FEATURE: The Muslim Brotherhood: past struggle, future challenges

CairoThe present leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, members of which are known in Arabic as the Ikhwan, has achieved what other Islamist groups have so far failed to do: made its war against the Egyptian regime “holy” without spilling one drop of blood. “The path ahead is long – but it would be shorter with a belief in peaceful, civilized change,” Mohamed Habib, the Brotherhood’s second- in-command, said last month in his “Letter to Egyptians”, an editorial posted regularly on the Ikhwan’s website.

Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood, one of the oldest grassroots organizations in the Sunni Islamic world, has been the ideological inspiration for many of the Islamist movements that have emerged over the past 50 years.

In the 1930s and 40s, the group had a strong paramilitary wing, which fought against Jewish settlers in Palestine. Thousands of Brotherhood volunteers went to Palestine in 1947 to fight against the creation of the State of Israel. Upon their return to Egypt, they were rounded up and put in concentration camps.

In 1948, the Brotherhood clashed with the Egyptian government and assassinated the police chief of Cairo: the government responded by banning the group. They, in turn, assassinated the prime minister, prompting authorities to kill the group’s founder Hassan al-Banna in February 1949.

While the Brotherhood’s paramilitary wing has since been dissolved, the group still has a strong affinity with the Palestinian cause.

Former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat is said to have joined the group while studying in Egypt, and the spiritual leader of Hamas, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was also a Brotherhood member.

Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, the group enjoyed a brief spell of good relations with Egypt’s new rulers, the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. However this did not last, and the group was again banned in 1954.

Members of the Brotherhood were subsequently imprisoned and tortured by the Nasser regime and a number of its leaders were executed. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, ordered the release of hundreds of Brotherhood leaders in the early 1970s.

Today observers believe the group’s widespread influence, which seems to have become stronger as a result of the persecution it has suffered, has prompted yet another clampdown on the group by the present regime of President Hosny Mubarak.

However, thus far the Brotherhood seems to be winning this battle, claiming to speak “in the name of God,” as Brotherhood members put it, in a society where strict forms of religiosity are increasing day by day.

In 1987, the group decided to try to gain power by legal means, running candidates in that year’s parliamentary elections. It garnered 35 seats in parliament as a result, with current leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef becoming the first General Guide of the Brotherhood to be elected an Egyptian MP.

Since then, the regime has responded by trying to make it impossible for the group to contest elections.

Since the group is still legally banned, it must field candidates as independents, 88 of whom won seats in the last polls. The group now holds some 20 per cent of mandates in the Egyptian parliament, making it the largest opposition bloc.

“The government thinks that its use of excessive force will break our backs, throttle our actions and stop our expansion,” said a statement from the Brotherhood after the arrest of some of its senior leaders last November.

“We tell them: You have arrested more than 20,000 of our members over the past decades, but this has only multiplied people’s love for us and doubled their support.”

The regime is apparently doing whatever it can, whether through the official media or by ordering police action against the group, to uproot it from Egyptian society.

Yet it is not easy to outmanoeuvre a group that according to its motto, coined 80 years ago and still chanted today, takesthe “Prophet Mohammed as our Imam, the Holy Koran as our constitution, and death for the sake of God as our greatest aspiration.”

Rhetoric aside, the Brotherhood is an effective political force, and in recent campaigns it has promised “democracy” to all, including women and Egypt’s Christians, the Copts, who have been promised “equal opportunities” with Muslims.

In the introduction to a “Political Reform Initiative” recently issued by the group, Akef writes: “We stand little chance of achieving development in any field of our lives unless we return to our religion, apply our Sharia (Islamic Law), follow the path of science and modern technology and acquire as much knowledge as we can.”

“In this way we seek God’s blessings,” he wrote, repeating similar rhetoric throughout the document, which argues for reform in the legal, educational, economic, social and even scientific fields.

Despite the publication of policy documents of this sort, in order for the group to be recognized as a political party it has to be approved by the Parties Commission as stipulated in the Egyptian constitution.

However, Akef says, while “we have always wanted to transform ourselves into a political party, we won’t do so until the freedom to form parties is granted without the present restrictions.”

The Brotherhood, it seems, does not mind waiting until the right moment arrives.

Indeed, it has long shown itself to be adept in the art of staying put, time spent in the prisons of successive Egyptian regimes having taught its members patience.