Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood unshaken by crackdown
A crackdown on Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood has put the movement center stage as the government yields to demands for reform, but the conflict between the state and the Islamists is unlikely to escalate, analysts say.
Police have detained some 800 members of the influential group since March, including several of the leaders active in a broad-based campaign of demonstrations for more political freedom in the Arab world”s most populous nation.
The Brotherhood will take the blows in its stride and bide its time because its powerbase is secure, it knows it cannot outwit the vast Egyptian police force and resorting to violence would only play into government hands, the analysts said.
“They are willing to bear 10 times as many blows. They understand the nature of this phase and understand that any escalation will not be in their interests,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst who specializes in Islamist movements.
The prominence of the Brotherhood in opposition to President Hosni Mubarak also raises questions about the attitude of the United States, which says it favors political freedom but has not criticized the crackdown in public.
The Brotherhood has seen periods of repression much more severe than this during almost eight decades as a permanent feature in the Egyptian political landscape.
“They know they are no match to the security apparatus. They will keep a low profile as they have done for the past two or three decades,” said Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, a Brotherhood leader, told Reuters the organization would keep up the pressure, using solely political methods.
“The Brotherhood will continue. There is nothing to fear from the Brotherhood. They remain committed to peaceful means whatever it costs them for the sake of the goals of reform,” he said in an interview.
The balance of power has however shifted in the Brotherhood”s favor because the government faces a broad front of opposition forces demanding free and fair elections and an end to the emergency law which gives the authorities wide powers to detain opponents and restrict political activity.
The United States may also have strengthened the Brotherhood”s hand by suggesting it has abandoned the traditional U.S. preference for repressive secular governments in the Middle East over the Islamist alternatives.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in March that Washington would speak out for “freedom” in the Middle East but without offering a model or knowing what the outcome would be.
That was widely interpreted as a green light for Islamist movements to compete for power, but analysts say her remarks applied mostly to Iraq, where Shi”ites with Islamist roots had already won the January elections.
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by the charismatic Hassan el-Banna, who was assassinated in 1949 by agents of the Egyptian monarchy. The current government refuses to recognize it or allow it to form a political party but it permits the movement to operate openly, albeit within strict limits.
It advocates a state based on Islamic law, but it says its priorities are democracy, pluralism, economic development.
It says it abandoned violence as a political tactic decades ago but as the country”s main Islamist movement it is liable to stand accused whenever fringe groups carry out attacks.
Analysts say the Egyptian government”s strategy this year has been to try to drive a wedge between the Brotherhood and the other opposition groups, including liberals, leftists and Arab nationalists who have little in common with the Islamists.
But so far that tactic seems to have failed. The Brotherhood says it sees itself as part of a broader national opposition to Mubarak”s authoritarian system of government.
“At this stage we are not seeking power, but not because power is forbidden to us. We are acting to achieve reform and a free democratic climate in Egypt,” said Aboul Futouh.
The authorities linked the latest detentions on Sunday to the Brotherhood”s call on Egyptians to boycott Wednesday”s referendum on a constitutional amendment setting tough conditions for independents to stand for the presidency.
But the arrests also followed closely on the return of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif from Washington after a visit in which he faced close scrutiny on political change in Egypt.
Kazziha said the government was probably telling the United States that Egypt still faced a threat from the Islamist movement and from violence, citing two bombings this year.
“The idea is to project an image to the outside that we are under pressure, so don”t lean on us too much,” he said.
Other analysts said talk in Washington about Middle East democracy was empty rhetoric that did not apply to Islamists.
“It is a big and widespread delusion. The United States has never demanded anything in favor of the Brotherhood, in all its history,” said Diaa Rashwan.
Aboul Futouh agreed. “The Americans try to blackmail the (Arab) regimes, using democracy as a bogeyman. Because the regimes are despotic, democracy means they would not survive. I don”t trust what the U.S. administration says,” he said.
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