Excerpt of an interview with the new Secretary General of the Islamic Labor Front Party (ILF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan
We share views with the MB Head Office in Egypt through the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood
“Hassan Al-Banna is the renovator of the past century”. This statement clearly reflects the ideology and conceptions held by Zaki Banni Arshid, the new Secretary General of the Islamic Labor Front Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Arshid, elected only three weeks ago, is considered by some to be representative of the middle $trend of the Jordanian Islamic movement, while he is accused by some others of being involved on the organizational level with Hamas.
Arshid, now over forty, working in the field of tourism and travel, spoke openly about particular issues while was more reserved concerning other issues during an interview with Al-Misri Al-Yawm. He criticized the Egyptian authorities for preventing Abdel-Mageed A-Dthunaybat, the former MB leader in Jordan, from entering Egypt. However, having political cleverness, he avoided making direct criticisms about the Hashimi regime in Jordan, yet this did not prevent him from making such piercing statements as “we will not relent in rejecting the peace process with Israel in case we gain power” and “there is a retreat from democracy in Jordan currently”.
In an interview about his relation with the MB head office in Cairo, the rise of Islamists in the Arab world, etc., Arshid provided us with the needed details. The following is the interview:
Q.: First, what are the principles, authority and goals of the party?
A.: The party was established in 1992, right after the Jordanian Law of Parties was issued. Formerly, groups were not allowed to have any announced political activities. Political activity in Jordan started in 1989 when elections were run, giving rise to a parliament and a political structure, which made a number of changes such as abrogating the emergency law, endorsing the project of political parties, and acknowledging publishing and distribution. A host of new laws were introduced, thus organizing public life and party work.
Q.: You are part of the MB. What then is the nature of your relationship with the mother group in Cairo, and what’s your opinion about its political rise?
A.: This question implies a number of others. First, the Islamic Labor Front Party is not part of the MB but is the political front of the MB in Jordan. The efforts exerted by the MB to establish our party were crucial and direct. The idea and goal behind this was: firstly incorporating the political Islamic movement into the Law of Parties; secondly, putting a large sector of the Islamic groups, and not only the MB, under the umbrella of political parties; thirdly, bringing together the Islamic Labor Front Party as well as those who have similar ideologies and the different political forces. This explains why our success was limited and delayed. Yet, our party includes some Christians, a real achievement which needs more development for the party to be a true representation of the nation. Thus, the party is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood; rather, it is a political party of which the majority of members are themselves MBs, and that matches the MB in its policies and trends. However, the MB works in an all-inclusive manner, unlike our party, which handles politics in a rather restricted way. The MB also handles other issues related to various fields, such as the social field, in a more wide-ranging manner.
Q.: But, you are indeed a reflection of the MB.
A.: That’s true, we are actually the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, concerning our relation with the MB head office in Cairo, there is no such thing. Our relation with the MB is confined to our contact with the MB group existent in Jordan, and this comes as part of the MB’s international organization and commitments. Through such relations, actions and roles could be determined. However, I assure you that our party maintains administrative, financial, and organizational independence, which does not mean that it contradicts the Brotherhood. Rather, our relation with the Brotherhood is well governed and is in line with the general policies of the MB.
Q.: You were in Cairo several days ago; what then is the cause of your visit, specially that it came after you were nominated as the party’s Secretary General?
A.: I was attending a conference on the Egyptian national forces, under the title The International Campaign for Combating The Zionist Imperialism and Globalization and Supporting the Resistance in Palestine and Iraq, after having been invited by the Syndicate of Journalists and the Syndicate of Lawyers.
Q.: What is the topic you addressed during the conference?
A.: On the first day, delegations spoke, and on the second, I spoke about supporting the Iraqi resistance.
Q.: Going back to the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, what’s your stance on this?
A.: This is not an exception; it is something normal in the Arab Islamic world: wherever freedom of speech is maintained, the masses of people would express their confidence in the Islamic trend. Elections in Egypt this time was relatively, though not exclusively, free and honest, for it was impaired by some rigging, thuggery, and selling of votes, yet, the MBs made considerable advance. In the main, if such conditions are maintained in any Arab or Islamic region, similar or even better results will come forward.
Q.: In your opinion, is it possible that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would gain the right to free political expression like your party, especially that a lot of ambiguity still covers up its political program?
A.: To my knowledge, what impedes the political expression for the MB in Egypt is the regime and not the group. The Brotherhood has already submitted several petitions for establishing a political party, but there are a lot of fears from the MBs; the regime is very apprehensive of the rise of the MB, given its strong popularity. In fact, if any other opposition group had the same esteem and popularity in the Egyptian street, it would have been able to take over rule very easily as it would have been backed by the US. However, given that the alternative (to a despotic regime) is an Islamist group, there are a lot of impediments, and the US, in its turn, closes its eyes to the political despotism in the region, generally, Egypt included. That helps explain why the US has retreated from democratizing the region in favor of the ruling regimes. America could have practiced pressure on Egypt as it has done on some regimes for practicing despotism and political suppression, giving way to a lot of problems to occur, such as political and financial corruption, the wasting of assets, and, on top of all, the breeding of the so-called terrorism or extremism This last ‘problem’ is what concerns the US and thus, in order for it to curb such upshot, America is trying to create free environments where all citizens and movements can express themselves freely under true democratic mechanisms that would thwart, in turn, any potential extremism or terrorism. Hence, the US was keen to boost several projects in the region, such as, as admitted by US officials, the last Palestinian elections. It is known that America has given support to Liberal candidates as well as to Fatth Movement.
