Ahmed Fouad's article in Al-Monitor Is Egypt ready for a secular party? is about a recent attempt to form a secular party in Egypt. It is called Egyptian Secular Party (الحزب العلماني المصري). The article also traces three previous attempts to start such a party in Egypt. All of these attempts failed as Fouad explained:
- In 2004, Mohsen Lotfi al-Sayed and other intellectuals submitted incorporation request for a secular party Hizb-Masr al-Um (Mother Egypt Party). This request was rejected by the chamber of political parties’ affairs. After removing the reference to secularism from the incorporation charter and changing the name to Al Hizb al-Masri al-Liberali (Liberal Egyptian Party), another request was submitted but it was also rejected by the Mubarak administration.
- In 2011, novelist Alaa Hamed claimed that he wanted to start a secular party but was attacked by some Salafi leaders of Zifta city. Zifta residents denied his claim but no party was established. Fouad informs that Hamid was convicted of blasphemy in 1990 because of his book, The Void in a Man’s Mind: God’s Trial,
- In July 2013, after President Morsi's ouster in a coup, Shiite leader Bahaa Anwar called for the establishment of a secular Fajr Party and demanded disbanding of all religious parties. The name of the party was later changed to Secular Egypt Party but again no party was registered.
Egyptian Secular Party is formed by a group of people, most well-known of which is Hesham Ouf. Ouf is an Egyptian businessman and his previous political experience is limited to owning a marketing research firm that worked for Mohamed ElBaradei’s and Amr Moussa’s campaigns in the 2012 presidential elections. Egyptian Secular Party, according to New secular party to 'challenge religious dominance', wants to separate religion from politics, abolish religious education, and limit the power of Al-Azhar University that according to the party has become a state within a state.
Egyptian Secular Party formation has been widely criticized. Its leaders have been called crazy, atheists, extremists and collaborators and its agenda has been declared unconstitutional and against religious values of the Egyptian people. The charge of unconstitutionality is based on two grounds. First, secularism is a termed a religion (as Islam, Judaism etc.) and as Egyptian constitution bans all religion-based political parties, it is declared that a secular party is also unconstitutional. Second, secular party is deemed unconstitutional because it is against sharia, which is a part of the Egyptian constitution.
Fouad is not very enthusiastic about this latest attempt to establish secular party because of the lack of support from the Egyptian state:
The chances of establishing the party remain remote, especially in light of the lack of a clear position by the state. Establishing the party anytime soon could be difficult, given the question of its constitutionality and opposition from those who consider it a violation of religious beliefs.
With it strong stance against political Islam and religion-based parties, it appears strange that Sisi's administration is not only not promoting this party but also reluctant to register it. Registering this party would have paid dividends outside Egypt as many Western governments would have more inclined to consider President Sisi a liberal and support him. However, the attitude of Sisi administration is non-committal. Why governments against political Islam are not supporting secularism when it also helps them improve their international standing and prospects of aid?
The main reasons appear to be an increasing mixing of Islam with nationalism and a general anger against the Western governments in the Muslim societies. These reasons can also be considered as a form of nativism that rejects the Western influences (but accepts its technological, scientific accomplishments) and searches for authenticity. Secularism, in this discourse and environment, is linked with the West, extreme liberalism and atheism and thus becomes illegitimate on two grounds. First, it is wrong because it is linked with the West which is termed as source of most of the troubles; hence the use of terms collaborators and traitors for secularists. Second, it is castigated because it is against Islam that is considered a 'native' religion and an Arab religion. Both these arguments are obviously false as there is a rich tradition of secularism in Islam and one can be a deeply religious Muslim as well as a secularist.
Muslim/Islamic secularism appears to be an oxymoron but it is not. Nader Hashmi in Islam, the State, and Political Authority: Medieval Issues and Modern Concerns (edited by Asma Afsaruddin) talks about a Muslim secularism which accepts (political, not philosophical) secularism 'while still maintaining a commitment to the principles and rituals of Islam.' This indigenous secularism is authentically Islamic, based on Islamic precepts, but is functionally secular. State is not against religion and religious groups are allowed in the public/political sphere but civil rights of minorities, women and others are rigorously protected.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im in his book Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a goes further and claims that secularism and secular state are more consistent with Sharia and history of Muslim societies than Islamic state and Sharia enforcement as a state law (p-268)
Despite criticism, Ouf is hopeful that his party would be registered:
The Constitution bans religious political parties, yet there are religious political parties operating. Why would the (government) committee then ban a secular political party, established in accordance with the Constitution?