Interview with Magdi Hussein, chairman of the Islamic Labour Party, Egypt
Magdi Hussein has been imprisoned several times for political reason. His last arrest occurred in the aftermath of the April strike movement.
Q: How can socialism and Islam be combined?
We think that Islam is nearer to socialism than to capitalism. I do not mean Soviet-type Marxism but would refer rather to Social Democracy at least regarding the political implication but not the doctrine. Both free market liberalism as well as complete nationalisation by the state does not work. Here we believe that Marxism made a mistake - again not referring to the doctrine but to the actual political deeds. We believe in Islam as the third way, as an alternative to both. We look to the Scandinavian model where the state provides social security to the people.
Islam is keen to achieve social justice. Poverty must be eliminated. In principle we are all equal. So if you secure just circumstances like education and job opportunities for everybody the differences will be very minor. It is like at the Olympic Games. Not everybody starts on the same line. But this is just as those further outside got a longer way to go. So let's follow this metaphor in the economic and social life.
The Muslim Brothers (MBs) interpret Islam in a capitalist way and that is actually our difference with them. Our reading of Islam tends towards the left. We agree with the leftist analysis of imperialism and especially the US. Like the left we have observed the change from colonialism to neo-colonialism, from direct military role to more mediated instruments of domination like the IMF. Eventually we bear witness of the return to brute imperial force and occupation. The US is forced to resort to direct military intervention and occupation in our region because their puppet rulers are no more able to sustain the situation like here in Egypt, or like even more in Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Or look to the Gulf where you can speak also of a kind of American occupation. But that does not only apply to the Muslim world. They did the same in Latin America, see the example of Nicaragua. Now they are somewhat tied down here in the region, so they cannot wage war somewhere else. But this is only due to their weakness as they have no ethic values whatsoever.
Our alliance with the left here in Egypt and in the entire Islamic world is not purely tactic it is a real strategic choice. We appreciate the struggle of the leftist anti-imperialists across the world.
Q: Do you believe that Islam is important for the struggle because it is the religion of the region or because of Islam itself?
Both. Islam provides a general frame but gives complete freedom in applying it also by drawing from other ideas and cultures. We believe in God and we think that Islam provides a way to live and to rule life. But it is also important that Islam is our history, our ethics, our tradition our cultures. I cannot force you to believe in God. But we keep telling our leftists that they have to take these things into account otherwise they will never be accepted by our people.
Q: If you want to fight imperialism you need to decisively change property relations. You need to expropriate the big multinational co-operations, the oligarchy, the big landowners. Naser did so and was therefore fought by the Islamists. How can you advocate such measures and still remain within Islam?
Islam says that the universe is God's property. According to our understanding that means the predominance of the public sector, the ownership by entire society. It is simply not true that in Islam private property is untouchable. The owner cannot do whatever he wants regardless whether he harms somebody. Even the MBs keep wavering on this question. Sometimes they were in favour of taking from the land lords, sometimes they opposed it. Moslem law provides that if a land owner does not cultivate his land for three years you can take it from him. The leftist slogan "land to those who toil it" is completely Islamic. Property must remain within this frame otherwise the government must intervene on behalf of society. That does not necessarily mean expropriation but public control over the private sector. We need to study the Chinese experience. The state is the main thing. It should be the expression of public interest. Even we see in capitalism that the state controls and interferes in the economy. But we should not repeat the failed Soviet experience. Predominance of the public sector does not mean to nationalise everything even the smallest businesses. We believe in individual initiative. "Let a hundred flowers bloom", Mao said. But keep them under control.
Q: Today you find more billionaires in Egypt than in Canada. What would you do to them if you came to power?
They did not acquire their wealth legally. This is not an economic question and is not even linked to capitalism. They do neither invest nor produce. Even in the most capitalist countries prices sometimes decrease. But here it is different. If prices on the global market fall or import taxes are reduced this will not impact on the domestic consumer prices. It is pure robbery, parasitism. Every economic activity is centred around Mubarak's family. It is them to accumulate and distribute riches.
Q: What do you think of Amr Khaled [a popular TV preacher] saying it's ok to be rich?
Amr Khaled is not an Islamic thinker, he is only speaking about Islam for students, the youth, small people. He asks them to believe in God and to wear the Hijab, but he is no political thinker. There are Saudi channels behind and they are working against the real ethics of Islam. Yes, Islam believes that you can become rich but only in a straight way. In Islam, like in socialism, everything must be based on work and your fortune must correspond with your performance. Interest is forbidden in Islam.
Q: The Salafi interpretation of monotheism radically refuses the conception of popular sovereignty as they believe it is diametrically opposed to God's sovereignty. So property relations must remain as God endowed them. How do you confront this current which thinks to hold the only authentic reading of Koran?
