Muslim Brotherhood victory worries Egypt

If the Muslim Brotherhood had its way, alcohol would be banned in Egypt and violators punished with up to 30 lashes and tough fines.

Though the proposal was defeated four years ago, it illustrates an Islamic fundamentalist agenda many in Egypt fear.

A small but outspoken band of 15 Brotherhood lawmakers in the outgoing parliament waged a noisy campaign against “immorality,” pushing to ban books and rid state television of racy music videos.

Now the party has increased its power in parliament nearly sixfold, forming an opposition bloc that is not only bigger – about 20 percent of the 454-seat legislature – but also more vigorous.

The victory has panicked secular Egyptians, Christians and many women, who fear the Brotherhood will try to impose Saudi-style restrictions on personal rights – and even try to impose Islamic rule.

Brotherhood lawmakers are eager to use their new strength.


“Before, any proposal we presented was immediately crushed by the hundreds of hands of (ruling party) lawmakers raised up. Now our proposals will find their way out, God willing,” said Ali Laban, a re-elected Brotherhood legislator.

The Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammed Habib, wrote last week in an editorial that the movement wants to change Egypt’s constitution, empowering courts to ensure legislation conforms with Islamic Sharia law.

Egypt’s constitution calls Sharia “the principle source” of legislation. But aside from rules on divorce, inheritance and other family issues, the country’s laws are mainly secular. Alcohol is legal, and “Islamic” punishments like lashing and beheading – as occur in Saudi Arabia – are unknown.

Egyptian society is conservative, with most women wearing head scarves or veils. But that is not mandatory, and women have broader rights and mix with men far more freely than in Saudi Arabia and many Persian Gulf countries.

For now, the Brotherhood does not have the numbers to bring profound change. They emerged from Wednesday’s final phase of the three-stage elections with 88 seats in parliament. President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party still holds an overwhelming majority of 333 seats.

So far, Brotherhood leaders are taking a moderate tone, saying their legislative priority is not enforcing morals or Sharia.

“At the top of our agenda are political reforms, the economy and fighting unemployment and corruption,” returning lawmaker Hussein Mohammed told The Associated Press.

Khairat el-Shater, a top Brotherhood leader and a mastermind of its election strategy, told AP the movement recognizes it has to be pragmatic. Even if it took power in Egypt – a possibility he discounted in the near future – it could not take steps like abrogating the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, he said.

“We still oppose this agreement, but there is a difference between expressing our opinion as a group and being in power,” he said. “If we do reach power, I will be committed to what was and is accepted by constitutional institutions.”

He insisted the Brotherhood would not try to force women to don the veil or discriminate against Christians.

That moderate tone may reflect the Brotherhood’s recognition of political realities: Many who voted for the group’s candidates did so not to support its Islamic agenda but to protest corruption and poverty under Mubarak’s nearly quarter-century rule.

Some reform advocates in Egypt say the Brotherhood’s surge into mainstream politics will ultimately help democracy. The group will have to temper its ideology, and secular parties will be forced to better organize, they argue.

But many are not convinced.

“They say one thing, but do something else. They lie, and people believe them,” said Abdel Fattah Askar, an Islamic scholar and veteran researcher of Brotherhood affairs.

Even as the group seeks acceptance as a moderate Islamic force, some Brotherhood members push a fundamentalist agenda. Last month, Brotherhood heavyweight Hazem Abu Ismail said the group wanted to push harder to ban alcohol and gambling, which is allowed in hotel casinos.

While Brotherhood members insist they see Christians as equal citizens, the group’s former supreme leader, Mustafa Mashhour, called for excluding them from the army, contending they would never fight a Christian enemy.

In 2001, Brotherhood lawmakers in the outgoing parliament campaigned against three novels they deemed anti-Islamic. They did not have the support to pass legislation against them – but the uproar they caused was sufficient to cause the culture minister to ban the books and fire ministry officials involved in publishing them.

They also protested music videos they deemed salacious and supported television anchorwomen who were removed from on-air positions after they took on the veil.

Greater numbers likely will increase their influence on such cultural issues, where the government is vulnerable to popular pressure.


Associated Press reporter Nadia Abou el-Magd contributed to this report.