Egypt keeps Muslim Brotherhood boxed

Egypt keeps Muslim Brotherhood boxed

Egypt keeps Muslim Brotherhood boxed in
(CAIRO)Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief is explaining to a small
group of
reporters his government s commitment to democracy. He promises that
restrictions on political parties will soon be eased to allow for real
political competition.

But when asked if the regime will legalize the Muslim Brotherhood,
Egypt s most popular and best-organized opposition group, a bit of
steel creeps into his congenial tone. "Never, he says. The
Brotherhood "will never be a political party."

The Brotherhood – which has provided the intellectual seeds for
peaceful Islamist political organizations throughout the world as well
as Islamist terrorist groups – is at the center of calls for more
democracy not just in Egypt, but in much of the Arab world.

And in this restless Arab spring, the 77-year-old organization, which
favors Islamic law and says it s committed to democracy, has been
roused from a public slumber. Worried that the proactive steps taken by
secular Egyptian reformers like the Kifaya (Enough) Movement could cost
the Brotherhood its position as Egypt s leading opposition movement has
stirred the organization into action.

In recent months it has organized demonstrations and in turn been hit
hard by the government. Thousands of leaders and activists have been
arrested in the past two months and more than 800 remain in government
custody. In an interview, senior Brotherhood leader Abdul Moneim Abul
Futuh alleges one of the arrested, who has since been released, was
"severely" tortured while in custody.

Brotherhood leaders say democracy isn t possible unless they and their
vast constituency are allowed a voice. The Egyptian government is just
as forceful in asserting that any system that allows them a route to
power will end in a new form of dictatorship.

A violent past

In most of the Arab dictatorships, Islamist organizations are the
principal opposition, and if they come to power are likely to
dramatically reconfigure their societies and their relations with the

That unpredictable potential shift frightens not only entrenched
regimes but the US and secular opposition groups. While the US has
spoken out against Egyptian attacks on secular demonstrators, the words
"Muslim Brotherhood" rarely pass US officials lips in public. Both
Arab regimes and secular opposition groups say the stated support for
democracy by Islamists is a chimera.

The Brotherhood, which has branches in almost every Muslim country,
favored assassination of political opponents and violent tactics in its
early decades, but abandoned terrorism in the 1950s. It hasn t been
involved in political violence in Egypt since, though it does support
political violence by Palestinians and by Iraqis, which it views as
legitimate resistance.

Egypt is not alone in outlawing the group. In Syria, where the local
Brotherhood is one of the strongest opposition groups, the movement is
illegal and membership is punishable by death.

On a day-to-day basis, the Brotherhood s leaders in Egypt have adopted
a discourse of democracy – both practical and ideological, if their
leaders are to be believed. "For the Brotherhood, the issue of freedom
is at the top of our agenda now, says Mahdi Akef, the Muslim
Brotherhood s soft-spoken supreme guide. "Freedom is at the heart –
it s the principal part – of Islamic law."

According to Mr. Akef, the Brotherhood has evolved a fairly unusual
view of Islamic law. Most Islamic orthodoxy holds that apostasy –
leaving Islam – is a punishable crime, and is never to be allowed. But
asked if his idea of freedom includes allowing a Muslim to choose
another religion, or no religion at all, he says, "of course."

Yet almost every non-Islamist in Egypt fears them. "I m not ready to
sacrifice my nation to these people, says Said al-Kimmi, an author
and historian of Islam who says he favors democracy for Egypt, but
limits on religious parties.

"They may say to you they support democracy, but if you look at the
history of their beliefs, democracy really doesn t fit with Islam. The
sharia is antidemocratic – the rights of women would be attacked and
they d cut people s throats. If my choices are Mubarak s corrupt regime
or them, I ll stick with what we have now."

Brotherhood s quandary

While the secular democracy activists of Kifaya are a narrow and elite
strata in Cairo and a few other large cities, the Brotherhood s roots
run deep throughout the country. There are 7,000 official chapters and
a network of mosques and charities that run schools, provide medical
services, and give aid to the poor.

