Islamist parties search for economic footing

Unlike liberals, leftist or social democratic political parties, their Islamist counterparts are hardly defined by their economic perspective. Religious parties always built principles and guidelines around a religious-ideological axis, meaning economic ideology was never an immutable cornerstone of what they believed in, or ran on.

But as Islamic parties inhale their first breaths as recognized political parties, they find that they must articulate some kind of economic agenda.  To do so, they are blending pragmatic economic postulation, reformist ethics, and Islamic principles to come up with pro-market policies that at the same time create government support for welfare programs that ensure what they call “social justice.”

At least eight Islamist parties could be in the running come parliamentary elections. Only three have published economic platforms: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafi Nour party, and the left-leaning Wasat Party. Neither the Brotherhood nor any of the more conservative, new Islamic parties express their economic ideology as a manifesto that will define them in the future.

The FJP, expected to be the biggest winner of any Islamist party, prioritizes investment and free markets for encouraging industry and innovation.  “The FJP strongly see the need for a free economic system… and building government institutions that would ensure prosperity and justice,” their economic program ambiguously states.

“Over the past century, the Muslim Brotherhood has usually gone for economic policies that were in tune with the general trend in Egypt’s middle class,” said Sherif Younis, a professor of modern history at Helwan University.

Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, supported a capitalist framework, while during Nasser’s time, Brotherhood publications weighed the idea of implementing socialism in an Islamic framework. When Sadat reformed Nasser’s mass nationalization of agricultural land, the Brotherhood supported it. Now, they are towing the 25 January revolution line about social justice.

Islamic groups have seldom been faced with the need to propose clear economic agendas, especially since they were preoccupied with political opposition.

“In 2005, when there was a brief political awakening in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to define itself more broadly given its large stake in the parliament.  In modern times, it was the first time they were able to do that,” said Younis.

In developing economic programs, most of the Islamist groups have relied on sympathetic economists. Despite referencing the same religious texts for guiding principles, the “Islamic” elements of their economic programs differ slightly. 

“There are some specific ethical social elements of our economic program that are strictly Islamic, but we can take wise economic thought from other schools as well,” said Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the founder and head of the Salafi Nour Party.

FJP’s economic program reads: “Values ​​and ethics are inseparable from the process of economic development. They’re two sides of the same coin.”

At times this plays out in specifics. Nour and FJP would like to re-impose mandatory Zakat (alms) and the system of regulating religious endowments for Muslims.  “This does not mean we are against taxation. Zakat can only be spent by the government in certain ways and a tax system can be introduced for other expenditures,” Ghaffour said. 

He did say that they would not impose any special taxes on non-Muslims living in Egypt.

The Wasat Party, a religiously liberal Brotherhood spin-off, only encourages civil action for the collection and distribution of Zakat, without seeing it as a governmental duty.  Wasat, the most economically left-leaning of the lot, also calls for progressive taxation. 

Its plan is more robust and specific than other Islamic parties.  FJP calls for revising the tax plan. However, it is non-committal about any specific belief regarding taxes.  Nour’s economic program ignores taxes altogether.

Ghaffour attributes the ethical aspect of the economic plan as giving it more of an Islamic color. “We are will staunchly stand against corruption, especially monopolies.  Prophet Mohamed specifically warned against monopolizing markets,” he said. 

From a monetary and financial perspective, FJP and Nour call for systems that conform to Islamic financial principles. 

Tourism, which typically accounts for more than 10 percent of Egypt’s GDP, is a touchy subject for Islamist groups that push social conservatism. The Nour Party believes that Egypt should focus on a specific form of tourism.  “Clean tourism will attract many tourists and investors who would like to take part in it,” said Ghaffour, indicating that a bridge between Sharm el-Sheikh and Jeddah would contribute to this development. 

Nour, like FJP, seeks to enhance trade with Muslim and Arab countries in particular.

Nour and FJP focus their economic programs on regulating markets while enhancing the country’s infrastructure.

Wasat is more explicit on how it would mobilize public resources towards redistributing wealth and encouraging social justice.  Along with Nour, they state the desire to offer a minimum wage, universal healthcare and education in Egypt.  FJP is less specific on those topics, although a recent report suggested that they would support austerity measures due to their opposition to high budget deficits.

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