Egypt’s Brotherhood Discovers Cost of Free Speech

The Muslim Brotherhood, with sizable numbers in parliament for the first time, is exercising free speech so freely that some of its activists are being locked up.

Last month, all 88 members of the Islamist bloc staged a walkout from the legislature when a member was shushed for asking why a French ship laden with asbestos was allowed through the Suez Canal. A couple of weeks later, Brotherhood members were a stony-faced legion as a group spokesman berated the government’s National Democratic Party as “too frightened” to hold long-planned municipal elections.

`Be quiet, you killers’

That debate turned into near-bedlam as the party of President Hosni Mubarak ignored the minority and voted to delay elections for two years. But the Brotherhood scored a small public victory: An NDP member had to apologize for a near-primal scream of frustration: “Be quiet, you killers!”

The Brotherhood in Egypt is a strain of Islamist politics intent on presenting itself as a mainstream political alternative. Egyptian authorities who have aggressively targeted secular opposition figures since the election last year now appear to be reassessing the challenge from the religious bloc.

Since Friday, Egyptian security forces have arrested 15 Brotherhood members–none are members of parliament–in what analysts and Brotherhood leaders have described as political retaliation for talk about government corruption and ineptitude.

The government said the arrested men, including a 72-year-old science professor and adviser in the Brotherhood, were in possession of anti-government publications. The men reportedly had hidden money, printers and materials to advertise the Brotherhood’s activities.

“This will strengthen the resolve of the people to challenge the government,” Hamdy Hassan, the parliamentary leader of the Brotherhood bloc, said this week.

Hassan said the “wave of arrests may well be a response to the pressure exerted by the Brotherhood in parliament.” The members, he warned, “will not cease their activities” or the pursuit of “uncovering corruption, negligence or mismanagement” in government.

New attention has been cast on Islamic rule in the region because of the Palestinians’ vote in favor of Hamas–a group deemed as terrorist by the U.S. and the European Union.

In Egypt, electoral gains by the Brotherhood last fall signaled the unfolding of a deep change in a trusted U.S. ally and underscored a political reality: Islamic parties, organized and well-versed in grass-root issues, benefit from democratic possibilities in Arab politics.

The Brotherhood fielded candidates for 161 seats, and voters in significant numbers chose them over Mubarak’s party. The Brotherhood, as a religious group, is banned as a party, so candidates ran as independents; voters knew who and what they were choosing.

Historic victory

Despite state security swarming some polls, and violence that left at least 10 people dead, Brotherhood members won more than half the seats they sought. The victory was historic: Six years ago, candidates tied to the Brotherhood captured just 17 seats. It now controls 20 percent of the 454-seat parliament.

The Islamists are increasingly able to make their arguments on a broad, legitimate stage although their lawmaking power is hamstrung by the NDP’s majority. Some Brotherhood members fret over the imbalance–even as they acknowledge they have riled the ruling class.

“It’s democracy without fangs,” said Hassan, who in February led the protest over the election delay. “We have free speech … but what do we get done?”

Analysts predict, in time, a more profound impact. “They’ll definitely change the discourse,” said Samir Shehata, an assistant professor from Georgetown University who is in Cairo writing a book on the election. “Are they going to force every woman to wear a veil? No. Are they going to focus on corruption and talk about it whenever they can? Yes.”

Since its members took office in December, the Brotherhood’s efforts have been noted by outside governments. Britain is seeking “working-level contacts” with the new lawmakers, according to a report in New Statesman magazine.

The effort is part of British foreign policy to engage with political Islamists. British analysts, while cautious of possible extremist links, concluded in an earlier memo that “there is no evidence that the Egyptian MB itself is now engaged in any terrorist activity,” the New Statesman reported.

Support for Hamas

The Brotherhood and Hamas are brethren in Islamist politics, and Brotherhood leaders support Hamas’ fight against Israel. Recently, leaders in Cairo pledged to raise money to help the new Hamas government if U.S. and Israeli pressure stanches the flow of aid to the Palestinians.

But the Brotherhood remains most intently focused on its future, and leaders said they recognize this is their time to root themselves in Egypt’s political mainstream.

Leaders and parliament members espouse democracy, free speech and transparency in government. They also emphatically point out that they want Islamic law instilled in government. They contend that would constitute a form of democracy that is legitimate and in many ways better than what Mubarak has offered.

“We do need to make a distinction between Western-style democracy and the kind of democracy we believe in,” said Mohamed Habib, one of the Brotherhood’s top leaders.

“Democracies can look different from place to place,” Habib said. “We believe in a peaceful rotation of power, a multiparty system and having the people as the source of power. The only difference is that, whatever laws are passed, we want them in keeping with Islamic Shariah [law].”

The Brotherhood entered parliament through a deal with Mubarak, who was under pressure to free up the election process. Mubarak allowed multiparty elections for president and parliament and the Brotherhood agreed to run candidates for a fraction of the legislature.

After the vote, the Islamists continued to make the best of Mubarak’s vision of reform. Despite attacks at the polls by security forces, the leader of the Brotherhood publicly praised the president for allowing an exercise in choice.

Such compromises have fomented criticism from extremist veins of Islam. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who is a top lieutenant of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, released a videotape chiding the Brotherhood as a dupe of U.S.-Egyptian policy.

Brotherhood leaders, some of whom studied at Cairo University with al-Zawahiri, rejected the criticism.

“Those people aren’t politicians,” Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior Brotherhood member, said with a shrug. “They believe in change through violence. That’s not what we’re about.

“If there is anything to be realized from these elections, it is that people will choose a moderate Islam,” Fotouh said. “Change is inevitable. And we believe we won because we respected the will of the people.”


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