Abu al-‘Ala’ Māḍī

Role box
- Founder of Hizb al-Wasat (the Center Party)
Education, Career and Personal Background
Abū al-cAlā Māḍī was born in 1958 into a religious, Muslim family in Minia, Egypt. He claims to have started to memorize the Qur’ān when he was three years old.1 He received his primary and secondary education in Minia and in 1976 he enrolled in Minia University where he obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In the first year of his studies he started to get involved in the activities of the Islamist student groups through al-Jamācah al-Islāmīah and later he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. During his studies he held several posts in various political student bodies. Thus he was elected as the president of the student union in Minia in 1977, then vice-president of the Egyptian Students Organization in 1978. Māḍī has been arrested several times for his political activities. While he was in jail that he and a group of fellow student activists decided to join the Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to forming a group that would confront the regime through violent means (see more under Political /Religious involvement).

After he graduated, Māḍī continued to be involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. He worked to extend the Brotherhood’s power into Egypt’s professional syndicates and he was elected to the board of the Engineers’ Syndicate in 1987.

However, over the years Māḍī’s political views departed somewhat from the Muslim Brotherhood's. He strived to form a legal, political, Islamic party that would break the ambiguous status of the Brotherhood in Egyptian politics as a banned, yet to some degree tolerated organization. In 1996, he became the co-founder of Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party) which simultaneously signaled his break from the Brotherhood. The party was designed to be a democratic political party working on the basis of equal citizenship for all Egyptians but within an Islamic framework (marjacīyah islāmīyah) but at the same time open to Christian members. The party has not been recognized by the Political Parties’ Committee, the Egyptian government’s official body from which all political parties must attain legal recognition. The founders of the party reapplied for official recognition again in 1998 and 2004 but were refused both times. In 2000, after the second refusal, Māḍī set up the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue.

The establishment of a political party with an Islamic background touches on a deep debate in Egypt and the whole Middle East about the relationship between the Islamic concept of Sharīcah and the concept of citizenship and civil rights. Even though Māḍī has clarified some of the central issues in his political manifesto to distinguish himself from the Muslim Brotherhood's stance, there are still ambiguous issues about Sharīcah and civil rights that continue to be at the core of the discussion about the party and its legitimacy.

Abū al-cAlā Māḍī has completed a number of seminars in management, political negotiations and English.
- President of Student Union, Minia University, Egypt, 1977-1979
- Member of the Muslim Brotherhood, 1977-1986
- Vice President of the Egyptian Students Organization, 1978-1979
- Assistant Secretary General of the Engineers Syndicate, Egypt, 1987-1995
- Member of the High Committee of the Engineers Syndicate, 1987-1995
- Head of the Coordination Committee of Egyptian Professional Syndicates, 1989-1996
- Head of the Egyptian Committee for the support of Bosnia Herzegovina, 1992-1996
- Founder of the International Studies Center, Egypt, 1995
- Candidate for the Egyptian Parliament, 1995
- Member of the founding committee for Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party) 1996-
- Member of Islamic National Congress, Egypt, 1997-
- Founder and member of the board of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue, 2000-2
Political/Religious Involvement
Student politics In a number of interviews in Arabic, Abū al-cAlā Māḍī has described how he first got involved in politics during his student years.1 It was during a summer camp in 1976 organized by the Religious Students Organization that he was first attracted to some of the student Islamist activists who flooded the campuses of many universities in Egypt during the reign of Anwar Sadat. They told him to stop spending time with his fellow female students as this was inappropriate. He took their advice and started to involve himself in the Islamists’ political activities.

They did not have many members at this time, and Māḍī quickly rose to a position of leadership in the organization. Inspired by Abd al-Muncim Abū al-Futuh, who later became a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and member of its Guidance Bureau, the religious students’ organization decided to run for the elections of the official student body, which they had earlier considered corrupt and a place where men and women spend unnecessary time together. Māḍī was elected the head of the Students Organization in the faculty of engineering in Minia the following year, then vice-president of the Egyptian Students Organization in 1978.

