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Labor Party of Egypt

By:
Bjørn Olav Utvik
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Labor Party of Egypt

The only legal Islamist party in Egypt until its suspension in 2000, the Labor Party was founded as the Socialist Labor Party in December 1978. It was represented in the Egyptian parliament, the People's Assembly, from 1979 until 1990. In the 1987 elections, the last in which the opposition took part, the Labor Party became the leading opposition party with 17 percent of the vote and 56 out of 448 representatives. Only 22 of these representatives, however, were party members; the majority were Muslim Brothers. The Brothers, denied recognition as a political party, joined an Islamic alliance with the Labor Party and the small Liberal Party. The parliamentary elections of 1990 were boycotted by the opposition; however, in the local elections in 1992 the Labor–Muslim Brothers alliance emerged even more clearly than before as the dominant opposition force. The Party's twice-weekly newspaper, Al-Shaʿb (The People), has increased its circulation from 45,000 in late 1985 to 250,000 in early 1994, making it the largest opposition paper until its suspension in 2000.

Origin.

Ibrāhīm Shukrī, the chairman of the Labor Party from its inception, was a member of the last parliament before the 1952 revolution. He was the only representative of the Socialist Party, the name taken by the Young Egypt movement from 1949. This movement, founded in 1933, was strongly nationalist and anti-British. Its form of Egyptian nationalism fused quite different ideological strands: it emphasized the pharaonic heritage but at the same time took pride in Egypt's Arabism, advocating exclusive use of the Arabic language in all fields of life. It advocated Islamic morals as the basis for a sound social life and national strength and demanded the application of the sharīʿah. Its program of social reform included radical land reform, expanded and cheap education, and an extensive program of state-led industrialization.

The early Labor Party membership was dominated by former Young Egypt members and sympathizers. ʿādil Ḥusayn, at present the undisputed ideologue of the party, considers its line today to be a continuation of the ideas of Aḥmad Ḥusayn, the charismatic founder and leader of Young Egypt. Kinship also binds the party to the Young Egypt tradition: ʿādil Ḥusayn is Aḥmad Ḥusayn's younger brother; Muḥammad Ḥilmī Murād, vice president of the Labor Party, is a brother-in-law of the Ḥusayn brothers; and Majdī Ḥusayn, editor of the party newspaper since 1993, is the son of Aḥmad Ḥusayn.

Ideology.

The Labor Party was initially a radical nationalist party. At the party's fifth congress in March 1989, however, a clear-cut Islamist platform was voted in, and the positions of leadership were filled exclusively with Islamists. This provoked a major split, and many leading members, including half the parliamentary group, refused to accept the results of the conference.

A former communist, ʿādil Ḥusayn, general secretary of the party since 1993, refers to his ideas as “enlightened Islamism.” He favors applying the sharīʿah, but he emphasizes that it must be a sharīʿah for the twenty-first century. There are some clear rulings in the Qurʿān and sunnah, but wide scope is left for human reason to interpret the law in keeping with changing times and circumstances.

The Labor Party's immediate political goal is putting an end to the present one-party rule and the emergency laws that severely limit freedom of political activity. The fight against corruption at high levels is also high on the agenda and has earned the party much popular sympathy. The party links its stand for democracy to Islam: because Islam recognizes no priesthood with a monopoly on interpreting the scriptures, the existence of different interpretations is legitimate, and this may crystallize into different political programs and parties. However, this freedom must be regulated by respect for the Islamic framework of the state, and for what Ḥusayn calls the state's “grand strategy for development.” This strategy should aim at building a strong independent Egypt that satisfies the material and spiritual needs of its inhabitants. Local production should be boosted in order to secure independence, and this will involve strict regulation of imports. Private capital must accept working within the limits of such a strategy.

The party is very critical of the economic open-door policy initiated under President Anwar Sadat, which it sees as undermining the basis for independent development and as carrying with it a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. The Labor Party strongly opposes the present IMF-sponsored reforms—cutting food subsidies, reducing remaining import barriers, and letting foreign capital buy into a privatized public sector. The West, primarily the United States with its local ally Israel, is seen as the main enemy of Egyptian and Arab development. The party sharply criticized the U.S.-led coalition that fought Iraq during the Gulf War.

The discourse of the Labor Party on economic reform highlights an important difference in its general approach to politics when compared with its alliance partner, the Muslim Brothers. The writings of the Brothers on economic issues tend to proceed from traditional Islamic precepts like the canonical tax (zakāt) or prohibition of interest (ribā), which they discuss in the abstract. In contrast, the Labor Party proceeds from concrete analyses of Egypt's development problems. Islam is not seen so much as offering ready-made solutions but rather as a moral force to unite the population in enduring the effort and hardships of independent development, as well as offering broad principles of social justice and harmony. In this sense the Labor Party can be seen as a modernist wing within the broader Islamist movement.

Achieving unity with the Egyptian Copts on an Islamic platform is a stated goal; in fact, in the 1987 elections the Labor Party–Muslim Brothers alliance was the only party to have a Copt topping a slate. The party states that the Copts should have equal rights, including political rights, “at all levels,” although it is not clear whether this actually means that a Copt would be acceptable as president or as minister for education.

The electoral alliance with the Muslim Brothers and the opening of the pages of Al-shaʿb to the Islamist movement at large expressed a central concern of the Labor Party: the establishment of the broadest possible unity both within and beyond the Islamist movement vis-à-vis the government. In particular, the party tries to bridge the traditional gap between the Muslim Brothers and the Nasserist tendencies within the opposition. Indeed, it was a divide within the party itself that contributed to its suspension in May 2000. Hamdi Ahmed and Ahmad Idris, both high ranking officials within the Labor Party, requested a freeze on the party's bank account following concerns surrounding the selection of a new party chairman. On 20 May 2000 the Political Parties Committee froze the activities of the Labor Party and halted the publication of Al-Shaʿb, citing Article 17 of the political parties law, which gives the committee authority to suspend the actions of any political party, including publication of its affiliated newspaper, if it deems a party's actions as contradictory to Egypt's national interests. The suspension also followed Al-Shaʿb's printed accusation of blasphemy against the Ministry of Culture for its publication of the novel A Banquet for Seaweed by Syrian author Haydar Haydar. Both the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and party founder Idris Shoukry called the suspension illegal. Although Al-Shaʿb remains out of print, the party and its newspaper remain active through its public website.

See also EGYPT.

Bibliography

  • Burgat, François, and William Dowell. The Islamic Movement in North Africa. Austin, Tex., 1993. Excellent analysis of the growth of Islamism, containing a presentation of the intellectual development of the Labor Party ideologue, ʿādil Ḥusayn.
  • The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Annual Report1999–2000. “The Human Rights Situation in Egypt: Violations of Human Rights 2000–2001, Ninth: The Right to Establish Parties, Associations & Unions.” Cairo: EOHR, 2002.
  • Jankowski, James P.Egypt's Young Rebels. Stanford, Calif., 1975. Main source for the history of the Young Egypt movement.
  • Kassem, Maye. Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule. Boulder, Colo., 2004.
  • Singer, Hanaa Fikri. The Socialist Labor Party: A Case Study of a Contemporary Egyptian Opposition Party. Cairo, 1993. Gives a brief outline of the party's history, with special emphasis on the struggle over the “islamization” of the party.
  • Springborg, Robert. Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order. Boulder, Colo., 1989. Gives a well-informed account of the emergence of the present party system in Egypt.
  • Utvik, Bjørn Olav. “Hizb al-Wasat and the Potential for Change in Egyptian Islamism.”Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies14.3 (Autumn 2005): 293–306.
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