- December 18, 2005
- 8 minutes read
Interview: Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt, Professor Hassan Nafaa
In its first free elections, Egypt’s parliamentary polls brought about surprising results that may change the country’s political scene for years to come. The banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates ran as independents, won a record 19 percent of seats in three-round parliamentary elections. To discuss the prospects for Egypt’s political scene in the elections’ aftermath, World Peace Herald interviewed Hassan Elsayed Ahmed Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University and deputy president of the National Coalition for Democratic Transformation.
Q: How would you interpret the Muslim Brotherhood’s gains many in Egypt’s parliamentary elections?
A: To begin with, these elections resulted in a polarization between the state, represented by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and the Muslim Brotherhood. Personally, I do not believe that NDP is a real party that represents the state. It does not have the ability to run the country through free elections. In contrast to other opposition parties (such as Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserist), the banned Muslim Brotherhood achieved a remarkable victory.
Because of their ties with the government, Egypt’s main opposition parties have lost a great deal of public respect and trust. Despite owning their own newspapers as well as other powerful methods of expression, for more than 25 years they have not able to come up with credible reform strategies. They have no impact or presence in the Egyptian street. Thus, they have lost a great deal of public respect.
On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood has some special characteristics. They call upon an Islamic ideology that is deeply rooted in Egyptians. Their religious beliefs have spread easily, so they have gained a quick and widespread popularity. They did not have to rely on the country’s power center to spread their message. They could do that through mosques and channels. Even if government blocked them, they had other ways to reach their goals.
Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood members are active socialists and provided remarkable social services during some critical periods. For years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been providing jobs, drinking water and basic health care to constituents in districts like Bulaq al Dakrour. When an earthquake devastated Cairo in 1992, the Brotherhood provided assistance for the victims. When the government floated the Egyptian currency and prices of basic foods shot up 40 percent, the Muslim Brotherhood passed out free loaves of bread and other day-to-day commodities in poor neighborhoods. Unlike NDP elite members, they do not have a personal agenda to achieve. They are modest and well organized. That is how the Brotherhood grew as a popular movement over the years.
As for November’s parliamentary election results, they do not represent what Egyptians really aimed at. Egyptians did not want this kind of polarization between the two forces. Only 25 percent of Egyptians took part in these elections. Thus, there was a silent majority who did not vote. A large sector of voters was missing because they believe that Egypt’s political scene is corrupt and untrustworthy.
Q: Some sectors of the Egyptian community appear afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood’ because of their past terrorist involvement. Is that a valid fear?
A: The Muslim Brotherhood has no connections whatsoever with terrorist bombings. They have given up violence and terror. Quite some time ago, they did have some kind of secret operations such as political assassinations. On December 28, 1948, they were involved in the assassination of Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi Nokrashi. They had to defend themselves against the so-called “al Haras al Hadidy” or “Iron Militia,” a secret organization established by the Egyptian government in 1952. Thus, they supported the1952 revolution. After that, they evolved into a religious organization that judged whether or not the newly created constitution was compatible with Shari’a (Islamic law). That is why the government exercised violent means in dealing with them during that period. Nevertheless, it is known that their secret apparatus were subsequently dismantled.
That is why al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) considered themselves the victims of violence. They aimed at differentiating themselves from other jihad groups and extremists. Though adopting the same ideology of Islam, they implement different ways to reach their goals.
We should confuse groups such as Hamas, Taliban, Al-Qaida, Jihad or Muslim Brotherhood, who go on under the name of Islam, but do not have the same policies.
I just want to clear up this misunderstanding of what is going on in this part of the world, especially concerning the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. We have a different interpretation of Islam. There are the Hassan Al-Turabi of Sudan, the Mullahs of Iran, the Taliban of Afghanistan, the Hamas of Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. They have totally different policies and means, though sharing the same ideology. Some extremists or rigid members of those groups are pretending to rally behind Islam. Even in Egypt, there are some members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are extremists. From their point of view, democracy and modernity are concepts that stand against Islam. With some exceptions, the Brotherhood’s original leaders and members have stated a commitment to a non-violent, reformist approach to Islam long time ago.
Thus, I believe they have changed and they are willing to change more in the future. However, the problem is that they do not have a party. Before November’s parliamentary elections, they existed in the shadows or underground and endured the government’s harsh policies towards them.
Q: In your opinion, is there any possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to form a political party in the future?
A: Until now, there has not been any possibility of that. The constitution does not does not permit the formation or participation of any religious parties in parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, I see that it will be difficult for the Egyptian government to go on labeling them as a banned group. With almost a fifth of the seats in the parliament occupied by the Muslim Brotherhood, the government might face a dilemma if it continues arresting members and leaders of the group on charges of belonging to an illegal organization.
Moreover, a political vacuum has to be filled with some political powers. Certainly, other official parties do not have the chance to fill this vacuum because Egyptians do not trust them anymore. After the presidential and parliamentary elections, those so-called official parties became weaker than before. I expect that those parties will collapse unless they renew their strategies and play a more serious role in serving the public interest.
In my opinion, if the Muslim Brotherhood were to be permitted to form an official party, it would be easier to understand their policies, demands and programs. They announced recently that, they would act as an opposition bloc in the parliament, a role that is currently missing in the system.
In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood is part of a larger group that is called the United National Front for Change (UNFC). This group is working actively to create a common ground for a peaceful transformation of the system towards a more democratic system. In my opinion, this organization will help the Muslim Brotherhood to understand democratic concepts, and help them to get involved with other political factions. Perhaps, the Muslim Brotherhood will take part in the Egyptian political scene only as a part of a larger group, and not on their own as before.
Hassan Elsayed Ahmed Nafaa is a professor of political science and has been the head of the political science department at Cairo University since 2001. He is a specialist on international relations, international organizations and the Middle East, and the author of a number of books. He is deputy president of the United National Front for Change.