Māḍī stresses that one of the group's most important struggles in the Student Organization, was their opposition to Sadat’s invitation to the Shah of Iran to stay in Egypt after he was exiled from Iran following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Another important issue they became involved in, was their stance against Sadat's statement that the Islamic headscarf is like a “tent”.4 However, it was the large-scale demonstrations against the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel that finally caused Sadat to have the student activists arrested. Māḍī mentions that during their detainment, one of his fellow students considered joining the armed resistance against President Sadat. However, Māḍī and a number of others chose the peaceful path and joined the Muslim Brotherhood, where he became one of its leading members.

Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party)
After years of trying to reform the Muslim Brotherhood from within, Abū al-cAlā Māḍī broke away from the organization in 1996 and founded the Wasat Party along with other former Brotherhood members. The party also included Christian members. Their application for official recognition was however turned down by The Committee of Political Parties after two years on 11 May 1998.5

Two days later, the founding committee of the party applied again with a slightly different program6 this time under the name, The Egyptian Center Party (Hizb al-Wasat al-Misrī). The signatories included 19 women and one Copt.7 This second attempt was also refused and in 2004 the founders applied for a third time under the name of The New Center Party (Hizb al-Wasat al-Jadīd), but the application was refused in 2006.

The reason for the refusals was that the party’s platform was not unique8, a condition stipulated by Egyptian law for new parties. Māḍī has criticized this policy as a means to randomly deny certain parties legal status. He argues that two liberal parties (al-Ghadd and The Democratic Front) have been legalized even though there is already an “abundance” of liberal parties such as al-Wafd and the ruling National Democratic Party.9

Māḍī worked hard to include Christians in the founding committee of the party to demonstrate that Christians have nothing to fear from al-Wasat’s vision of an Islamic party. In the third attempt to have the party approved, seven Copts were included in the list. However, it was revealed in April 2006 that six of them withdrew their names before the final decision was given. They were Hānī Nacīm Mīlād, Samou’īl Sādiq Mu’nis, Farīdah Ghālī Sacī, Nifīn Maurice Khourī, Sāmī cAtā cAjaybī and Khalīl cAtā cAjaybī.9b The seventh Christian, Rafiq Habīb later withdrew his support too.9c Their withdrawal made it possible for The Committee of Political Parties to deny al-Wasat legal status on the grounds that it is a party founded on a religious basis which is illegal under the Political Parties Law. There has been some debate in the Egyptian media over the reason for the withdrawal. Māḍī accused the state and the Muslim Brotherhood of cooperating to pressurize the seven Copts to leave in order to make al-Wasat look like a sectarian party.10 Others have hinted that the Coptic Church might have exercised pressure on the individuals.11 Some of the seven Copts have said that they simply had ideological differences with the rest of the founders.

The vision of Hizb al-Wasat
Hizb al-Wasat's vision is a civil, political party open to Christians and Muslims alike but with an Islamic point of reference or background.12 This vision is based on Māḍī’s distinction between Islam as a religion and Islam as a civilization. As a civilization all Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, can be involved since they all belong to a largely Muslim country which is deeply influenced by Islamic culture and history. He supports the idea that political parties should have citizenship and not religious affiliations as their foundation.

Māḍī tries to make a clear distinction between missionary and political activities. According to Māḍī this is one of the major points of divergence between him and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another point has been the Brotherhood’s ambiguous perception of the Islamic state.13 Māḍī clearly states, that he wants a civil state with equal rights for all citizens as opposed to the Islamic concept of an Islamic state in which non-Muslims do not have equal rights. Māḍī has clearly stated that he supports equal rights to the extent that both Christians and women could become the president of the state, something which is forbidden under traditional Islamic Sharīcah and under the current Egyptian Constitution. Thus on this issue al-Wasat goes further than most other political forces in Egypt be it leftists, liberals or the ruling National Democratic Party.14 Leaders of the Brotherhood have denounced the idea of the president not being a male Muslim as unacceptable.

