Are Islamists Heading to Power?

Are Islamists Heading to Power?

The struggle for Egypt”s future is heating up again, with Sunday”s arrests of Essam Erian, political coordinator for the Muslim Brotherhood, and several other top Brotherhood operatives. Erian, though an MP in the “80s, has been in and out of prison for years on charges of engaging in banned political activities. This time, however, it may not have been a case of merely rounding up the usual suspects. The Brotherhood is making a major bid for respectability, and that worries President Hosni Mubarak”s regime.

Last night in Cairo”s sweltering heat, I dropped in on Hazem Mansour, an MP representing Shubra, one of the city”s densest districts. He”s one of 88 Brotherhood members who won seats as independents and make up the largest opposition bloc. (This arrangement is a long-standing feature of Egypt”s Tom-and-Jerry political routine; the regime bans the Brotherood and thus gives itself the prerogative of rounding up its leaders whenever it sees the need, but as a way of softening the confrontation and perhaps avoiding an Algeria-style civil war, it often looks the other way when Brotherhood members run for office.)

You might think that Hazem would be furious, but instead he was scratching his head and marveling at what he regarded as the regime”s inability to chart a course to lift Egypt out of its deepening stagnation. As a matter of fact, he told me, Erian and the others were arrested at a Brotherhood meeting that was reviewing the group”s plans to launch itself as a legal political party. Despite the arrests of key strategists, he said, the group still intends to wrap up the internal approval process after Ramadan and perhaps present it to the nation as early as October or November. “Yes, they were attending an illegal meeting,” Hazem said. “But let us have our own legal political party then!” Hazem believes the regime is worried about the Brotherhood”s moves towards moderation and accomodation and that this concern motivated the latest crackdown. “They need to neutralize us now,” he said.

Valid questions remain about the Brotherhood”s policies and intentions–see for example, Professor Marc Lynch”s expert views on the subject on his Abu Aaardvark blog. Yet it is certainly another headache for Mubarak that not only is the Brotherhood sounding more moderate and pragmatic these days, but the West has begun to take some tentative steps toward dealing with the group. The U.S. embassy recently broke a taboo, for example, when it invited another Brotherhood MP to a U.S. embassy function featuring visiting congressmen.

Mubarak”s regime has spent the last few years busy at what increasingly appears to be a sophisticated maneuver to make his son Gamal his successor. In 2005, the regime changed the constitution to allow multi-party contests for president. So, if Gamal is to become president, an ambition he steadfastly denies, by the way, it will be through an election that is democratic at least in form if not in substance. This year, the regime changed the constitution again in a way that critics say undermines judicial supervision of elections and enshrines emergency police powers. Another amendment significantly tightens up the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood from forming a legal political party.

According to the views of many observers in Egypt, all this sets up an arrangement whereby the ruling National Democratic Party will put forth Gamal as its candidate and he will come out on top–OK, perhaps with some monkeying with the ballot boxes-among the field of a dozen or so rivals from weak political parties. In this scenario, the Brotherhood will have been barred from putting up its own candidate.

Keeping a Brotherhood candidate out of the presidential race may not be a big deal; after the Algeria disaster when Islamists came to power too suddenly, the MB has its own qualms about being too successful before the country is ready for it to govern. But the constitutional ban on religious organizations participating in politics could be used to keep the Brotherhood from throwing its weight behind a non-Islamist challenger for the sake of preventing the creation of a Mubarak dynasty.

The countdown has begun: Mubarak”s term is up in four years, yet given his age–in office for 26 years, he turned 79 in May–many Egyptians expect that the transition of power could come even sooner than that.