Islamists under fire draft first political programme

fresh wave of Egyptian government crackdowns against the main opposition movement has been directed against a varied range of targets – a students” “summer camp” on the Mediterranean coast, an evening meeting of senior officials at a businessman”s Cairo residence, and the more typical dawn raids on members” houses.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of two members of parliament to be detained.
The result has been dozens more members of the Muslim Brotherhood finding themselves behind bars in recent weeks. Brotherhood officials say more than 500 members are in detention, including 40 on trial in a military tribunal facing charges of money-laundering and terrorism.

At the core of the government”s crackdown is a long-standing desire to contain and weaken the movement.

It intensified this year ahead of a referendum on controversial constitutional amendments and before elections for the Shura Council, the upper chamber of parliament. But even though both votes – described as flawed by observers – have passed, pressure on the movement shows no signs of easing.

One of a number of the assumed reasons for the continued round-ups is the fact that the movement is drafting a political programme, says Mohamed Habib, the brotherhood”s deputy leader.

The political programme will be the first comprehensive document the brotherhood has produced, outlining its policies on social, economic and political issues, Mr Habib told the Financial Times.

It will include the brotherhood”s position on sensitive points including non-Muslims, women”s rights and Egypt”s peace agreement with Israel, he says.

“We are keen to show our position on various issues,” he says.

The group has previously made policy statements, but they have often been vague, leaving the Islamists vulnerable to questions and doubts about their aims.

Mr Habib says the move is in response to demand from the public after the brotherhood”s success in 2005 parliamentary elections. The Islamists won 88 seats in the 454-member parliament while fielding just 161 candidates – results that sent shockwaves through the ruling National Democratic party.

Although banned since 1954, the brotherhood has been able to field candidates as independents.

Analysts say the drafting of the political programme may signal a shift within the brotherhood”s thinking. If a detailed document is published it could go some way to answering questions about the movement”s objectives and foster greater political debate, they say.

Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says the decision to draft the programme is the result of a change in the relationship between the movement and the state. The brotherhood has been accepted even though it is banned, with neither the Islamists nor the government willing to push the other too far. But the status quo has been altered by the NDP, he says, with an attempt to exclude the brotherhood.

“It”s a very important step not only for the country but also for the brotherhood. They have never had to be a political entity; in all its history it”s been a multidimensional entity,” he says, referring to its numerous social projects. “For them it”s very critical to start to change the nature of the movement and create internal questions. At least it”s a phase of preparation for a political party.”

Yet brotherhood officials realise that in the current environment the group has zero chance of becoming a political party. A number of the constitutional amendments adopted earlier this year were viewed as direct attempts to isolate the brotherhood further from the formal political system.

NDP officials say the crackdown is unrelated to politics and point out the movement is legally banned. However, there is some acknowledgment that the brotherhood”s election success in 2005 has coloured the debate within the ruling party about the pace of political reform.

Mr Habib says the movement will be “cautious” and absorb the government”s pressure “like a sponge”.

He acknowledges the government had struck a blow against “certain pivotal elements of the brotherhood”, but says the movement”s programmes are continuing.

“We organise in a manner that if certain individuals are arrested there are others to run the programmes,” he says.