Putting God at the Center

Egyptians protested against the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo last month, part of a surge of dissent over the past year.
Egyptians protested against the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo last month, part of a surge of dissent over the past year. (By Aladin Abdel Naby -- Reuters)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 8, 2005

CAIRO

In his cramped second-floor office perched over the chaos of Kasr al-Aini street, Abul-Ela Maadi waves his hand over the smudged binders, yellowed notebooks, dusty videotapes and bags of memorabilia that chronicle his quixotic, nearly decade-long struggle to secure government approval for Egypt's first Islamic political party.

"Look here," the cheerful Maadi beckons, pointing to one cluttered shelf. "And there," he gestures toward another.

The dates tell the story: 1996, one file reads. 1997, another. 1998, 1999, 2000 and so on, packed with thousands of articles and interviews by Maadi and his followers in their attempt to prove that their brand of political Islam has a place in the mainstream.

"It's a long history," he says, shaking his head and smiling. He pauses, seeming to savor the memories of his fight. "Through all these 10 years, we've kept busy. Some of our friends say that if you turn on the faucet, Abul-Ela Maadi will come out."

After spending months in jail, enduring the ostracism of some Islamic activists and fending off the suspicions of secular forces, Maadi now stands on the brink of finally winning a license for his party, once hailed on the front pages of Arabic-language newspapers as a new force for moderation in the tortured history of the region's Islamic politics.

A panel last month recommended its approval to an appeals court in Cairo that will make a final decision Oct. 2. The court usually abides by the recommendation, although senior Egyptian officials will have final say in a decision that virtually everyone acknowledges is far more political than judicial.

Approval would mark a vindication for Maadi's ideas, and a turning point for Egypt's government, which for decades has relentlessly blocked the entry of religion into the center stage of politics. It would highlight, too, the changing landscape of Arab politics. Amid the attention generated by attacks such as the July 23 bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh, a quieter struggle over Islam's relationship to power stands as perhaps the most decisive issue in the region's still uncertain democratization. Political and avowedly peaceful forces under the banner of Islam still hold the greatest sway at the grass roots in Egypt and elsewhere; U.S. pressure has ironically given them more space.

For Maadi, a model of persistence, it would validate a strategy that, from the start, he cast as a game of golf.

"You have four shots," he says, sitting in a sparsely decorated office adorned with a clock, a Koranic inscription and a picture of a Kentucky horse farm he visited last year. "On the first shot, you can't see the hole, but you know where it's at. This is our technique. I knew what I needed in the end, but I didn't know exactly when and how. I just needed the first shot to be in the right direction."

An activist fond of Pierre Cardin suits, with the trimmed beard of a devout Muslim, Maadi has stood as a forceful proponent of the kind of change the Bush administration says it supports in the Middle East -- democratic renewal, economic reform and individual freedoms. His fight over nearly a decade has put him at the forefront of Egypt's nascent political awakening, a surge of dissent and debate over the past year that has shaken the stagnation that has prevailed through President Hosni Mubarak's 24-year reign.

But in the contest between dictatorship and democracy, Maadi, his party and his quest have defied easy labels. He is a democrat but not western; progressive but religious. He denounces U.S. policy, particularly its alliance with Israel, but preaches engagement over confrontation. And he identifies himself as a new generation of politician, with a mission that has set him apart.


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