Q.: A few days ago, the Egyptian authorities prevented Abdel-Magid Az-Zunaybat, former leader of the MB in Jordan, from entering Egypt. What details do you have about this?
A.: Az-Zunaybat was not the only personality to be prevented from entering Egypt; four other MB personalities from different countries have been prevented before. This was really an embarrassing situation; especially that Az-Zunaybat is known to be a moderate, non-dogmatic person. Despite this, he was prevented from entering Egypt although he was admitted to Egypt several times before. Hence, we put forward a query to the Egyptian government concerning the reasons behind such behavior. Generally speaking, the Egyptian stance on this was so weird, and no good reason was declared by any official. Maybe, such action followed the whims of some officials or something of that sort.
Q.: You were speaking of an American retreat from reform in the region. What are the indications of such retreat in your opinion?
A.: The American talk about reform was greatly heightening; there was a number of ideas and mechanisms. For example, the American reform project included ideas such as lodging offices in the Arab countries to monitor the implementation of human rights and democracy. Nothing of this kind is being tackled any more. Quite the reverse, America is now praising the performance of some of the Arab governments while no real change in the democratic performance has actually occurred. Among the countries that were praised is Jordan. Now Jordan is still suffering. Up till now, there is no elected student union in Jordan. What kind of democracy is this! Also, only half of the members of municipal councils in Jordan are thus far elected; the other half is appointed. This is despite local elections in Jordan have been run since 70 years ago. Actually, there has been a retreat from democracy: I can say that Jordan has been suffering a draw back from democracy since the beginning of the nineties. This was in the aftermath of the 11th parliament, formed in 1989, whereby the government chose to punish the Jordanian people for electing this council. It thus engineered a law that would forge the will of people and destroy the community. All these are indications that the US has renounced pressure. It used to stipulate democratic reform as a provision for US aid, but it no longer does this.
Q.: There is a bit of freedom for the Islamic movements in the region. How do you interpret this?
A.: Frankly speaking, I could say there are some improvements, even in the countries of totalitarian regimes. Saudi Arabia, for example, has recently run municipal elections, something that never happened before. On the other hand, compared to other countries in the region, the Palestinian trial, in my opinion, is the most mature, and it represents an example to follow. Efforts of the Palestinian authority and the Palestinian factions have all contributed to the success of the Palestinian trial. There is also the Kuwaiti example. Kuwait is considered an old hand on democracy, yet it is still under control, as change has not yet reached the extent that would make the Kuwaiti citizen actually feel it. Parliaments in the region do not bring about real changes in the ruling regimes. While democracy is supposed to be a mechanism that enables the people of choosing their representation, in the Arab countries, it is the ruling regimes that devise democracy. Conversely, in democratic countries, it is the people that produces the ruling regime. The situation is generally overturned, varying in this from one state to another.
In Jordan, for example, there is a good capacity of liberties and freedom of expression, compared to other countries in the region. Notwithstanding, I want to stress that all this is still beyond the desired level. The Palestinian trial is controlled by international pressures, which curb the Palestinian trial. There are big obstacles in the face of choosing who would represent the Palestinians as the Palestinian trial is meant to be aborted. Although the Arab countries announce their support of the Palestinian will, they are continuously pressing Hamas to recognize Israel and to make other concessions, which would render the new government a shallow structure. If Hamas conceded, it would be contradicting its program and renouncing its principles.
Q.: There is a view that holds that if it were not for the interference and pressures of the United States, Islamists would have never risen in the Arab political field. What could you say about this?
A.: Let me speak of the effect and not the cause. I hope that these efforts would be sincere and would continue. This does not mean that we should seek the help of America in the Arab states and provinces.
Q.: But what if it were for the interests of the Arab states?
A.: I don’t agree with this in the literal sense of the words. I see this would be a kind of taking advantage of the situation. It is better and safer for the Arab regimes to make the initiative, why wait for American pressure? Why not make conciliation with the people. If they do not find the American program favorable why not follow other examples? Even if the dispute is over the form of democracy, settlement is easy; we can follow the example of any other country such as France, India or Malaysia, keeping in mind that each state has its own privacy and that the essence of political work is the peaceful $alternation of authority; this is what should happen. I thus call for conciliation between the people and the rulers and to adopting a single position. I think that the Arab citizen is looking forward to a real participation in decision-making. If this was implemented, there would be no need for the American pressure or so, Arab rulers would be released of all external pressures. All in all, let me confess that the American pressure influenced the reform process. America used to support the despotic regimes, and to redeem this, it has to support the democratic tendencies in the region.
