Egypt: What’s Up With The Brotherhood?

 The arrest this week of 23 activists from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has turned the spotlight on the powerful Islamist movement. Still officially banned, it was allowed to stand in last December’s parliamentary elections and its electoral success means it is now the second biggest force in parliament. But this change is also forcing the Brotherhood to provide clear answers to some tough questions. As Cairo-based political analyst and writer Issandr El Amrani told Adnkronos International (AKI), those answers are not always forthcoming as the secret organisation grapples with a deep generational divide.

In the outgoing 454-seat People’s Assembly, there were just 15 MPs affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, but in three rounds of voting in December, the group boosted that to a record 88 seats. For Elamrani, crucial in the Brotherhood’s victory was a mobilisation campaign, run by the traditional leftwing liberal and secular opposition parties which saw crowds take to the streets against the idea of giving another mandate to president Hosni Mubarak.

“This movement tapped a sense of political frustration among Egyptians, but at the polls it was the Muslim Brotherhood, not the opposition parties, who reaped the benefits, and this is because of the Brotherhood’s legitimacy,” said El Amrani.

“Its members include many professionals, doctors, lawyers and thinkers, it is active in charities and schools and it ran a well-planned canvassing of rural and urban areas offering a clear message,” said Elamrani, who was attending a seminar at Rome’s town hall on Islam and the West in the Mediterranean.

“Immediately after the victory, the Brotherhood went on a public relations offensive to reassure people at home and abroad that it wanted to reach power through democracy,” said Elamrani. One of the Brotherhood’s leading figures wrote an editorial in the British Guardian newspaper headlined: “Don’t be afraid of us.”

But there was a genuine need to put people’s minds at rest. Founded in the 1920s, mainly in response to British occupation and with a strong anti colonial basis, the Muslim Brotherhood proposed the idea of an Islamic state. It is the second largest political party in Egypt, though it is not legal because Egypt’s constitution does not allow “religious parties”. It was last involved in violent attacks in the 1950s, before in 1976 officially renouncing violence.

There are some pressing questions which – five months on – have still not been answered. “The Coptic question – 10 per cent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians. How does the Brotherhood intend to treat that minority? Will there be equal access to senior posts, will they be allowed to run for president?

“Internationally, the movement has always said it opposes Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. What are the implications of that? And what about their historic objective of an Islamic state, what precisely does that mean? Introducing Sharia law instead of Egypt’s secular legal system?”

“They put forward the idea of citizenship, the treatment of Muslims and Christians in Egypt as equals – which is currently not the case” he said. “They were also supposed to provide a position paper on this issue, which has been delayed by several months” he noted.

However, the behaviour of Muslim Brotherhood MPs in the National Assembly shows it is embracing a secular agenda. “It has backed efforts to curb the power of the president, promote free elections, roll back the emergency law and state real debate on reform.”

The movement has also tabled bills in parliament calling for the independence of the judiciary and launched a campaign against the state of emergency in force since 1981. When the government recently announced it was renewing the emergency laws for another two years – because anti terror laws to replace them needed more time to be drafted – the Brortherhood deputies turned up in the chamber with black arm bands. (Continued)

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