Hard days ahead for the MB
Few would argue that official policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has changed much in the last 30 years. The opposition group is "banned" but "tolerated": it is allowed to exist but is subject to repeated security blows which ensure the group remains weaker than its size might suggest.
Recently, this long-running dynamic took a sensational twist, turning the ongoing state-versus-Brotherhood policy into headline-making news.
First came the MB’s much hyped internal elections in December, the first in 14 years, which exposed a rift within the organisation between "hardliners" and "reformists". The former now form the majority on the Guidance Bureau following a poll that was marred by accusations of wrongdoing from inside and outside the group. It resulted in the resignation of Mohamed Habib, first deputy to the then supreme guide Mahdi Akef, who charged that Akef and Mahmoud Ezzat — champion of the hardliners — had orchestrated a coup to purge the group of reformists. By mid-January a new supreme guide, 67-year old Mohamed Badei, a redoubtable hardliner, was elected.
The poll exposed rifts within the MB. As such it was widely seen as a blow to the Brotherhood’s popularity and reputation. Some pundits went so far as to speculate that given the damage to the group’s image inflicted by its internal elections the security apparatus may well have played a part in the fracas, brokering a deal with the hardliners, a claim both sides denied.
Events this week seem to confirm the denials. In the early hours of Monday, 8 February, state security forces arrested 14 members of the group in raids in five governorates. The dawn arrests included Mahmoud Ezzat and two newly elected members of the Guidance Bureau, Essam El-Erian, head of the organisation’s politburo, and Abdel-Rahman El-Bar, a professor at Al-Azhar University. A fourth member of the Guidance Bureau, Mohei Hamed, turned himself in on Tuesday after security forces raided his home in Sharqiya governorate on Monday in his absence.
The Guidance Bureau — four of whose members now join Khairat El-Shater in detention — is the most senior body in the 82-year-old Brotherhood’s hierarchy. After the 8 February arrests almost 30 per cent of the group’s leadership is now behind bars.
Diaa Rashwan, a seasoned expert in Islamic movements, predicts that further security raids, targeting, among others, Guidance Bureau member and former MP Mohamed Mursi, a professor of engineering in Zagazig University.
"Mursi is Mahmoud Ezzat’s faithful supporter and heads the Brotherhood’s political section," Rashwan told Al-Ahram Weekly. "He is the man who supervises the MB’s participation in elections."
Prosecutors began interrogating the defendants on Tuesday. The charges come as no surprise: "Belonging to an illegal organisation which seeks to obstruct state institutions from performing their role, damaging security and social peace, possession of papers and leaflets that propagate the outlawed group’s thought."
This time, though, prosecutors added a novel accusation to the usual litany of charges, forming "an underground organisation" based on the ideas of Sayed Qotb, the influential ideologue and political philosopher who joined the Brotherhood in the 1950s and authored books that are widely interpreted as anti-state. His controversial Milestones (1964) is most often interpreted as a takfiri text that denounces even Muslim societies and states that do not conform with Islamic Sharia as guilty of apostasy. He was executed by the regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1966.
The state security prosecution alleges that the underground Qotbist group has "wings" in seven Egyptian governorates. All 16 defendants were remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigations.
The group’s lawyer, Abdel-Meneim Abdel-Maqsoud, says the detainees have refrained from making any statements during interrogations, insisting "they have faced the same allegations repeatedly in the past and have nothing new to say."
"This is a political conflict between the state and the MB and should not be taking place in court rooms or involve state security prosecution."
Commentators have drawn attention to the timing of the crackdown, with Shura Council elections due in spring, and parliamentary elections scheduled in November.
Rashwan doubts that the MB has any interest in the former. "The Shura Council vote is not important for the group and contesting it is viewed as a waste of time and energy." The MB’s focus, he says, is on parliamentary elections, which following the constitutional amendments of 2007 no longer fall under judicial supervision.
Leading MB figure Abdel-Meneim Abul-Fotouh, a reformist who failed in the group’s December elections and was removed from its Guidance Bureau, told the Weekly that "the security apparatus knows that the coming elections, in the absence of judicial supervision, will not see Brotherhood successes". Why then, he asks, "the detentions and raids on people’s homes in front of their families and children at dawn" which serve "only to tarnish Egypt’s image unnecessarily?"
The London-based Amnesty International issued a statement on Tuesday which described the detainees as "prisoners of conscience" and called for their immediate release. The statement also condemned state policy against the group "which holds around a fifth of the seats" in parliament.
Amnesty called on the UN Human Right Council, due to scrutinise Egypt’s human rights record later this month, to give "attention to the Egyptian authorities’ continuing misuse of emergency powers to quash opposition at home".
The arrests recall the major clampdown on the Brotherhood in 1995, when the group’s Downtown headquarters was forced to close and 27 members were tried before military courts.
The 1995 security campaign, points out Rashwan, also preceded parliamentary elections by 10 months. What is happening today is a repeat of what Rashwan calls a "slaughter the cat" policy, referring to a well-known Egyptian proverb on the pre-emptive show of strength. "The objective is to put the Brotherhood on the defensive," says Rashwan.
He views the group’s internal elections as an act of "defiance" towards the regime. The political message contained in Mahdi Akef’s decision to step down as supreme guide and hold an election to determine his successor was not, after all, hard to read.
"It would be wrong to assume that the Brotherhood’s new leadership is hardline stream and therefore passive or inert," insists Rashwan. Badei, the new supreme guide, certainly seems intent on undermining such an assumption. He is a fixture of the media, making statements on the coming elections and MB plans to form coalitions with other political parties in order to contest them.
"The recent clampdown," Rashwan suggests, "might be the security apparatus correcting a mistake to which it contributed."