Brotherhood opts for moderate policy to win support
He doesn’t seem a radical or a troublemaker, but to the Egyptian government, Abdul Fattah Rizk, a surgeon with a greying mustache and hands pink from scrubbing, is a man to be watched.
He belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, the most potent opposition group in the country. Hundreds of its members are in prison and many more are lying low. But even as security forces scour the nation for dissent, the Brotherhood is everywhere, from the shacks of handymen to the estates of millionaires and the halls of parliament.
The government of President Hosni Mubarak paints the Brotherhood as an extremist organisation with terrorist ties and a determination to impose strict Islamic law across Egypt. The group says it renounced violence decades ago and its real threat to the ruling party is its appeal to the educated and middle class, who view the regime as corrupt and beholden to the West. Although there are radicals among its members, the Brotherhood espouses a moderate Islam to reshape Middle East politics.
That is a challenge for Washington. Egypt is a trusted US ally that has kept peace with Israel for 30 years. A rise in power by the Brotherhood, which supports armed resistance against the Jewish state, would upset that balance. The group also could instigate unrest and damage prospects for a smooth government transition after the 81-year-old Mubarak dies or steps down.
But Egypt’s repression of the Brotherhood and other opposition groups weakens the Obama administration’s credibility in the region. Washington has stressed wider political freedoms in Egypt but, wary of the Brotherhood’s intentions, has not harshly criticised Mubarak for his country’s poor human rights record. “Belonging to the Brotherhood is a state of faith,” said Rizk, an official with the Egyptian Doctors Union. “You help people when you become a devout Muslim, and that helps the country. Government pressure depressed and scared away many of our members. But most of us stayed.
The Brotherhood is facing growing pressure from within and without. About 400 of its members, including several top figures, have been arrested in the latest crackdown.
The organisation is contending with internal divisions between conservatives and reformers and between those who support the Brotherhood’s political ambitions and those who argue it should return to its roots as a religious and social movement.
The recent arrests appear to be a move by the ruling National Democratic Party to weaken the group ahead of 2010 parliamentary elections. Members of the Brotherhood, which is officially banned, ran as independents in 2005 and won 20 per cent of the seats in parliament.
Another strong showing next year could complicate what analysts believe is the National Democratic Party’s plan to have Mubarak’s largely untested son Gamal succeed his father.
Challenges: Group doesn’t know what it wants
The Brotherhood’s larger challenges are domestic political aspirations and its lack of vision. It does poor public relations, often sending out muddled messages. Its rigid ideology limits freedom of expression and women’s rights, and the group is against allowing a Christian to ever serve as president of Egypt. Critics say the Brotherhood doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be at a time Egyptians are looking for an inspiring alternative to the 28 years of Mubarak’s rule.
The Brotherhood does speak to the religious devotion that has been intensifying in Egypt since the 1990s.