Mubarak Steps Up Fight on Muslim Brotherhood

Since the turn of the year, Egyptian police have endured chilly winter dawns to launch a series of raids from Alexandria to Cairo against members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The crackdown has targeted some of the group’s senior leaders, businessmen, a publishing house and Islamic book shops.
Campaigns against the brotherhood, the country’s strongest opposition movement despite being officially banned, are hardly new: about 1,000 members were detained after 2005 elections and released only in the latter months of last year.

But the current crackdown, which has led to the detention of some 230 supporters and members of the group, has coincided with an unusually hostile campaign against the organisation in the liberal and independent press, as well as state media, which accused it of preparing for violence.
Hosni Mubarak, the president, also delivered a statement this month in which he declared for the first time that the movement was a threat to national security. Significantly, the crackdown was launched as the 78-year-old leader seeks to amend 34 articles of the constitution.
The government insists the changes – the most wide-ranging since the constitution was drafted in 1971 – are about enhancing democracy and creating more political space. But others claim the government has more Machiavellian motives – further excluding the brotherhood from politics and laying the foundations for the possible succession of Mr Mubarak’s youngest son, Gamal, through a process endowed with a veneer of democracy but which in reality would do little to enhance the enfeebled official opposition.
Brotherhood officials have described the proposed changes to the constitution as a “throwback to the age of full tyranny”.
“When you have such a dictatorship, which allows official parties only, and the recognition of official parties is in the grip of the government itself, you have excluded all Egyptians,” says Essam el-Erian, a brotherhood official who has been imprisoned five times. “The [ruling National Democratic party] chooses its opponents so it chooses the weak ones only.”
Gamal Mubarak, assistant secretary-general of the NDP, denies harbouring presidential ambitions and the uncertainty surrounding the succession gives rise to endless speculation, not least because his father has never appointed a vice-president during his 26-year rule. Two weeks ago, as more brotherhood members were being locked up, parliament approved in principle the amendment of the articles.
The assembly still has to debate details of the changes, which would then be put to a referendum. Although the brotherhood surprised many by winning 88 of parliament’s 454 seats in 2005 elections while only fielding 161 candidates, it lacks the means to prevent the NDP-dominated assembly giving the go-ahead to the changes.
But the crackdown appears to be an attempt to smear the group, weaken its capacity and pre-empt any protests. It may put the brotherhood on the defensive, but is not expected to have a big impact on its operations, which analysts say are decentralised.
The move also comes as the US seems to have set aside its push for greater democracy in the region in a bid to garner support from its Middle Eastern allies for its plans in Iraq.
Key among the proposed amendments is a formal ban on parties based on religion. Election rules are also to change, many believe to prevent independent candidates from standing. In spite of its outlawed status, the brotherhood has been able to contest elections with its members running as independents. “It’s a war in the media now . . . it’s a crazy campaign,” Mr Erian says. “When [Mr Mubarak] says we are dangerous he must explain that.”
The saga represents another chapter in the ambiguous relationship between the Islamic group and the government.
Analysts say neither wants to risk full-scale confrontation. The state allows the Islamic movement to exist, and the brotherhood does not directly or violently challenge the state. Some brotherhood officials, who publicly exude patience and pragmatism, even suggest they would not want power now if offered it, arguing that regional, international and internal conditions are not yet conducive for Islamist rule. In the meantime, the group concentrates on social programmes, such as running schools and health clinics, as a means of spreading its influence.
In contrast to the brotherhood’s support and organisational skills, the official parties are weak, disorganised and control just 2.5 per cent of parliament. The brotherhood has recently raised the notion of the movement becoming a party – seen by some as a tactic to ensure the debate on political space does not diminish.
“It’s a good moment, when the political system is being reformulated, to keep the legal position of the brotherhood and the freedom to establish political parties on the agenda,” says Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “It’s deliberate, to push Egyptians to discuss all the principles at the same time.”

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