Crackdown against Islamists could backfire

Crackdown against Islamists could backfire

 Egypt’s latest crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most potent opposition group, in the run-up to 2010 parliamentary elections has raised fears the moderates who have dominated the secretive movement will be eclipsed by its hard-liners.

Dozens of middle- and high-ranking Brotherhood members have been rounded up since late June, including 10 senior figures arrested last Saturday in Nile Delta province, in a bid to stifle the movement before the elections.

The Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, but it has fielded candidates in parliamentary elections by running them as “independents” and made substantial gains in recent years.

It shook the regime of President Hosni Mubarak when the organization and its allies took 88 of the national assembly’s 454 seats — 20 percent — in the 2005 elections.

The regime brands the Brotherhood as Muslim extremists who seek to establish an Islamic state in the Arab world’s most populous country.

The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, is considered the godfather of militant Islam. It had an armed wing that fought the regime until the 1970s when it renounced violence. Its hard-line factions broke away and eventually joined forces with al-Qaida.

In recent years, it has sought to enter mainstream politics, but it has not been allowed to function as a legal political opposition, and the ruling National Democratic Party overwhelmingly dominates Parliament and political life.

But the Brotherhood’s ideology and influence extends far beyond Egypt’s borders, making it a force to be reckoned with across the Middle East.

“As a result of constitutional amendments passed in 2007, it has become difficult for the movement to run in either parliamentary or presidential elections,” according to a September analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“In fact, the restrictive new electoral law, which allows only registered political parties to campaign, bans religious parties and imposes tough conditions on ‘independent’ candidates, makes it nearly impossible for the MB to participate,” the authors, Myriam Benraad and Mohamed Abdelbaky, concluded.

The Americans have urged the aging Mubarak, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, to introduce democratic reforms, but have stopped short of opening channels to the Brotherhood in deference to him.

But Mubarak is now 81 and may not run for president when his six-year term, his sixth, expires in 2010. His second son, Gamal, a senior figure in the NDP, is widely expected to succeed him when he dies or steps down.

The Brotherhood, along with much of the country, opposes a dynastic succession. It also supports armed resistance against Israel.

Mubarak has ruled, essentially unopposed, since he succeeded Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated Oct. 7, 1981, by Islamic zealots for making peace with Israel three years earlier.

In recent years, the Brotherhood has splintered along ideological lines, between conservative, mostly young, moderates who seek to pursue the political path in the manner of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, and largely rural hard-liners who advocate more forceful change.

This internal rift was widened in October, when in an unprecedented move the Brotherhood’s leader, 81-year-old Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef, stepped down after he failed to elevate a leading advocate of political engagement to the movement’s executive body.

Commenting on this drift toward radicalism, Ibrahim al-Houdainy, an Egyptian expert on Islamic organizations, noted: “The rise of Salafism in Egypt, in addition to the ongoing crackdown by the regime, has posed real challenges and pushed the Brotherhood in a less moderate direction.

“The group has witnessed significant structural changes over the past decade, with its organizational weight moving from cities to rural areas.

“With Egypt’s countryside being increasingly influenced by Wahhabi Salafism over the past couple of decades, it is only natural that this less tolerant school will have its influence on the Brotherhood.”

The movement’s unprecedented display of support for Iranian-backed military groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon in recent months had incensed the government and sharpened the crackdown.

“The combination of severe repression and the increasingly difficult economic situation faced by most Egyptians could contribute to a radicalization of Egyptian society at large and the Islamist sector in particular,” Benrrad and Abdelbaky wrote.

“Egyptian society would seem to be fertile ground, with the ideological and social influence of Salafism taking hold.”