• January 30, 2006
  • 14 minutes read

Around the Bloc

Around the Bloc

The banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood is now the biggest (if unofficial) opposition group in Parliament. Is it enough to turn the Brothers into democrats? Supreme Guide Mohammed Mahdi Akef talks about the group’s future.
They were the most-anticipated parliamentary elections in Egypt’s history. For weeks, the nation woke up to headlines about nothing but campaign promises and poll counts. Now that the dust has settled and the spoils awarded, the governing National Democratic Party (NDP) has won its majority — and the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the largest (if unofficial) opposition bloc — pundits and voters alike are trying to suss out exactly what it all means.

Despite hopes for a younger parliament, the basic lineup is still largely the same, with old guard players holding steadfastly to their seats and the NDP crossing the finish line with a healthy two-thirds majority, far less than the 90 percent monopoly on power it enjoyed in previous classes of parliamentarians, but enough to push through any constitutional amendments it thinks necessary.

Still, there were a few surprises. Not so much the low turnout (26 percent of registered voters cast their ballots over the course of the three-stage parliamentary race) or violence in the second two stages (12 dead, but still a less violent campaign season than past elections), and certainly not the allegations of low-level corruption. Instead, it was the complete immolation at the polls of the secular opposition.

With 12 seats left to be decided in runoffs at press time, 311 of 432 decided seats went to the NDP, six to the liberal Al-Wafd, two to the leftist Al-Tagammua’ and one to a newly-formed Al-Ghad Party splinter group. Independents won 112 seats, an estimated 88 of them going to candidates backed by Egypt’s oldest Islamist opposition group.

Although they appeared to be gaining popularity in the polls as the elections unfolded, the Brotherhood’s win of almost 20 percent of the 444 seats compared to 17 seats in the last elections is, for many, one of the most troubling outcomes of the race, raising skepticism in political and intellectual circles about the future of the nation’s secular opposition.

Speaking from the group’s headquarters in Cairo’s Roda district, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mahdi Akef declares that earning a fifth of all seats in the People’s Assembly was not just a victory for his group, but a victory for the whole nation.

“It is a victory for Egypt because it is crystal clear that people have woken up and relinquished their passivity,” says Akef. “The people lived for 50 years under the helm of despotism, so they lost faith in everything, even the ballot box. This time, it was clear that people moved to give their votes freely.”

Many analysts now expect the Brothers to heavily contest the upcoming municipal and Shura Council elections in a bid to win the signatures required to field an independent candidate in the next presidential poll. Following the referendum on amendment of Article 76 earlier this year, the constitution stipulates that parties must secure at least five percent of the seats in each of the People’s Assembly (23) and the Shura Council (nine) to have the automatic right to field a candidate in the presidential election that follows. Parties were exempt from that requirement in last fall’s contest. Independent candidates must obtain at least 250 nomination signatures: 65 from MPs, 25 from members of the Shura Council and 160 from municipal councils. In theory, another set of PA elections could come before the next presidential race in 2011. While presidential terms last six years, parliament sits for just five.

But Akef denies the theory, asserting that fielding a presidential candidate is not on the group’s agenda. “The regime does not understand the meaning of alternation of power. When we find that the regime’s leadership and the NDP have a correct vision on the meaning of liberties, democracy and the alternation of power, we will think about it [fielding a presidential candidate],” says Akef.

But Akef isn’t ruling out his group’s participation in the Shura Council and municipal elections.

“Participating in elections is part of our strategy. We take part in all elections, but we examine how we can participate in each kind of poll,” says Akef. “As for the Shura Council and municipal elections, we have not referred that issue to the group’s institutions yet. These issues must be studied well to see what we can present and then the issue is referred to the group’s leadership to make a decision. To date, the group has not yet examined this issue.”

The Supreme Guide’s watchwords are no longer “the implementation of the Islamic Shariah” but genuine democratization. Akef, who in March 2004 launched a comprehensive reform initiative whereby he affirmed the group’s commitment to democracy, maintains that the respect of public liberties is the first issue on the agenda of the group’s MPs. “The first priority is the portfolio of [civil] liberties, the [amendment] of Articles 76 and 77, the abrogation of the emergency law, exceptional courts and exceptional laws. Thus, the first portfolio is assuring the people full freedom,” says Akef.

The new parliament is expected to hammer out the details of the constitutional reforms President Hosni Mubarak pledged during his electoral campaign. These are expected to curtail the wide authorities of the presidency, empower the legislative authority and strike a balance between the different branches of government. The parliament is also expected to debate a permanent anti-terror law to replace the emergency laws that have been in effect since 1981.

But what type of democracy does Akef foresee? “A rightly guided democracy,” announces the Guide. “A democracy that is bound by God’s laws. And our constitution says that Shari’ah is the primary source of legislation. Thus, our democracy assures man full freedom in a sense that he does not sanction what is deemed haram [unlawful] or prohibit what is deemed halal [permissible].”

Constitutional articles stipulating that Egypt is an Islamic state and that Shari’ah is the primary source of law have been consistently resented by liberals and the nation’s Christian minority Copts as discriminatory against non-Muslims and contradictory of the concept of full citizenship. The Brotherhood’s victory has revived fears in both the liberal and Coptic community of an Islamist bid for power.

