not support such nomination. Any citizen has the right to run for any officeand if the base of my party nominated a Copt they have the right to do so.

Does this mean you will nominate a Copt for the office of the president?

The party is based on the Islamic principles and the majority of the party members believe that our priority is to choose a president who is interested in leading Egypt in a way that we have chosen. I believe the will of the majority of the party members will go to selecting a Muslim to be nominated for the position of the president.

What about your relationship with the liberal and secular forces in Egypt?

Since the first day our party was established we announce our readiness to ally with any political trend or group as long as we agree with them on the goals and means of our co-operation. We welcome any co-operation based on transparent and clear political rules.

In addition, the current period is sensitive and we want the coming government to be a national unity government representing all components of the Egyptian society. I believe any party that wins about 4 per cent of the vote should be represented in the government.

What kind of changes would you like to make in the new constitution?

The constitution that will be drafted will be close to the 1971 constitution. Any changes will be limited and related to the nature of the political regime whether presidential or parliamentarian. In this regard, I believe the majority is interested in a parliamentarian regime.

What kind of role will religious scholars play in new Egypt?

We reject a theocratic government. We are against such idea. And, if there is an issue that requires the opinion of the religious scholar, we will seek their opinion.

What about the role of the military as it will be drafted in the new constitution?

All political forces should have in-depth meetings to agree on this issue. The military should be ruled like any other institution. It is a large and sensitive institution. But, it has to submit to the will of the people. It should also have special treatment when it comes to national security and sensitive issues.

Will you demand a civilian minister for the defence department?

This is difficult at the current period.

Will you discuss the military budget before the parliament?

We have to study other constitutions and how they deal with this issue. Maybe there will be a special committee to discuss the budget of the military in order to not hurt national security or the reputation of the military. But it has to submit to democracy and the will of the people.

Do you see any political role for the military in the future?

I don’t think such role has any support among the political forces. The military will have its natural role. However, the infamous Turkish mode is rejected by all Egyptian political forces.

 How do you see the current political crisis in Egypt?

The military is a prominent institution and we are proud of it. But, it is not qualified to exercise civilian rule. The leaders of the military admit they were forced to take on a role which they were not qualified for and which they did not expect.

They took on such huge task with courage and a sense of responsibility. In such circumstances, it was expected that they will make mistakes because they were not ready to take care of such a role. Mistakes occurred. In addition, some domestic and foreign forces have been trying to drive a wedge between the people and the military.

Did you offer any solutions to such crisis?

We have suggested some solutions and we are discussing them. They might be accepted or rejected. I think they are ideal and we will wait and see.

Does such solution include handing over authority to a civilian government soon? 

A speedy transfer of authority to civilians is the only solution.

Do you want a cabinet other than the current one led by Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri?


Should such cabinet be formed by those parties which won in the elections?

Of course, I say that once the elections of the people’s assembly are over, authority should be handed over.

We should not wait until June 30. We can finish everything on January 10. We have to put an end to all of this. Keeping the military council as a target for traitors and conspirators is not in the best interest of the people or the military.

Some fear a coalition between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in the new parliament and cabinet that will exclude others.

A coalition between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis is very distant. A coalition between all political forces is more realistic. 

How do you explain the popularity of your party despite the fact that it was only formed last May?

People are fed up with the old parties and Salafis are many times more popular than the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the severe media campaign and attacks against us increase people’s sympathy and support for us.

We are also popular because of our social work in helping the poor, the sick and the needy. We lead people in prayers and advise them. I used to advise people before the revolution that they have to participate in politics to protect their interests.

We have more than 100,000 participants in the activities of our party and the number of our voter base is about 8-9m as ongoing elections are revealing.

In February, the party will hold its first elections. Our base will elect party trustees and a general assembly, which will elect a new president for the party.

Source: Al Jazeera