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EGYPT: Islamist Draft Manifesto Stirs Controversy
EGYPT: Islamist Draft Manifesto Stirs Controversy
CAIRO, Dec 7 (IPS) - For the last several months, politicians of all stripes have awaited release of the Muslim Brotherhood movement’s political party manifesto. According to spokesmen for the group, the document is intended to clarify the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood -- Egypt’s largest opposition force -- on a range of issues.
Saturday, December 8,2007 09:01
by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani IPS

CAIRO, Dec 7 (IPS) - For the last several months, politicians of all stripes have awaited release of the Muslim Brotherhood movement"s political party manifesto. According to spokesmen for the group, the document is intended to clarify the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood -- Egypt"s largest opposition force -- on a range of issues.

"The party programme aims to explain the Brotherhood"s reform project," Saad al-Din al-Kitatni, leader of the group"s bloc in parliament, was quoted as saying in late October. "It will serve to clarify the Islamic basis on which we hope to eventually establish an official political party."

The Muslim Brotherhood was first established in the 1920s but has been officially banned since 1954. While the group remains formally outlawed, its members can run as nominal independents in parliamentary elections.

In late 2005, the Brotherhood scored a surprise victory in a hotly contested parliamentary race. Despite widespread electoral fraud by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak, the Islamist group captured a total of 88 parliamentary seats -- roughly a fifth of the otherwise NDP-dominated assembly.

Over the course of the last year, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has become subject to an ongoing campaign of arrests by police and vilification in the official media.

In December of 2006, a small rally held by Brotherhood-affiliated students was depicted by the state press as the advent of an "Islamic militia". Since then, more than 300 of the group"s members have been arrested on various charges.

Early this year, 40 of the movement"s leaders were referred by presidential decree to a military tribunal where they currently face charges of "financing the activities of a banned group." The move came in tandem with constitutional changes granting the President broad powers of arrest, including authority to refer suspected "terrorists" to military courts.

Along with threats of incarceration, the Muslim Brotherhood also faces mounting criticism from civil society and secular opposition figures. They claim that -- despite the group"s significant parliamentary presence -- its political agenda remains largely unknown.

In August, under pressure to provide a degree of insight into its policy orientations, the group"s leadership distributed a preliminary draft of its official party manifesto. Hoping to avoid unnecessary controversy, only a select handful of academics and civil society figures received copies of the document.

Despite this precaution, however, contents of the draft were soon leaked to the local press. In the ensuing debate, critics seized upon two aspects of the document, which, they claimed, confirmed the "undemocratic" nature of the Islamist movement.

First, non-Muslims and women would be disallowed from serving as head of state, that is, as president of the republic. Secondly, the charter stipulates the establishment of a vaguely defined council of Muslim scholars mandated with overseeing legislation.

Human rights organisations were quick to register their disapproval of the document, with some calling it "discriminatory".

"Barring non-Muslims or women from political office contradicts international human rights conventions signed by Egypt," Hafez Abu-Saeda, secretary- general of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights told IPS.

Abu-Saeda also censured the notion of a council of religious scholars with the authority to influence lawmaking.

"The idea of such a council negates the concept of the modern state," he said. "As is the case in Iran, such a system puts the authority of religious scholars above that of the people."

Abu-Saeda went on to say that the draft manifesto lacked sufficient attention to pressing economic issues.

"In contrast to Turkey"s successful Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party, the Muslim Brotherhood"s party programme focuses on religious issues while failing to make substantive references to the economy," he said.

Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, was no less critical.

"The programme essentially aims to change how society is administered," Rashwan, one of those to receive an advance copy of the manifesto, told IPS. "No single political movement can unilaterally change the rules of the political process."

He also criticised the document"s relative lack of detail about the proposed council of scholars.

"Until now, the precise role of this council remains indeterminate," said Rashwan. "There are still ambiguities about the extent of its authority and how exactly it would be formed."

In the interim, the Islamist group"s leadership has repeatedly stressed that the current draft of its party programme was subject to change.

In a Nov. 24 interview with independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Mehdi Akef attempted to further clarify the group"s positions on the most contentious issues.

On the subject of the highest office, Akef was firm, saying that the Brotherhood had taken "a final decision" on not allowing non-Muslims or women to serve as head of state.

"Some religious jurists take different stands on this point, but that is our position," he was quoted as saying.

On the religious council, Akef said many who had rushed to condemn the idea "had not understood its basic premise."

"The council would be a consultative body that would present its opinions to state institutions," Akef stated. "These opinions would in turn be subject to approval by parliament."

Answering criticism that the draft manifesto did not give sufficient attention to the concerns of Egypt"s large Christian minority, Akef insisted that the party programme was "unambiguous when it comes to the treatment of Christians."

"Islam commands that Christians be treated fairly," he said. "The Christian fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is largely the result of inflammatory and inaccurate reporting in the press."

Meanwhile, the group"s leadership has continued to hold meetings with prominent academics and civil society figures to discuss the most divisive issues. According to Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen, a final draft of the party programme will be issued in the coming months after various opinions have been considered.

Despite his criticisms of the draft, Rashwan praised the group"s efforts to consult figures from across the political spectrum before finalising the much-anticipated document.

"No other political movement has ever tabled a preliminary draft of its party manifesto for discussion," he said.

"I hope they address some of the general criticisms," Rashwan added. "But they"re free to formulate their political programme however they want. Ultimately, it is up to the people to accept or reject it -- at the ballot box." (END/2007)

 


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