Putting God at the Center
Mixing Politics and Religion, Abul-Ela Maadi Hopes To Steer Egypt's Islamists Toward the Mainstream

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 8, 2005


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.

"How do we integrate Islamists into political life?" asks Maadi. "I want to set an example on how to solve this problem."

An engineer by training, Maadi, 47, has long been a force in Egypt's Islamic politics. As a student in Minya, a poor rural town in the south, he joined the Islamic Group in the 1970s, before it took up arms against the government in a long, bitter fight that finally ended in the late 1990s. Maadi never went in that direction, although like other activists, his affiliation with Islamic politics landed him repeatedly in jail. He emerged relatively unscathed from four stints, never staying longer than seven months.

He joined the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood in 1979, a group that has weathered ferocious crackdowns, instilling in it the iron discipline of a clandestine movement. (Its followers adhere to an Islamic version of omertà: al-sama' wa'l-ta'a , hearing and obeying.) He rose quickly as one of its young, dynamic activists, who with his generation helped reshape the group's activism in the 1980s, in particular by playing a more prominent role in Egypt's professional unions. Maadi became a member of the engineers union in 1984, then its deputy secretary general, an experience he credits with maturing his politics .

In 1996, he and other younger Brotherhood members broke ranks, a dispute that still colors Islamic politics here. That year, he announced the formation of the Center Party, pledging to welcome women and even Christians into its ranks. (One of the founders was a Christian, Rafik Habib.) It embraced democracy as the means of change, equality between Christians and Muslims, the supremacy of the rule of law, pluralism and, in an unusual step for a religious group, called for coalitions with secular parties.

The government soon rejected his application. The party offered nothing new, a government committee ruled.

Then, over the objections of his Brotherhood allies, he appealed in court. Many of his co-founders, reluctant to alienate the Brotherhood, resigned. The Brotherhood, furious at open dissent, threatened to expel others. In one of the more memorable moments, the Brotherhood began working in court, with the very government that had once set out to destroy it, to stop Maadi's party.

A stormy court session followed in February 1997, with the animosity only a divided family can know.

The Brotherhood, argued one of the party's lawyers before a judge, "will not be forgiven by history."

For a few moments, the Brotherhood lawyer was silent. "God has to forgive us," he said finally, "not history."

The court rejected Maadi's appeal on May 9, 1998. Forty-eight hours later, Maadi announced a new party, the Egyptian Center Party. The government rejected it that year; a court rejected his appeal the following year. In 2004, he tried again under another name, the New Center Party. Another government rejection followed, as did another appeal, which sits before the court today.

In the meantime, Maadi was jailed for five months for subversion (eventually found not guilty), applied for a newspaper license (still pending after eight years) and sought approval (granted in 2000, to Maadi's surprise) for a civic group called Egypt: For Culture and Dialogue.

"He's a fighter. Really, he's a fighter," says Habib, who left after the party was rejected a second time, in 1999. "After 10 years with no legal recognition, and he's still fighting."

Married, with five children, Maadi comes across as anything but martial. He has a politician's passion to curry favor, but his expansive personality is tempered by a sharp mind and the sometimes overwhelming dedication of a reformer who senses his ideas might be remembered. During his trial before a military court in 1996, for subversion, he smiled in nearly every photo taken, patiently thumbing his yellow worry beads.

"I was optimistic throughout," he says. "Some people would ask, 'Why are you optimistic?' I said, 'If you want change, you have to lead it.' Optimism gives you motivation to change the situation. Optimism can be very powerful."

Islamic activists are famous for saying one thing in private, another in public; one thing in English, another in Arabic. Across much of Egypt's political spectrum, Maadi and his followers are respected for speaking one language: pluralism, moderation and democracy, against the backdrop of what they view as an Islamic civilization shared by the country's Christians and Muslims.

