EGYPT: Islamists Given Jail, and a Message

EGYPT: Islamists Given Jail, and a Message

A year-long military trial of 40 leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement ended last week with stiff jail terms for most of the defendants. Although the group is officially banned by the state, many observers were taken aback by the severity of the rulings.

“These were the harshest verdicts against the Brotherhood since the 1960s,” Diaa Rashwan, senior analyst at the semi-official al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, and expert on Islamic political movements, told IPS.

On Apr. 15, 25 of the 40 defendants were convicted on charges of money laundering and promoting terrorism. The verdicts were handed down by a military tribunal, the use of which is permitted under Egypt”s 27-year-old emergency law.

Two prominent members of the group — Khayrat El-Shater and Hassan Malek — each received seven-year jail terms and had their financial assets confiscated. Another 18 of the defendants received sentences ranging from five to eight years in prison. Of seven other defendants tried in absentia, five received ten-year jail terms. The remaining 15 were acquitted.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Akef described the military tribunal as “despotic”.

“The trial was held under the auspices of the emergency law, and totally lacked constitutionality,” Akef stated on the group”s website. “It is proof the regime is only interested in monopolising political authority at the expense of public interest.”

The following day, popular protests in support of the jailed leaders were held at a number of universities throughout the country. At Cairo”s famous al-Azhar University, an estimated 2,000 Brotherhood supporters — many carrying pictures of the convicted men — gathered to denounce the rulings.

The men were first detained in December 2006 after Brotherhood-affiliated students staged what authorities called a “military rally.” While Brotherhood spokesmen insisted the display had been “athletic” in nature, government officials accused the group of attempting to reconstitute its defunct military wing.

Days later, police arrested 40 high-ranking Brotherhood members — including al-Shater, the group”s third-in-command — on charges of “reviving the efforts of a banned movement” and money laundering. Shortly afterwards, President Hosni Mubarak — declaring that the group represented a “danger to Egypt”s security” — ordered the defendants to be tried by military tribunal.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been officially banned by the state since the 1950s, when some of its members were accused of plotting to assassinate former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the 1970s, however, the group officially renounced violence, and its tactics have been confined to the political arena ever since.

Although the Brotherhood remains formally outlawed, its members can field candidates as nominal independents in municipal and parliamentary elections. In 2005, the group captured 88 seats in parliament — roughly one-fifth of the national assembly — despite widespread electoral fraud by Mubarak”s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Like other Islamist parties in the region, the group has built up considerable grassroots support by providing badly needed social services in impoverished areas.

According to Hafez Abu-Saeda, secretary-general of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, the raft of harsh sentences comes as part of the NDP”s ongoing reaction to the group”s 2005 electoral successes and subsequent parliamentary presence.

“After the Brotherhood secured a fifth of the seats in parliament, its objective went from political participation to political domination,” explained Abu-Saeda. “By handing down these stiff rulings, the government is forcing the group to moderate its ambitions.

“No other opposition group would ever see its leaders remanded to a military court,” Abu Saeda added, “because none of them represent as serious a threat to the ruling regime.”

Rashwan agreed that the recent verdicts must be seen within the context of the state”s long-standing campaign to politically marginalise the Islamist group.

“In the last three years, the government has desperately sought to exclude the Brotherhood from the political arena,” said Rashwan. He went on to point out that the NDP blatantly rigged last year”s Shoura (upper) Council elections, as well as local council elections earlier this month, “with the specific intention of thwarting Brotherhood candidates.”

Within the last few months alone, hundreds of the group”s members have been detained by the authorities, especially during the lead-up to nationwide local council elections held on Apr. 8.

Although some commentators have suggested that the latest escalations could push the group into abandoning its policy of non-violence, informed sources say this is unlikely.

“I doubt the Brotherhood would resort to violence in response to the recent convictions,” said Abu al-Saeda. “Its reaction will probably come in the form of more peaceful protests on university campuses and at professional unions.”

According to Rashwan, the Islamist group has already achieved too much politically to risk it all on a violent confrontation with the state.

“By adhering to peaceful methods, the Brotherhood has managed to earn itself a wide base of popular support, and succeeded in becoming the largest opposition bloc in parliament,” he said. “It has nothing to gain by violence.” (END/2008)