Hani Nour Eldin is a member of the Egyptian Islamist group al-Gama`a al-Islamiya and an administrative employee of the Suez Canal Authority. In 2011 he was elected to parliament as part of the group’s political arm, the Building and Development Party. In June 2012 he caused considerable controversy when he traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of a parliamentary delegation. As a member of a group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, many were alarmed that he was able to procure a visa. And while in Washington, he officially asked if al-Gama`a al-Islamiya’s spiritual leader, the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, could be repatriated to Egypt.

In conversation, Nour Eldin comes across as a charming and thoughtful individual--anything but a terrorist. He was imprisoned in Egypt from 1993 to 2005 for anti-Mubarak politicking. He is proud of his group’s current condemnation of its violent history, but he still believes in the possibility of jihad. 

In this interview he discusses his party’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, reveals his view of the opposition, and describes his experience in Washington. 

What makes al-Gama`a al-Islamiya different from the Brotherhood and the Salafists?
 
The Brotherhood does not sufficiently maintain the legitimate principles of religion in their practice of politics. They give themselves wide latitude for maneuvering, and as such they do not always honor their agreements and sometimes value their own interests over greater principles. In our experience we have differed with them often.
 
Yes, you have a history together.
 
(Laughs) We were in the universities together, and afterward. Earlier we disagreed about how to change the regime. They took the path of elections and parties, but we had reservations, preferring instead to deny their legitimacy. But when things changed, we changed too. 
 
As concerns the Salafists, we saw ourselves, rightly or wrongly, as the connecting point between them and the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood practiced pure politics, and the Salafists practiced pure religion. We wanted to hold on to our religious principles while having a political direction. The Salafists isolated themselves, even if they have now opened up and evolved politically.
 
All our activities since the revolution have brought us closer, but not enough to join us together.
 
What is your view of the situation in Egypt now? To what degree has the revolution succeeded?
 
There is freedom now, especially for Islamists to pursue their vision for society. We value the opposition that resists this, but they are of two types. One, the liberals, accepts our place in the game, while the other, the leftists, desires to rid the game of us. The liberals have joined the leftists in the National Salvation Front, thinking that it will increase their weight. The leftists see the Islamists as a dominating trend and feel that if we stay in power it will be very difficult for them to reverse this arrangement later. This is why they are fighting us. Those among us who are close to them are reaching out and letting them know that there are limits. If you push us to the edge we may all fall off the cliff.
 
What about other elements opposing you? 
 
The former regime and their supporters are committing hidden acts. They work in secret and get others to do the dirty work. Any collapse will result in a return to the old regime, for they are still present.
 
But will the opposition continue?
 
Yes, of course. We have specified the path to power and have chosen a democratic system. This path will decide which force is in power and will rotate the forces. The current hubbub on the street is not the right means of expression. The ballot box, the people, the popular influence—these are the right tools.
 
You have said that the opposition sought to derail the rebuilding of Egypt by attempting to dissolve the constituent assembly via the judiciary. But isn’t it natural for the judiciary to review the constitutionality of laws?
 
It isn’t an issue of the judiciary. It is about creating our institutions, and there was a general consensus about how to do it. Political forces agreed on the makeup of the constituent assembly. But when there were points the opposition couldn’t agree upon, the opposition realized that they had the key to ensure the legitimacy of the assembly, and they withdrew it. They could have agreed to sit and discuss the four or five points of contention.
 
Would you have been able to accept amending these few points of contention?
 
We could at least discuss the points and try to find out how to amend them. In regard to having an Islamic reference in the constitution, the opposition insisted on keeping the phrase “principles of” before Shariah, whereas we wanted the phrase omitted, so that the source of legislation would simply be “Shariah.” Shariah is clear; it doesn’t need definition. But we said okay, even though we still disagreed. 
 
Popular opinion calls for an Islamic country with laws that should be governed by Shariah. In terms of rights and freedoms there is a great deal of commonality between our two visions. But when we insisted that these rights must conform to Shariah the opposition said that it would be a restriction on freedom. On the contrary, Shariah opens the door to more freedom than what is guaranteed by all the international charters. 
 
The phrasing “sovereignty is for the people” also created great controversy among Salafists. 
 
Believers in the monotheistic religions know very well that sovereignty is for God alone. But when we make laws and constitutions we also believe that there is sovereignty for the people. Yet how do we understand it? Not in an absolute manner. The people are the source of authority, whether executive, legislative, or judicial. But from where do they get this authority? It is from the Shariah, which God sent down to man, giving him freedom to make laws according to it. 
 
What articles of the constitution would you seek to amend?
 
What has been agreed upon in the constitution is sufficient for this stage. If we open the door to amendment after such a short period of time, I’m afraid the political situation will not remain stable. We can accept its flaws for the sake of keeping things running smoothly. Let politics continue, let security return, and let’s not enter into a new crisis. Once we get to the next stage we can discuss and consider any changes. 
 
