Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood seizes increased freedom

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood seizes increased freedom

Banned Islamist movement focuses his election campaign on catering to the poorest’s basic concerns.

By Moina Fauchier
Under a pragmatically all-encompassing religious slogan – “Islam is the solution” – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated consummate political savvy during the parliamentary campaign.

With an unprecedented level of freedom since it has been allowed to use its real name, the banned Islamist movement has criss-crossed the country’s most destitute areas, organised mass rallies and sharpened its public relations tools.

“When they go to a village, first they study it carefully and then they apply very distinct and locally-driven platforms, not one-size-fits-all slogans,” Cairo-based political analyst Josh Stacker said.

Muslim Brothers went and catered to the poorest’s basic concerns in areas where candidates from President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and other opposition groups rarely tread, he pointed out.

The Brotherhood has traditionally had excellent grassroots support, acting as much as a charity as a political party, especially in deprived urban neighbourhoods, but the election has given them additional impetus.

While leftist groups that spearheaded this year’s wave of anti-Mubarak protests failed to translate their momentum, the Brothers are making full use of their slightly expanded means of expression.

“We are not like the other opposition groups, we work on the ground,” said Issam al-Aryan, a top Brotherhood official who was jailed for five months this year.

At a campaign rally in the Cairo suburb of Hilwan on the last night of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, officials addressed their constituents in a huge tent where 1,500 chairs had been neatly lined up.

A well-organised security service wearing Brotherhood scarves watched over as the crowd chanted: “Egyptian, give your vote to Islam”.

More at home than ever in parliamentary polls where votes are lost and won over localised problems, the Brotherhood candidate promised better sewage, schools and hospitals, refraining from dwelling on national policy issues.

Despite an increased margin of freedom, the ideology of the Brotherhood – created in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna – remains unclear.

The chapter on corruption in the movement’s programme advocates “a reform of the mind in order to attain higher moral values.”

“They present themselves as an alternative to the regime… They neither accept it nor reject it, they are very pragmatic and just look at the rules of the political game of the moment,” Stacker explained.

The movement’s leaders have said that they decided to field only a third of the maximum 444 candidates in order “not to provoke” the regime.

“Anyhow, the Brotherhood is playing its cards well and the regime fails to realise that every step it takes without making this country a real pluralist democracy will push more people into the arms of the Brothers,” Mohammed Kamel, a candidate from the liberal Wafd party in the Nile Delta region, said.

With 15 MPs in parliament as independents and a solid network of social welfare in a country where the gap between rich and poor keeps growing, the Islamist movement is already the most formidable opposition force to the all-powerful NDP.

Brotherhood officials have said they hope to secure around 50 seats.

Some observers have argued that the regime could seek to crush the myth of the Brotherhoods’ strength by tampering with the results to leave them with a relatively low score despite a free campaign.

But Josh Stacker argued the regime might prefer to see the Brotherhood make gains rather than the legal opposition. “No matter how you integrate an illegal entity, you can always shut the door on it.”

Backed by the United States, Mubarak has so far refused to legalise the movement.

But Salama Ahmed Salama, an editorialist for the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, said the 2005 polls had put the question on the table again.

“We need to learn how to integrate the Islamic current in political life… The Muslim Brotherhood needs to revise its political discourse and make it more compatible with democracy,” he said.

The movement’s pragmatism would suggest that it may well water down its discourse if required.

In a recent article, Columbia University political scientist Mona al-Ghobashy pointed out that the Muslim Brothers had “left no political opportunity untapped.”

“Setting out to win Egyptian hearts and minds for an austere Islamic state and society, Hassan al-Banna’s society of Muslim brothers was instead irrevocably transformed into a flexible political party,” she said.