Brotherhood reveals its colours
The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to take part in the upcoming People’s Assembly elections comes as no surprise. Polls are vital to that organisation, which is why it participates in all sorts of elections, regardless of the prospective results. In fact, on this occasion, it knows very well that it will not score the surprise success it achieved in 2005. Domestic and international circumstances have changed considerably since then, even if some Brotherhood members continue to live the romance of their heyday.
I may be sticking my head out a bit, but I do not think that the Muslim Brotherhood will win any seats this November. In all events, it differs little whether they get a hundred or none at all. The result will be the same: a glaring sign that in the past five years they achieved no gains and made no inroads. In fact, they lost considerable ground. Many of their leaders were arrested, their economic and social activities were curtailed, and they experienced internal power struggles of an unprecedented degree of ferocity and publicity.
I am not questioning the right of the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in elections. As an organisation with a large number of members and sympathisers it should enjoy this right like any other political party or movement. Nevertheless, there is still reason to question the Brotherhood’s motive for participating, which I doubt was driven by considerations relating to the higher public welfare. The Brotherhood was very late in announcing its decision to participate. It only did so after the Wafd Party announced that it would take part in the elections and in spite of the calls to it to join the boycott in protest against the lack of sufficient guarantees for the integrity of the polls. I suspect that the Brotherhood feared a pact between the National Democratic Party (NDP) and official opposition parties and, therefore, decided to participate so as not to lose everything.
However, this does not fully explain the Brotherhood’s determination to participate in the elections in spite of the heavy restrictions, exorbitant costs and prospective results. For the Muslim Brotherhood participation has become an end not a means. The more this officially banned organisation takes part in elections, the more it gains "de facto legitimacy", whereas boycotting the elections would be interpreted by the regime as a victory for its policies of repression against the Brotherhood. Participation also gives the organisation a golden opportunity to train its members in public action and to enable them to acquire experience and know-how in dealing with government authorities (so said the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Elections Committee in an interview with Al-Shorouk newspaper on 16 October). Then there is the considerable amount of media and legal attention the Muslim Brotherhood receives during campaign seasons, which helps promote and solidify its image as a political "victim". On top of all of this there is the element of parliamentary immunity it obtains through its candidates who win seats in the People’s Assembly, which facilitates the organisation’s ability to continue its activities.
The pursuit of such advantages is politically and practically legitimate. The problem comes when the Muslim Brotherhood feels that it has to issue a religious decree in order to justify its participation in the electoral process. This represents a radical shift in the Brotherhood’s political discourse. The fatwa proclaimed that participation was a duty and boycotting the elections sinful. Issued by Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Barr, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, the fatwa is fundamentalist par excellence, not just in its language, which is closer to conventional Salafist rhetoric than it is to the more moderate rhetoric one is accustomed to hearing from the Brotherhood, but also in its unavoidable political and religious ramifications.
According to this fatwa, participating in elections is no longer a question of individual choice, and to boycott the polls or to call for a boycott is evil. Curiously, the Muslim Brotherhood’s mufti based his decree on the notion that "parliamentary activity is a form of hisba," which is the Islamic doctrine of ensuring the maintenance of order in accordance with the laws of God. He added that legislative councils are forums for "enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong," citing the Quranic verse on which the doctrine of hisba is based. This, too, is a new addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s discourse, which had never before referred to the concept of hisba, at least in connection with elections. Stranger yet, Abdel-Barr held that electoral participation "by candidacy and by casting one’s vote" is a form of the "greater jihad " needed to "eliminate wrongdoing".
The effect of a ruling of this nature is to transpose the electoral process, complete with its various types of calculations and practices, some of which may conflict with religious tenets and principles, from the purely political realm to the religious sphere. It simultaneously transposes the question of participation from the realm of al-masalih al-mursala — considerations of public interest that are subject to the dictates of the conditions and circumstances of the times — to the realm of religiously ordained duty. Ironically, this puts the Brotherhood itself in a predicament, because it boycotted the 1990 elections without, moreover, citing a religious motive. It also puts some of its branches in other countries in an awkward position, as is the case with its Jordanian chapter that boycotted the parliamentary elections in Jordan this month. No Muslim Brotherhood official has ever dared to issue a fatwa of this sort in the movement’s entire history. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, promoted participation in the 1942 and 1944 elections, he never made it a religious obligation and never thought of making it compulsory for anyone in his group or outside it.
This fatwa puts paid to any claim on the part of Muslim Brotherhood officials that they held an internal vote on the question of whether or not to take part in the elections. In all events, the announcement by Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei that 96 per cent of the members of the Guidance Bureau voted in favour of participation — a claim that was subsequently denied by another Muslim Brotherhood leader — makes little difference. It is impossible to separate the decision to participate from the fatwa. For when this is transmitted down the lines to the remainder of the rank and file, they will have no alternative but to march to the polls, for to refuse will result in their excommunication from the group, as has already occurred with some boycotters.
The danger of this fatwa is not just that it is a more glaring example of the Brotherhood’s habitual inclination to blend the religious and political spheres. It is also an attempt to reweave the more moderate terms of the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious and political discourse into a more rigid and insular framework, which could ultimately work to isolate them.
*Published in Egypt’s AL-AHRAM WEEKLY on the Nov. 25 – Dec. 1 issue.