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Talking points and tensions

January 25, 2014 at 4:24 am

Three representatives of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party spoke in the Palace of Westminster recently where they were able to explain their plans and political vision. Invited by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), the FJP members were Fatema AbuZeid, an elected representative of the Constituent Assembly that will draft the Egyptian constitution; Dr Amr Darrag, the Secretary General of the Freedom and Justice Party in Giza; and Gaha El Heddad, a member of the Steering Committee for the FJP’s Renaissance Project.

The tension in the room was significant, exemplifying the divisions between the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and other political and religious groups in Egypt. Many members of the audience were Egyptians themselves. Dr Amr Darrag told them, “What we have achieved so far has been due to continuous pressure from the people of Egypt.” This pressure, he added, is absolutely necessary, and is exactly what he and the other two other FJP members were put under at this meeting. Much of the time was devoted to challenging, often pugnacious, questions from the floor seeking to expose the strengths and weaknesses of the party.

What became clear throughout the FJP representation was the strength of the party’s organisation and diplomacy. Questions were answered with little hesitation and strong rebuttals. Dr Darrag agreed with one member of the audience who implied that Egypt will have to change into a society which believes in a democratic, parliamentary system. The references to political change and acceptance in Egypt were interesting, yet it is fair to argue that it is a fear of the Islamist party itself which is creating the resistance to such change. According to Dr Darrag, Egyptian civil society must embrace the task of creating a new political culture in Egypt.

A large number of queries were raised about the fairness of representation in the Constituent Assembly; there are only five Christians and six women. The FJP panel acknowledged that both figures are low but that consensus from all major parties in parliament is needed to provide for an improvement in the way that minorities are represented. It was pointed out that only 48 members are tied to Islamic parties. Those who asked about the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Coptic Christians expressed concern about the FJP’s respect for the Copts’ presence in the country. Ms AbuZeid replied that the FJP does not call the Copts a minority because they are an important part of Egyptian society. For many in the room, this answer was inadequate.

The right of people to live with dignity lies at the heart of the political changes sweeping the Middle East, and Egypt is no exception, claimed Dr Darrag. In Tunisia, the uprising is known as the Revolution of Dignity. For Tunisia’s Al-Nahda Party and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, dignity begins with democracy and employment; the connection between the two is revealing. In Tunisia, unemployment played a key role in sparking-off the revolution. Answering a question about improvements to the education system in Egypt, Dr Darrag said that when the people are better educated, unemployed rates would fall.

The FJP representatives had to contend with some hecklers during the meeting – “This is not an answer!” cried some – and did so with confidence and aplomb. However, they were not really convincing when trying to explain their willingness to work with groups like the Copts; Egypt’s Christians still, apparently, believe that they will not be respected by the Muslim Brotherhood.

When one member of the audience began his question by claiming, “This is the most futile evening we’ve had, all of your answers are wishful thinking”, he appeared to miss the point; surely wishful thinking is an important aspect of the development of a democratic system after years of a dictatorship. Despite the criticism, therefore, meetings such as this are vital in the process of creating a society in which democratic freedoms are the norm, and creating in politicians the willingness to address the concerns of the people openly and honestly.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.