Interview – 18 November 2012
Dr. Amr Hamzawy, former MP for Heliopolis, founder and president of the Egypt Freedom Party, is professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, and author of several books, including “Between Religion and Politics” (co-authored with Nathan Brown, 2010) and “Civil Society in the Middle East” (2003). He tweets @HamzawyAmr. Augustin Sabran spoke with him for ArabsThink. Augustin wrote an earlier article on constitutional politics in Egypt.
How would you define your political affiliation?
Amr Hamzawy: I was elected in 2012 as an independent liberal candidate in the district of Heliopolis in Cairo. I set up a new party called the Freedom Egypt Party, which was founded in 2011 after the revolution. We push for the respect of individual human rights, equality between men and women, between Christians and Muslims, and a liberal political system committed to social justice. In Europe, we would be identified as social-democrats.
Are you involved in any way in the drafting of the new constitution?
Amr Hamzawy: I was elected in the first assembly from which I resigned because I didn’t agree with the formation of this constituent assembly as many liberal and secular parties did. We were comforted in our stance when the administrative court brought down this first assembly on grounds of electoral irregularities (parliamentarians had elected themselves to the assembly). I boycotted the formation of the actual assembly and criticized it as unbalanced, not representative of civil society because of the lack of women’s and Christians’ representation and overwhelming Islamist presence. Most of the liberal parties did the same, but it doesn’t mean we are giving up. As stated in the latest draft released, the publication should lead to public discussions, and you can be sure that we are keeping a close eye on the work done by the committee. Regarding the coming agreement which will be reached by the constituents, we will publish a statement before the referendum expressing our views.
The Egyptian political scene is often portrayed as an opposition between an Islamic and a secular front. To what extent do you agree with this view?
Amr Hamzawy: I simply don’t agree with this view. We have a great deal of political diversity in Egypt. If you consider the so-called Islamic front: they are actually very much divided. You have the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and other previously violent groups such as the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya which won 13 seats in the 2011 Parliamentary election. The notion that the Islamic political spectrum is more unified than the secular one is a myth. Their advantage is a greater organizational and financial potential. They know how to participate in and win elections, whereas we are recent political parties and still have to find our way through the system.
Is the debate on the article 2 an important issue? Do you foresee any agreement on this issue?
Amr Hamzawy: Compared to the 1971 constitution, the article 2 in the recent draft remains unchanged, it stipulates that “the principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation”, which is part of our national identity. The question now is to see how these principles will be applied. We need guarantees that Sharia will not affect negatively the equality between man and woman, Muslims and Christians, and will preserve the freedom of belief. Article 37 on freedom of belief and religion only refers to “divine religions” that is to say Islam, Christianity and Judaism. What about the followers of non-Abrahamic religions such as the Baha’is? In the current draft, the mandate of Al-Azhar, which is defined as an independent authority, is relatively restricted. It would only be consulted on particular matters pertaining to Sharia and would not have any final word on the legislative process.
Some people say that Islamic parties might confiscate the revolutionary process like it happened in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah. Is this a realistic prediction?
Amr Hamzawy: There is a danger of course. It is important to make a difference in democracies between elected officials and the state bureaucracy. The ones elected are politicians by nature, they are the President, the Prime-Minister, advisors etc. The latter should not have any political colour. My concern is that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to draw away the bureaucracy from its required neutrality. This growing monopoly could well turn into a dictatorship. We have to be extremely aware and vigilant.
If unified, would the secular front be a considerable counter-influence in the parliament?
Amr Hamzawy: Of course, but unification comes with time. Revolutions are often followed by a great deal of political agitation, with hundreds of parties competing for power, unification and polarization of the political scene only come later. Look at my movement; it has only 20.000 members, which is nothing. But it is normal, in its early stages, a political party is always a weak institution. The danger is that we are in the middle of a big fight over the Constitution, and it requires that we work together. I am highly involved in the search for a common ground statement by the main civil parties, and the latest meetings I attended were really encouraging. I believe there is space for further unification, and the drafting of the Constitution presents a great opportunity in this sense.
Since the end of Mubarak regime, have you noticed any change in the new government’s attitude toward freedom? Are the newspapers freer for example?
Amr Hamzawy: Yes definitely. There is a feeling that citizens are allowed to do things which were unconceivable two years ago. They live freely, express their view freely, in the media landscape as well as in the broader public space; the move toward freedom is unquestionable. We witness different marches every day and the security forces don’t interfere. This new freedom can have negative side effects: two weeks ago I was in Tahrir square marching with the liberal parties and we were attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Yet, there were no security forces to be seen. The army and the police still have to learn how to react peacefully when such violent demonstrations occur, but once again, it takes time.
Are you going to run in the upcoming legislative elections?
Amr Hamzawy: Definitely!