Also in the time of the Prophet Mohamed there was the intervention of the state on behalf of public interest in the economy even if it was on a very primitive level like providing shelter for camels. In the Hadiths it is said that three things are for all: fire, water und soil. You can read fire as energy. So it is not acceptable that Mubarak sells our petrol to Israel as it is not his personal property. The same hold for the Sheikh of Kuwait. The oil does not belong to him. Or if private land is not used for agriculture or construction the government can take it in the interest of the public. This is also a Hadith, not only Fiq. Whatever is essential for live cannot be private but must be public.
Salafi people do not want to trouble themselves. They do not want to use their minds. Don't loose too much time with them. God does not make society run. It is upon us to organise it.
Q: Why couldn't Kifaya topple Mubarak?
Our people are Muslim, but Kifaya does in no way refer to Islam. They refused all our proposals. They are too secularist. But people are very devoted to Islam, they will at least today not accept a leadership of whom it is obvious that it is not Islamic. In real, free and fair elections Islamic forces would take the majority.
Even if you don't believe in God, from a pragmatic point of view, you must create socialism through Islam. Given the fact that Mubarak is the main danger, leftists must link up with Islamic forces. Actually secularism is the main reason for the fact the left cannot play a role.
Q: The main popular force is the MB. They don't support Mubarak, but without their passivity he could not continue. Do you think a split from the MB to your side is possible?
We try to push them but they move slowly. Look to the strike movement of April. They are under pressure as their mass base wants to take action. Many of their followers agree to our position and we believe that the passivity of the leadership contradicts even the teaching of Hassan al Banna, their founder. So they participate, half-heartedly, not frankly.
I don't think a split is possible, I think they have mechanisms to absorb all contradictions. They let everybody speak, but at the same time they maintain a basic common discipline. In the entire history of the MB, there was no split. They start with very small boys, the MB becomes your family, they have social and financial connections, they can facilitate your marriage, your work, they have a contract for you in Kuwait etc. So there are many extra-political reasons to preserve unity. We try to press their youth to change the line. We succeeded twice in the last years. We pushed them to take to the streets for political reforms and eventually they staged demonstrations, also by themselves. Secondly through the Gaza issue. We ask them to take action against the siege on Gaza but they were reluctant. So we began and they were under pressure. It was embarrassing for them that we defended Hamas and they did not. I think the April strike movement is the third step, another training for them. We hope that this trend of the youth can be further developed. But we should not forget that they don't share our thoughts. Actually they don't have a clear line. Everybody got his own interpretation to Islam. They have turn very pragmatic, everybody can say whatever he wants as long as he remains under their umbrella.
Q: Beside the multi-fold popular resistance, the main enemy of the US in the region is Iran. The last thing they want to risk is to loose Egypt. So they could set on the anti-Shiite mobilisation and force Mubarak to bring in the MB. For the pragmatic Americans it would not be an insurmountable problem to give the MB a significant share of power. Is there the danger for such a deal which could absorb the MB?
They were conceiving such a project two years ago. But after the electoral victory of Hamas they had to change their use of democracy. Look to what is going on in Turkey. They are crushing an economically successful government which is at the same time following their pattern - or at least they are not stopping their allies in doing so.
The real reason why the MB will not be integrated is the absolute No by Mubarak himself. His position towards the US is: "I am your servant. You can do whatever you want with Israel but do not touch my exclusive role as our slave. Thus you have to accept my son as my successor."
The MB cannot go against Iran. During the war against Lebanon, they were with Hizbollah. And they are also against the sectarian strife.
Q: That you think of the Sunni-Shiite conflict?
Islam is one but we believe in liberty of opinions. We regard Shiites as Muslims like us. Maybe there are some points we don't agree with. But we call to deal with people according to what they do, not by their denominations, regardless whether they are Christians, Shiites or secular.
Q: What kind of state and constitution are you fighting for? What do you think of democracy?
Democracy today is misused as an instrument of Western domination. We are against this bad face of the West, but we see the good face of democracy. We believe in elections in principle. We oppose, however, the power of money in elections. In the US there is no freedom at all and in Europe it is only a little bit better. Parliament and democratic institutions should be in accordance with Koran and the Sunna. But people must agree to this principle. It must not be forced upon them. But Islam is only a very general umbrella. You must use your mind to find political, economic, social solutions, there's a very huge place for thinking.
Q: There are about 10% Christians in Egypt. How do you deal with them?
We have no problems about Christians. They must be granted full citizen rights.
We must build a dialogue with them. They are important and we have to ask for their agreement in all matters of social live. As a party we have three leaders who are Christians. Before the Coptic Church was independent from the West but now they are linking up with the Western churches. Naser gave them also financial subsidies. Now the money comes from the West. Pope Shanouda reproduced a Mubarak-type dictatorship, he built a state within the state and he is very pro-American as the US also supports him.
Cairo, April 2008
Lars Akerhaug and Wilhelm Langthaler