Akef, however, maintains that these fears have no logical foundation, reiterating his group’s commitment to democratic values. “This [fear] is because they have not read about the Muslim Brotherhood and have never dealt with them,” says Akef. He asserts that the group’s position on democracy would not change even if they reach power. “[In case we come to power] the first thing we would do is abolish all [laws] that deprive a citizen of his freedoms. That is Shari’ah and that is the implementation of Shari’ah, which considers freedom a religious obligation,” says Akef.

In the meantime, he adds that one of the first laws he would like to see dropped is the political parties law, which imposes a number of restrictions on the establishment of new parties. As surprising as it may seem, Akef claims his model of Islamic governance does not forbid the creation of non-Islamist parties. “I would set no regulations for the formation of new parties. Every Egyptian would have the right to form a political party, even if it is a party for the Druze or for people who worship the sun. Whoever finds that this party contradicts the constitution can take that party to court. The courts will decide whether or not this party contradicts the constitution and the basic norms of the society,” says Akef.

The group’s leaders have consistently claimed the right to be officially recognized as a political party, but their demands have fallen on deaf ears as the president and other senior government officials have repeatedly stated that no religious parties would be allowed.

In any event, the Supreme Guide says he doesn’t necessarily crave official recognition. “We are a comprehensive institution and politics represents one dimension of our message,” says Akef. “If we find out that this dimension requires the formation of a party, we will declare a party. However, I will never declare a party if the Political Parties Affairs Committee (PPAC) remains in place.”

Since 1977, the PPAC has been the government committee authorized to grant licenses to new parties. It consists of the Speaker of the Shura Council, the Minister of Interior, the Minister of State for People’s Assembly Affairs, three members of the judiciary and three independent public figures.

The legislative reforms envisaged by the Supreme Guide do not stop at abolishing laws that infringe on civil liberties. Asked about the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on the implementation of Islamic punishments known as hudud laws, Akef declares, “This issue has been extensively repeated by people; however, they do not really understand it. The hudud are limited to [particular] issues. People should understand the meaning of hudud and how they are executed. That is not my vision, that’s the vision of Islam. Islam has drawn this honorable picture. Mercenaries and those with ill intentions parrot those words without having any understanding of those [concepts]. Does Islam only mean the hudud?” he wonders out loud, accusing critics who raise the issue of mounting a smear campaign against his group.

But there’s no escaping that Islamic legal punishments include the amputation of thieves’ hands, stoning to death those convicted of adultery, whipping consumers of alcohol and executing apostates. Which is not to say Akef would not apply hudud to Egypt’s criminal code if the Brotherhood were to reach power. “We would execute the hudud, but in respect to all conditions set for their implementation. I would never say that we will not execute the hudud.” He does, however, make it clear that the application of hudud punishment is next to impossible in practice, referring to the Prophet’s (PBUH) tradition that says: “Avoid [application] of hudud where there is doubt.”

“So if there is a minimum doubt, the verdict cannot be enforced,” says Akef.

But were not these Brothers, who today present themselves as advocates of democratization, the same Brothers who opposed democracy and pluralism at several points in their history. Have they become genuinely indoctrinated with the group’s new discourse?

Many experts on political Islam say this new discourse is nothing but a tactical maneuver embraced by the group to entice the intelligentsia and gain political legitimacy. They counter that the group’s genuine discourse breeds monism among its own constituencies and leadership.

To Akef, the allegations are groundless. “Those people know nothing about the Muslim Brotherhood. When you see members of the General Guidance Bureau [the group’s supreme body] talk, you find a divergence of views and estimations. At the end, we apply the shura [consultation] and we follow the opinion of the majority. The shura is the rule followed by the group’s different institutions.”

He also rules out reports of clashes within the ranks of this group between the old guard and a rising younger generation that holds significantly more liberal views. “That [talk about clashes] is absurd. Both old and young generations sit together, express their views and at the end we follow the right opinion,” asserts Akef.

Several critics have voiced skepticism over the future performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament, expecting them to reinvigorate debates based on religious grounds such as the Islamization of the nation’s banking system and Egypt’s foreign relations with Israel — and, of course, a ban on alcohol.

Again, Akef affirms that none of those issues are on his group’s parliamentary agenda.

While he asserts that the revision of Egyptian-Israeli relations is not among the immediate objectives of the Brothers’ MPs, he insists that his group still does not recognize the state of Israel — and recently landed himself in trouble for first denying the Holocaust, then backtracking from his comments amid the domestic and international uproar that followed. “We consider them [Israelis] an aggressive people who occupied a land unjustly. We will fight it by working on the progress of our nation. Ultimately, Israel would have no existence. At that point, if the Jews decide to live among us and share the same duties and rights as genuine citizens, they will be welcomed. However, they will never be able to live under an unjust aggressive state, God willing,” says Akef.

Now that the group has achieved an electoral victory of sorts, The US has signaled possible contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, with a senior State Department official reportedly suggested that his country might be in contact with the outlawed group.

For his part, Akef insists that any bilateral talks with the US government should be through the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and not the Brotherhood.

“I respect state institutions and I resist them, but I should cooperate with others [foreign countries] to resist them There is a difference between resisting the regime and allying with others to resist it,” argues Akef.

This year, US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had intimated on several occasions that maintaining the political status quo in Egypt and other Arab countries provides fertile ground for extremism. In an interview with the Fox News editorial board last fall, Rice expressed a belief that fears of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood were overblown.