Secret cover for the Muslim Brotherhood?
Some observers in Egypt have seen al-Wasat as nothing more than a thinly disguised way for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain an official footing on the political scene. Despite Māḍī’s insistence that al-Wasat party does not have any connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, the suspicion that this might be the case continues to fill the debate around the party. In 2005, he stated that “for us, the Brotherhood is a thing of the past and we are thinking about the future”.15 Furthermore, he makes it clear that al-Wasat party will not turn into a base for the Brotherhood and will only admit new members who are fully convinced of al-Wasat’s ideology.

An article in al-cArabī magazine mentioned al-Wasat as the “domesticated alternative” to the Muslim Brotherhood which would be more acceptable to the government.16 However, this interpretation overlooks that fact that al-Wasat has met with suspicion and a lack of cooperation from both the state and the Brotherhood.17

Māḍī has himself, in a comment to the secular magazine Rose al-Yūsuf, clearly expressed the difference between his and the Brotherhood’s vision on political participation;

“We struggled for over a decade and protested as al-Wasat group within the Brotherhood group (…) The Brotherhood insists on calling itself a religious propagandist reform group (…) We at al-Wasat believe that trying to be both propagandists and politicians could harm both missions therefore we have chosen the straightforward political path”18

Most Western observers have seen al-Wasat party as a welcome democratic group on the Middle East political scene. A report from the German Konrad Adenauer Organization concedes that the founders of al-Wasat have helped to clarify the relationship between democracy and Sharīcah by stating that “They (the founding members) believe that the interpretations of Sharīcah they offer, although illuminated by the general goals of Sharīcah and its fundamental principles, are nonetheless human interpretations and as such may or may not be correct. Hence they are open to debate, criticism, revision and change depending on the time and place.”19

The report concludes that “al-Wasat party's demands for democracy, free elections and adherence to human rights are credible.”20 However, the report does mention a few vague points. First, al-Wasat’s vision of freedom of religion only applies to followers of the three monotheistic religions, and does not include Bahā’īsm, Hinduism, Buddhism and other creeds. Second, some ambiguity remains about the relationship between artistic freedom and the vague term “values of society”. Thus, even though al-Wasat’s political manifesto states that “art should be free and open” it goes on to state that “artistic creation should not be removed from society or human values and ethics. A balance between the promotion of literature, the arts and creativity, on the one hand, and adherence to the values of the society, on the other, must be maintained.”21 This leaves it unclear which of the two – artistic freedom or values of society – would be given top priority if there was controversy.

Augustus Richard Norton, a distinguished scholar of Middle East politics, has put al-Wasat in the larger context of developments of ideologies in the Middle East: “In some ways, the experience of Hizb al-Wasat marks a liberal ideology under development and the acceptance of pluralism. In other respects, al-Wasat’s commitment to interpret Sharīcah flexibly flows naturally from the modernism of Mohammed ‘Abdu almost a century ago.” 22 He thereby acknowledges that al-Wasat is clearly moving away from some of the more traditionalist stances of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Māḍī sees the ideology of al-Wasat as closely related to that of other moderate, Islamist parties in the region who have clearly aligned themselves with democratic values, such as the Party for Justice and Development in Morocco and Turkey.23

Criticism of the U.S
Māḍī has often criticized American policies in the Middle East especially their one-sided support for Israel, for hampering true democratic development in the region and has argued that this policy undermines moderate forces and helps to promote violent ideologies.