His criticism of U.S. policy in Israel and Iraq -- standard fare in the region -- remains sharp and uncompromising. The party explicitly endorses Islamic law, known as sharia , although the legal code, Maadi argues, should be open to constant and fundamental reinterpretation -- from the necessity of the veil, to the idea of women and Christians serving as judges, even to the payment of interest, widely considered forbidden under that code. The interpretation in one country, he said, may differ from that in another. Of the most recent party's 200 founders, 49 are women (some unveiled) and seven are Christians.

In fact, some mainstream Islamic thinkers believe he goes too far: A Christian, he argues, can lead a Muslim nation, as can a woman. (The Brotherhood rejects the first and says it's unsure on the second.)

"Battles are fought with weapons, and illegality is a weapon for your enemy," Maadi says. "If you're peaceful and respect the law, even an unjust law, you will be stronger than your enemy. It's a very complicated game. You should be strong, brave but careful at the same time," he adds. "The path is treacherous, it's a field of thorns."

"They did not try to escalate, and that really strikes me," says Emad Eldin Shahin, an expert on Islamic movements at the American University of Cairo. "They have not tried to play an agitating role. They simply haven't."

With rare exceptions, Maadi's secular colleagues, on a newly effervescent political scene, view him as affable and engaging.

"He bridges gaps with everybody without really giving up the essentials of his thought," says Mohammed Sayed Said, a political analyst and member of a coalition of liberal and Islamic activists.

Nearly 10 years in, the government remains distinctly wary. Sanctioning the Center Party, some argue, would be the first step in bringing religion directly into politics.

"Once you get the genie out of the bottle, you cannot predict what will happen," says Mohamed Kamal, a political science professor at Cairo University and a member of the influential Policies Secretariat in the ruling National Democratic Party.

"When you use a religious discourse, no one can counter your argument or argue against you," he says. "In that case, you'll be arguing against Islam and against the Koran. You'll no longer be a political opponent. Rather, you'll be an infidel."

In retrospect, the biggest contribution of Maadi and his ideas so far may be their impact today on the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which keenly follows the successes and failures of other Islamic parties in Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and Jordan.

In a region so long mired in stagnation and sclerotic politics, there is an undeniable moment of dissent underway. Along with it is a marked shift in the rhetoric of many Islamic activists, even as the trend's more militant aspects garner headlines.

A well-known Islamic scholar, Yusuf Qaradawi, turned heads last month when he declared on the pan-Arab network al-Jazeera and in a public meeting that "freedom comes before Islamic law."

Less pronounced the past year are the Brotherhood's traditional slogans: "The Koran is our constitution" and "Islam is the solution." ("Freedom is the solution," Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood's leader, said this summer.) In their place is an agenda that has called for the end of elements of martial law, free and fair elections, the release of detainees and permitting public freedoms.

Many question the Brotherhood's sincerity, even as they praise the shift of a movement that remains Egypt's single most powerful organization, able to turn out tens of thousands for protests, hundreds of thousands for the funerals of its leaders. Some, in fact, believe that the Brotherhood may eventually become a version of the Center Party, as it embraces the ideas that Maadi has championed.

"Imagine the Center Party's orientation with the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity, power and organizational skills," says Shahin, the American University professor. "I believe the Muslim Brotherhood is getting there. They are finally coming to a realization that they could be a civic political party without betraying Islam or their own understanding of what Islam should be."

In his office along Kasr al-Aini street, his cell phone ringing every few minutes with requests for interviews and calls from colleagues in the opposition coalition, Maadi smiles at the thought.

"Why not?" he asks, throwing up his hands. "This is our effect. If you can change the Muslim Brotherhood, make the Muslim Brotherhood more moderate, that is good for us and good for the country. That's a success for us."

Maadi sheds his sports jacket and looks again at the binders, notebooks and videocassettes, gathering dust. There are hundreds more, he says, in his home.

"We started almost 10 years ago, in November 1995. We have two or three months to complete 10 years of effort," he says.

He is silent for a moment, perhaps in reflection, then smiles again. "Now I remember the game of golf," Maadi says. "We shot once closer to the hole, and another even closer. And now we're on the final putt."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company