You are generally in agreement with Morsi on his vision for the state and the nation. Where do you disagree with his administration?
 
Up until now we have seen the Morsi administration as one made up of amateurs, not professionals. Most of those surrounding the president have not been in power before, so they are still learning. 
 
Should he cooperate better with other political trends?
 
Yes, he should better accept the opposition. Unfortunately, some of those around him put barriers between him and the opposition so that he does not cooperate with them. 
 
What is the role of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya, especially concerning elections? 
 
We’re not in a hurry to increase our numbers or promote ourselves in the media. Maybe we are going about this too slowly, but we are not striving to rule, only to serve our country. If we find a way to govern, we will, but only if we avoid struggling against others. Also, we are still building our capacity. We won’t assume responsibility for more than we can fulfill. This is natural for anyone who respects himself and his work.
 
Who are you leaning to ally with now?
 
We call for all the Islamist parties to join together. The Freedom and Justice Party want to operate alone, and some of the Nour Party leaders have said the same, though we have good relations with them. All that is left are the Asala Party, the Fadila Party, and the Watan Party, along with Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail. So we are working on an agreement together. 
 
During the last presidential election Morsi promised to support the cause of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Do you think he is committed to bring the sheikh back to Egypt?
 
He promised to try, and we see him as an honest man in no need of empty promises. Abdel Rahman’s ordeal in 
America has been very severe, and Morsi understands that he is a good man who is suffering oppression. We 
have spoken to Morsi and convinced him of this, and he is committed to returning Abdel Rahman to Egypt.
 
Certainly we don’t believe Abdel Rahman is any danger to the United States, such that he should remain in prison his whole life and be treated poorly. From what we have heard about U.S. justice and its respect for the individual, we are amazed at how they treat an old, blind, and sick man. 
 
So you believe he is innocent of the charges levied against him?
 
Abdel Rahman was treated severely in Egypt. From what we know about him, he saw America as a place of safety where he could avoid trouble, but then he was accused. It is all a conspiracy against him. Did Mubarak’s regime arrange it to get rid of the sheikh? We can’t swear to it, but there are indications. His sentence appears quite political and is not related to justice.
 
I was encouraged that I was able to raise the issue with the Deputy National Security Advisor in America. It appears impossible for Abdel Rahman to receive a pardon, but perhaps he could serve the remaining part of his sentence in Egypt.
 
What were your impressions of America during this experience? 
 
It was the first time I had traveled there, and it was a good and insightful visit. I was in Washington, meeting people in the [center] of decision making in America. It was only a five day trip but with very good contacts. I saw a great variety of people there, but they were all Americans. Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and others different than the normal European type—but when you talk to them you feel they are all American. I found Muslims in our hotel and other establishments; they were also American. 
 
A nation that can bring people together like this…We say Islam is best suited to gather peoples and tribes, as Muhammad taught us that Islam is more than a religion. It is a container collecting different nations. This is what I saw in the United States.
 
Al-Gama`a al-Islamiya is committed to nonviolence and has apologized for its past. In fact, you organized a demonstration recently to condemn political violence. 
 
We saw that others had taken over the streets and were now using them to express their views. People might thinkthat they are the voice of Egypt. We wanted to say that the Egyptian street is not about violence and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, beautiful Tahrir Square has lost its symbolism. So we [demonstrated in] another place to avoid any contact with them. Our demonstration invited all to come and express their opinions, whether for or against the Islamist project, but with a commitment to nonviolence. 
 
I noticed many of the speeches and chants were very Islamic, and quite severe. Instead of “no to violence,” the demonstration became about “yes to political Islam.” 
 
Our demonstrations often take the color of the people who attend. Maybe this is because of our weakness in usingthe media; we use a strident voice to make our point and show we are strong. We are Islamists, and we do not accept separating religion from anything else, and the street welcomes this. And so they chant, “Egypt will remain Islamic!”
 
The protest also honored Khaled al-Islambouli [Sadat’s assassin].
 
Islambouli is considered one of the symbols of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya when it was in a period of resistance to the regime. We all saw Sadat as a dictator, especially in his last years when he used oppression and closed mosques. Islambouli has an honored place among us.
 
Even if you now confess that what he did was wrong.
 
If we could go back in history and reevaluate, perhaps we would not have chosen the path of violence. But what happened was necessary due to the situation. Unfortunately, the circumstances demanded it. 
 
But this is the test of your principles. If nonviolence is a principle—not a means, not a strategy—you must commit to it. 
 
Yes, this is right. It is a principle.
 
Jayson Casper is a writer with Arab West Report, Christianity Today, and Lapido Media. He blogs on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging, and can be found on Twitter @jnjcasper.