Q.: There is a dividing line between running a government and the rebel tone of the opposition. How could you, as an Islamic opposition party, maintain a border line between your ideology and the democratic shell?
A.: If there is true political thought, conciliation will be achieved as citizens and party representatives are willing to accept any considerable achievement on the part of the regimes; rule is a shared rather than an individual process.
Q.: I mean that democracy obliges the Islamic movement to make concessions such as respecting the idea of $alternation of authority.
A.: Such mechanisms are practiced inside our party; $alternation of authority is actually applied in our party, for one of our provisions is that the secretary general is not to keep post over two terms. On top of all, we have already announced our stance on the $alternation of authority in clear, decisive terms, and if we gain power, we will turn to the people for arbitration and we will accept the count of the ballot boxes. Unfortunately, the opposite of this is being circulated: rulers are trying to hinder the progress of Islamists by spreading that they resort to democracy only once… it is as if those rulers have gained power through the ballot boxes! If such statements were said by a real democratic regime I would have taken up with it. Despite all this, we are willing to make any safeguards that would keep people at rest.
Q.: The point of safeguards takes us to the issue of a potential peace agreement with Israel. What would be your bearing on this if you gained power?
A.: First of all, the Islamic movement has certain fixed principles that could never be renounced, be it an opposition party or the ruling party. These very principles are the reason for the people’s support. Concerning the peace agreement with Israel and the provisions involved in the agreement, it has greatly harmed caused Jordan a lot of problems, such as curbing liberties and stripping the political life of its spirit. Take this: to pave the way for Wadi Urba Agreement the ‘one-voice law’ was issued. This law was issued just in order to be able to fabricate a parliament that would endorse the agreement. Wadi Urba was the essence of great national tragedies. Do you know that it stipulated that Palestinian refugees be settled. Now the government and the regime have fears of a potential ‘alternative homeland’ even though they know very well that the establisher of that alternative land is the agreement. In short, if Islamists gain power, they will rethink all such agreements yet will hold to anything that serves our nation. Thus we will never renounce our rejection of Wadi Urba even if we gain power, simply because it is against the interests of Jordan.
Q.: Why do you put the portray of King Abdullah Al-Hussein in your office instead of putting the portray of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood?
A.: We, as a party, are committed to the law of parties, and the Ministry of Interior has demanded that all parties hang the King’s portray. After discussions on the legitimacy of such thing, the leading institution of the party announced its consent to hanging the portray, in compliance with the Ministry’s demands. Concerning the photo of Hassan Al-Banna, we do not generally find the hanging of photos legitimate. Hanging the King’s portray is a kind of political courtesy. The demand itself reflects narrow-mindedness of some authorities, which are still sticking to outer manifestations. Showing loyalty is not through the hanging of portrays. Loyalty involves deeds and the real implementation of programs. Personally, I see that Hassan Al-Banna is the innovator of the past century.
Q.: You are accused of having ties with Hamas, especially after you were elected as the party’s secretary general. What do you have to say about this?
A.: This is not a crime. And I have said before that I would be honored, but I am actually not. Supporting Hamas is a duty of all Arabs, Muslims and free men. When I was in Cairo, I saw a group of European vanguards that described Hamas as a national liberation project that deserved support and praise. Concerning a relation with Hamas, there certainly is a relation, yet it does not and will not amount to a corporation or a joint organizational system. Hamas is independent, and so is our party. But as for support, as I’ve said it’s the duty of everyone to do so. I reiterate that there isn’t any kind of censorship involved. Here I would like to point out that what is being said of Hams interfering with the Jordanian affairs is not true. Biased people spread such ideas to serve their own interests.
The Islamic Work Front Party was established in 1992 on a basis of the ideologies and aims of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose existence in Jordan goes back to 1946. It came as an idea, which had been shaped by the institutions of the head leadership of the Brotherhood to bring together the Islamic fields of activity under one political grouping. The party’s program pivots around restoring the Islamic character to all fields of life, reinforcing national unity, counseling, and democracy, defending human dignity and liberties, and enhancing people’s everyday life affairs. The party operates on the basis of a moderate Islamic ideology program that attains its goals using peaceful and legitimate methods. When it was first established, the party included 353 members, 13 out of which were women. It currently occupies 17 seats, 1 for a woman, out of a total of 110 seats in the Jordanian Parliament. The party has run the opposition front against Wadi Urba, the peace deal with Israel. It also aspires being the future project of the Jordanian people, not only because it has formed a political move that developed the political thought of the people, but alos because it adopts people’s rights and embodies their aspirations. The party has proposed, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, a view for reform that is based on the goals of the Islamic legislation, a view that aims at making structural and political reforms, taking as its source of legislation, the Islamic code, and activating the constitutional article that states that the nation is the source of authorities. Also, it aims at distinguishing between the legislative, executive, and judicial authorities, defining the role of security apparatuses, reforming judiciary, resisting normalization, and deepening the Arab and Islamic belongingness.