EGYPT: Social programmes bolster appeal of Muslim Brotherhood

 Like a number of other religiously-oriented movements across the Middle East, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally appealed to its constituencies through a system of wide-ranging social programmes.

Areas that are currently subsidised by the group include education, health and job-training programmes.

The Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned in the mid-1950s, when some of its members were accused of trying to assassinate then Interior Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser, who went on to become president shortly afterwards. In the 1970s, however, the group officially renounced violence, and its methods have been confined to the political and social arenas ever since.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has built considerable grass-roots support by providing much needed social services in impoverished areas. Such activities have earned it a reputation for competence and honesty, often in contrast to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), popularly perceived as self-serving and corrupt.

“The brotherhood was extremely popular here, even before the election, because it stands against corruption and its people are honest and respectable,” said Tamer Saeed, a resident of the teeming, low-income Imbaba district of the capital, where two brotherhood candidates savaged their respective opponents from the NDP and independent secular parties.

According to many political observers, the brotherhood’s devotion to social work was the prime driver behind its astounding results in parliamentary elections, held in late 2005. The group managed to capture 88 seats in the People’s Assembly, up from only 15 in the outgoing assembly.

“The brotherhood was more public than ever with its social work and political campaigning, and took full advantage of unprecedented discontent with the NDP,” said Amin Mohamed Amin, an analyst at the government-run Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Saeed noted from Imbaba: “After 24 years of waiting for changes, like clean streets and workable sewage systems, people lost faith in the ruling party. The brotherhood will deal with all these pressing issues, which are high on its agenda.”

For members of the movement, social services are a natural extension of Islamic beliefs. “It’s not aid,” said a leading brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh. “We run social assistance programmes because the Islamic way of life requires it.”

Helping the needy

Countrywide, the Muslim Brotherhood runs 22 hospitals and has schools in every governorate in the country. The organisation also runs numerous care centres for poor widows and orphans as well as training programmes for the unemployed. “We work in both rural and urban areas,” Abul Futouh pointed out. “The goal is to reach out to the most marginalised people in society.”

While public services in Egypt are, for the most part, free of charge, quality tends to be low. For example, state-run schools are often so poor that families are forced to hire private tutors to ensure that their children pass public exams.

Services offered by the brotherhood, meanwhile, are much cheaper than private alternatives. “A woman would usually pay at least US $875 to give birth in a private clinic, compared to just US $175 in one of our hospitals,” said another prominent brotherhood member Gamal Abdel-Salam.

Members emphasise that brotherhood-run services are open to all Egyptians, regardless of their political – or even religious – affiliations. “Coptic Christian women come to give birth here all the time,” said Neama, a nurse who works at the group’s Omraniyya Hospital in a run-down area on the outskirts of the capital. “They’re treated in exactly the same way as Muslims. We make no distinction.”

A history of social work

Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna under the motto, “The secrecy of the organisation and the publicity of the daawa (spreading the faith),” the brotherhood’s roots in social assistance go back a long way. “The organisation has long sustained two mutually reinforcing wings: the political and the social,” according to one member of the group.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood lacks an official party license, technically banning it from political activity, the social component of its work has largely offset this disadvantage. Of the roughly 5,000 legally registered NGOs and associations in Egypt, an estimated 20 percent are brotherhood-run, according to Abul Futouh. “All our associations are legally registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs,” he said.

Although the government closely monitors the group’s funding activities, as it does with all non-profit organisations working inside the country, the brotherhood generally registers its associations under different names, and seldom under those of well-known members. While the government has closed down some of the group’s social projects in the past, say members, this rarely happens now. “On the whole, the government turns a blind eye because we fill a very obvious gap in public social services,” said Abdel-Salam.

Many of the group’s cadres see the brotherhood’s informal administrative structure – a result of the organisation’s lack of official status – as an advantage. “Decentralisation of power is always positive when it comes to social activity,” Abul Futouh noted, “as long as the different entities working on the ground have a single goal”.

Funds are collected from members via a system which runs along the same lines as traditional Islamic zakat, or obligatory alms-giving. Instead of giving funds directly to the poor, members trust the group to make sure money goes where it is most desperately needed. “Donors provide funds knowing they will be put towards Islamic causes, such as building schools or providing for poor widows,” explained Abdel-Salam.

Unlike state-run organs, brotherhood-managed institutions are rarely subject to allegations of fraud or dishonesty.

Unclear social agenda

According to Abul Futouh, the brotherhood’s goal is simply to establish “a participatory, democratic country, based on the principles of Islamic law”. Some observers, however, express concern about the group’s social agenda, elements of which remain unclear.

“The positions of the brotherhood-affiliated parliamentary bloc are mixed, and this applies to social issues as well,” noted Hossam Bahgat, programme director at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

The group had “been careful to stay away from women’s issues and issues of freedom of expression”, he said. During the 2000 parliamentary elections, it pressured the government to seize books deemed morally offensive. A year later, it did not support the passage of legislation aimed at bolstering the legal status of women. “Now that they have a parliamentary presence, we don’t expect [the brotherhood] to support amendments to the personals status law, which would give more rights to women in areas of child custody and divorce,” he added.

Amin expressed concern about the movement’s religious affiliations: “The fact that the brotherhood mixes religion and politics is, in itself, very dangerous,” he said, “particularly among a population as religiously charged as Egypt’s”.

“While Egypt, on the whole, can’t be considered a secular country, whether and how one chooses to practice religion should be a wholly personal choice,” he added.

Nevertheless, the movement has drawn praise on other issues relating to civil and human rights. “We were pleasantly surprised by its support for a new unified law for the building of places of worship,” Bahgat noted. Egyptian Christians have long complained that legislation has traditionally favoured the building of mosques over churches.

He also extolled the “exemplary work” undertaken by brotherhood-affiliated MPs on issues such as “holding ministers accountable and challenging intellectual property rights which affect the availability of medicine”.

The one certainty is that the Brotherhood’s policies, both social and political, are increasingly coming under the spotlight now that they have garnered a significant minority in the People’s Assembly.

“They know they’re under considerably more scrutiny now,” Bahgat noted. “They’re aware of the legitimate concerns of observers, and they’re trying to accommodate those concerns.”