Egyptians Tussle Over Filmed Life of Muslim Brotherhood Leader

Hassan al-Banna was a clockmaker’s son who turned his piety into politics and influenced Islamic political groups and militant movements across the Middle East.

Now a duel is under way in Egypt over ownership of the celluloid life of al-Banna, the assassinated founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political force.

Brotherhood representatives say they have produced a movie script that properly paints al-Banna as a man of peace and reconciliation. A secular writer says his own script, portraying a man whose organizational offspring in Egypt and across the Middle East spawned violence, is a truer picture.

Considering that Egyptian censors have yet to rule on whether an al-Banna biopic can be made, much less shown in Egypt, the set- to is heated. Over the past two years, the 80-year-old Brotherhood has vied for power through elections and opposition to the 25-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Its thrust throws long-term uncertainty onto Egypt’s place as a U.S. ally in the Middle East.

“Hassan al-Banna was a reformer. He stood for the center, without fundamentalism, extremism or terrorism,’’ said Mohsen Radi, a Brotherhood member of parliament who commissioned the script and plans to collect money for its production.

“In my view, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most dangerous thing we have to deal with,’’ said Mohammed al-Baz, a writer and media professor at Cairo University, who wrote the alternative screenplay. “We should not be ruled by a divine idea that if we disagree, we end up in hell.’’

Force for Change?

With the rule of Mubarak, 78, in its twilight, Egyptians are debating whether the Brotherhood is a constructive force for change. The Brotherhood, whose membership is estimated at about 1 million, opposes Western influence in Egypt and rejects Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Brotherhood offshoots include Hamas, the Palestinian party that has organized numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians; a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that is heavily repressed by the Damascus government, the Islamic Action Front, a growing political party in Jordan, and affiliates throughout Western Europe. Brotherhood branches have led violent anti-government insurgencies in Algeria and Sudan.

After the Brotherhood’s strong showing in last year’s parliamentary elections, the group has worked with labor activists to promote free unions, supported secular judges who denounced fraud in last year’s presidential and parliamentary votes and organized seminars to reassure Egypt’s large Christian minority that Islamic law would guarantee civil and religious rights.

Secret Police, the Brotherhood’s London-based English language Web site, published a synopsis of its preferred script. The screenplay blames violence in the 1940s associated with al- Banna on unauthorized actions of the “special apparatus,’’ the group’s armed wing. The Brotherhood renounced violence in 1970.

“Hassan Banna loved peace!’’ said Radi.

Radi, 52, said that a group of anonymous Egyptian financiers has pledged about $1.6 million for the film and that he plans to collect another $3 million. Egyptian censorship officials say they have no objection to the project, Radi insisted, but the country’s secret police will have the final say.

Al-Banna’s son, Ahmad Seif al-Islam al-Banna, said Al-Baz’s script, in harmony with government propaganda, is meant to discredit the organization. “I’m not calling for anything to be censored, but the family should at least be able to check it for accuracy,’’ said Ahmad Seif, 72.

Al-Baz said he, too, has a verbal go-ahead from government censors. He wrote his script after the parliamentary elections, in which the Brotherhood won 88 out of 454 seats, an all-time high. Legally, the Brotherhood is banned from politics, but members run as independents. His financiers are also anonymous.

Armed Wing

Al-Baz’s screenplay blames al-Banna for Brotherhood violence. “Why else did he establish an armed wing? There are plenty of independent sources on this,’’ al-Baz, 32, asked in an interview. The script also insinuates al-Banna collaborated with Egypt’s British overlords.

Government agents assassinated al-Banna in 1949, when Egypt was a monarchy under Britain’s tutelage. His death followed the 1948 assassinations, by Brotherhood hit men, of Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi and Ahmed al-Khazendar, a judge who sentenced a Brother to jail for attacking British troops. In 1954, a Brotherhood gunman tried to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president.

For years, the organization has been subject to on-again, off-again crackdowns. For the past several months, police have rounded up hundreds of Brotherhood activists. Officials at the Information Ministry declined to comment on the office of censor’s stand on the competing scripts. Neither screenplay has been formally submitted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Cairo at [email protected]