In an interview in 2002 in the German newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, he commented that “moderate Islamists cannot succeed as long the United States refuses to give up their biased support for Israel and this will continue if they attack Iraq. “For years Bin Lādin has sent messages to the Arab world and was unsuccessful”, he said. But the anger about the U.S policy toward Palestine and the political double standards in Washington, has eventually made Bin Lādin popular in his role as the enemy of the United States.”24

In relation to the “War on Terror” that the American Bush-administration has declared, he states that “the current American administration is itself highly extremist. Extremist religious and political right-wingers control the reigns of the American administration, he says. Thus, their war against so-called terrorism is not a just war, depending as it does on the criteria of Israeli Zionists who consider lawful resistance against occupation as terrorism.”25

Criticism of Islamic violence
He does not put the blame for Islamist violence solely on external forces but acknowledges that “Islamic movements bear some responsibility for this, as they have not really criticized of the views of extremist Islamic groups.”26

In an article in 2005, he conceded in vague terms that Islamic interpretations leading to violence have deep roots in the prevailing discourse in the Middle East by saying that:

“Violence and terror are the outcome of a package of cultural social and intellectual factors as well as other factors connected to the combination of Islam as an enlightened religion and the way Muslims understand it. He added that the most violent groups have emerged when certain people have misinterpreted religion in a way that eventually allows them to see the modern state as an infidel one.”27

In another article he points out the four factors that play a role in producing religious extremism.

“Firstly, the external political factor of America’s complete bias in favor of Israel and its policy of double standards; secondly, the harsh treatment of Islamists by national authorities; thirdly, the extremist opinions of fiqh and intellectuals which feeds the idea of violence, takfīr and revolution; and finally, the obscure idea of politicizing religion. Islam is a comprehensive religion that includes creed, ethics, intercourse, legislation and therefore policy formation. However this does not necessarily mean that policy cannot be varied depending on the situation.”28

He uses this rationale to criticize parts of the prevalent Islamic discourse without denouncing Islam itself as a moral basis for policy making. This view underlines the general philosophy of al-Wasat party.
Involvement in Arab-West/Intercultural/Interfaith Relations
Additional Information on Other Issues
1- http://www.islamtoday.net/ramadan/ram/behindbar7.html

2 http://www.arabdecision.org/show_cv_3_14_8_1_3_577721705.htm
3 http://www.islamtoday.net/ramadan/ram/behindbar7.html
4 http://www.islamtoday.net/ramadan/ram/behindbar7.html
5 http://montada.alwasatparty.com/showthread.php?p=6895
6 RNSAW 1998, 21, art 9.
7 Ibid.
RNSAW 1999, 22, art 12.
9 http://montada.alwasatparty.com/showthread.php?p=6895
9b AWR 2006, 16, art 38.
9c AWR 2003, 40, art 6.
AWR 2006, 14, art 45.
11 AWR 2006, 16, art 32.
12 http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/Madi.pdf
13 http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/Madi.pdf
14 http://www.kas.de/db_files/dokumente/laenderberichte/7_dokument_dok_pdf_9393_1.pdf 15 http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=311901&issue=9725
16 http://www.al-araby.com/articles/910/040523-11-910-fct02.htm
17 http://www.al-araby.com/articles/910/040523-11-910-fct02.htm
18 AWR 2005, 29, art 26.
19 http://www.kas.de/db_files/dokumente/laenderberichte/7_dokument_dok_pdf_9393_1.pdf
20 http://www.kas.de/db_files/dokumente/laenderberichte/7_dokument_dok_pdf_9393_1.pdf
21 http://www.alwasatparty.com/htmltonuke.php?filnavn=files/Eng-program.htm#arts
22 http://pewforum.org/events/0917/panel1.pdf
23 http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/Madi.pdf
24 http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/;art771,2025724
AWR 2003, 40, art 6.
26 Ibid.
27 AWR 2005, 34, art 9.
28 AWR 2003, 40, art 6.

Biographical material:

al-Wasat’s political program:

German sources:

Arabic sources:

Further reading:

Contact information
Abu al-Ala Madi
51, Qasr al-Aini Street
Phone: +202-3636415


Position towards dialogue
Hidden files
Ane Skov Birk, August 2007