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RISE OF MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD SPARKS FEARS AND HOPES
Egyptians are witnessing a new political reality in the country, after the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in Egypt, increased its parliamentary representatives fivefold in the recent legislative elections. The movement has been banned since 1954, and as such is barred from fielding candidates in the elections, but it has dodged this sanction by fielding its members as
Wednesday, December 7,2005 00:00
by Rachelle Kliger

Egyptians are witnessing a new political reality in the country, after the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in Egypt, increased its parliamentary representatives fivefold in the recent legislative elections.

The movement has been banned since 1954, and as such is barred from fielding candidates in the elections, but it has dodged this sanction by fielding its members as independents, gaining at least 76 seats in the 454-seat People’s Assembly.

It had 15 seats in the outgoing parliament.

Despite being banned, the movement is tolerated by the Egyptian government which does not want to alienate voters by clamping down on a popular organization.

The success of the Muslim Brotherhood is a matter of concern for both Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which feels threatened by the increasing popularity of the movement, and for the West, which finds the ideology of the movement disagreeable.

But some see in the brotherhood’s increasing power a positive sign, which will not necessarily turn Egypt into a strictly religious country. Rather, they say, it will pump new blood into the political system and balance out a stagnant regime.

Who Are the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood, (Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun in Arabic, or simply Al-Ikhwan) was founded in 1928 by Hasan Al-Bana. It branched out into other countries in the Middle East and was the inspiration for other Islamist organizations such as the Palestinian Hamas.

The brotherhood became a political group in 1939, aiming for social and moral reform based on Islam. The organization is based on the holy Muslim scriptures, the Quran and the Hadith, and believes that laws in modern countries can and should draw from Islamic law, the Shari’a.

“Prayer is a pillar of the religion,” the group explains on its website. “Jihad is its highest peak, Allah is the goal, the messenger is the role model, the Imam and the leader, and dying in the path of God is the highest ambition.”

Hasan Al-Bana set two main goals for the organization. The first was to liberate Muslims from any foreign control, and the second was to establish an Islamic state with a Muslim rule.

 


The attitude of the Egyptian government toward the Muslim Brotherhood is not consistent.

The group was legally banned in 1954, but incumbent Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been tolerant of the group since he came to power in 1981, in a bid to implement an open-minded policy toward the country’s opposition groups. At times, the government will crack down on the group through mass arrests if they feel the brothers are gaining too much ground and posing a threat to the leadership or to the security and stability of the country.

A case in point occurred after the first two phases of the legislative elections, when it was apparent the group was gaining popularity. Before the third and last round began, the brotherhood said the authorities arrested many of their members and physically barred their supporters from reaching polling stations.

Some observers say the government chose to stretch the elections over three phases because they wanted to gauge the popularity of the brotherhood in the initial rounds and plan ahead for the following stages.

Similar to other Islamist groups in the Middle East, the brotherhood offers social services to Egyptian citizens and musters much of its support from the disadvantaged sectors of society through its welfare services and its empathy with the people.

Frustration with the regime

Professor Muhammad ‘Ali Bishr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Committee, said the organization is working close to the people “in the street” and voices concerns for their problems.

“The problem actually is the government itself,” he said. In casting their vote for the brotherhood, Egyptians were sending a message to the NDP which has failed to produce decent candidates to address their problems, Bishr said.

Dr. Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that people who braved intimidations by security forces and voted for the brotherhood were actually protesting against the ruling party’s policies of the last two decades.

Hamzawy, who is of Egyptian descent, believes the domestic pressure in Egypt is what pushed Mubarak to open up, whereas international pressures on Egypt did not make their mark.

Political reforms in Egypt have been discussed extensively for the past four years, he said, and the fruits of these discussions were apparent in the elections. “The voter turnout was better compared to 2000 or prior elections,” he said.

Concerns over gains

The danger that can emerge from the brotherhood’s increase in power, Hamzawy explained, is a lack of other opposition parties to balance them out.

“I’m shocked by the performance of liberal and leftist opposition parties. Their gains were minimal,” he said, adding that these parties are “out of the picture.”

“We have no counterbalance within the opposition spectrum,” he said.

Another potential problem with the brotherhood’s success is the way this will affect relations between Muslims and Copts, ties which were strained in the run-up to the elections. The Copts are a Christian minority in Egypt representing less than 10 percent of the population.

As a group espousing Islamist ideas, the brotherhood believes Egypt’s Christian minority should pay a tax, known as jizia, in effect rendering this population second-class citizens.

Egypt’s Political Openings

But as to the notion of the brotherhood taking over the leadership, Hamzawy does not predict this will happen, and sees the advantages of the new political makeup. “I am glad to have a counterbalance to the NDP,” he said.

“Throughout the last two decades we have always had the NDP as the only dominant force. It could do what it felt like doing without feeling responsible to public opinion or to the Egyptian electorate. With a strong opposition bloc in the People’s Assembly the picture will be different,” Hamzawy concluded.

 


The Egyptian government is also conveying that it is satisfied with the election results, even though mass arrests of brotherhood members ahead of the last phase of the elections suggests the government is quietly panicking.

Officials Express Cautious Optimism

Mubarak’s political adviser Usama Al-Baz said last week the government is observing the opposition’s gains “without any worries.” There is nothing wrong with the opposition gaining power, he said, as long as they respect the law. However, he added that there is no intention to lift the ban off the Muslim Brotherhood and allow them to become a legitimate political party. “We won’t allow a political party with a religious inclination to exist,” Reuters quoted Al-Baz saying.

Other Egyptian analysts also played down a potential threat to the regime. A columnist in the state-run daily Al-Gumhouriyya wrote shortly after the first round of the legislative elections that the brotherhood’s success is testimony that the elections were mostly fair. If the elections were rigged, he wrote, the NDP would have won all the votes.

Hamzawy agreed to some extent. The government opened up its political system due to domestic and international pressures and has lost, as a result of this, its ability to fully control the outcome of the elections, he contended. “It cannot react repressively as it used to be in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said. “They are losing the capacity to manipulate and rig the elections. This margin of lost power and authority is where the brotherhood came in and managed to win seats.”

Nevertheless, observers note that although Egypt’s leadership is not a one-man show, but is made up of many powers pulling in different directions, the ruling party still holds considerable sway over political developments. In this respect, it is reasonable to assume that no opposition party, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will gain power without the blessing of the ruling party.

 

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