No one knows precisely how many members the movement has, but a
Brotherhood rally against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew more
than 100,000 protesters. Prime Minister Nazief says he thinks that 10
percent of Egyptians support the group, at most.

Ali Abdel Fatah, the Brotherhood s burly and gregarious chief organizer
in Egypt s second city of Alexandria, laughs at the quandary of his
organization. He says the Brotherhood is doing everything in its power
to convince Egyptians of its commitment to democracy, but concedes that
it s difficult to disprove allegations that every democratic promise is
part of a conspiracy to trick the people and seize power.

"The Brotherhood should be the ones who are afraid, he says. "We
haven t had the trial of power, we aren t the ones who ve formed
military courts to jail opponents, executed peaceful activists,
destroyed Egypt s civil society, or transformed the state into a series
of personal fiefdoms. All we want is an open and fair system."

Mr. Fatah grew up in a secular household, and became religious at
college in the 1970s, at first under the influence of the Gamma
Isalmiyah, a more radical group that favored political violence. Like
many in his generation he was disillusioned with secularism after
Egypt s defeat in its 1967 war with Israel.

By the late 1970s, he d grown closer to the Brotherhood because of what
he said was its more humane and open approach. "For instance, if
someone was drunk in public, the Gamma would want to have him whipped.
The Brotherhood, instead, would want to talk to him and explain [that]
what he s doing is wrong."

Fatah and other Brotherhood leaders point to their management of
Egypt s professional syndicates as evidence that they re committed to
democracy. The syndicates – quasiofficial professional groups that are
a cross between unions and licensing organizations – hold periodic
elections. Members pay fees to the syndicates, which run both charities
and pension plans for their members.

An Islamic democratic model

In the 1980s, the Brotherhood began organizing to take control of the
syndicates at the ballot box under the tutelage of Mr. Futuh, a member
of the Brotherhood s organizing board and a probable successor to Akef,
who is 83, as the organization s supreme guide.

Futuh, who once ran the doctor s syndicate and remains a senior
official there, points out that when the Brotherhood has lost syndicate
elections it peacefully ceded control. In recent doctors and lawyers
syndicate elections, the Brotherhood ran fewer candidates than it could
have, essentially inviting representation from both pro-government
factions and secular opposition groups onto the boards.

"We changed from wanting to dominate the syndicates to allowing more
plural boards because, even though we know we could win control easily
with total Brotherhood slates we d be excluding a lot of people, he
says. "What we want out of our involvement in the syndicate is to give
an Islamic democratic model, to show that it works in practice."

Brotherhood leadership of these organizations has generally reduced
mismanagement and improved their financial condition, but has also
provided the Brotherhood with a source of funds to advance its own
agenda. In recent years, the doctor s syndicate, for instance, has sent
a large amount of aid to Palestinians, winning goodwill for the
Brotherhood in the process.

And while the doctor s syndicate board may have fewer Muslim
Brotherhood members than it used to, the organization s downtown
offices remain a bastion for the brothers. The hallways are covered
with panoramic photos of the Brotherhood s 2003 protest against the
Iraq war and pictures of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the assassinated leader
of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The pace of change

Futuh says Egypt s President Hosni Mubarak is so deeply opposed to his
organization because of America, which he claims largely controls the
Egyptian regime. He says the US knows the Brotherhood would change
Egypt s policy toward Israel and probably overturn the two countries
20-year peace deal if it won power.

But while he and other Brotherhood members express frustration at the
slow pace of change, they also say they remain committed to the
organization s long-term strategy in Egypt, which has put preservation
of the movement s core above risking an all-out conflict with the
government that could see them destroyed. Fatah says the organization
expects it to take decades to rise to power, but it s willing to wait.

Ibrahim al-Hudaiby, a Brotherhood member whose grandfather and
great-grandfather ran the organization until their deaths, is a student
at American University in Cairo. The movement s democracy rhetoric is
no trick, he says, and that the Brotherhood is unlikely to push for
more open conflict with the government.

"Revolutions don t really lead to democracies, just look at Iran, he
says. "The Brotherhood really wants a democracy in Egypt, and it s
willing to wait to make that happen peacefully."

Christian Science