Mubarak’s dangerous game

Mubarak’s dangerous game

Egyptian security forces have arrested at least 34 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in recent days as President Hosni Mubarak”s government continues its policy of isolating the country”s largest opposition group.

This exclusionary strategy threatens to backfire, establishing the foundations for a dangerous radicalization of political Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in the 454-member People”s Assembly in 2005. It is the oldest and most influential of the Ikhwan movements spread throughout the Arab world, and its political rise has been met with considerable concern both domestically and in allied Western capitals.

More than 800 Brotherhood members have been arrested in recent months, including high level financiers of the organization and members of the party leadership, as the government seeks to keep the movement embattled and off-balance. Most were released after short periods of incarceration.

The growth of the Brotherhood has occurred alongside the effective collapse of the liberal opposition, with factional splits in the al-Wafd and al-Ghad and a proliferation of new party announcements that do not presage the emergence of genuine alternatives to National Democratic Party (NDP) rule.

The concomitant rise of the Brotherhood has appeared to ease US pressure on the Mubarak government to press ahead with a civil and democratic reform process which has stagnated since the 2005 elections.

The extent to which the US democratization push has been curtailed was underlined by the Bush administration”s repeated failure to force the release of ailing al-Ghad chair Ayman Nour, and by the recent reversal of a planned cut to the annual US military stipend, which stood at US$1.3 billion in 2006.

Congress moved to force a US$200 million cut to the allocation in June, over arms smuggling and civil and human rights concerns. The Bush administration effectively overrode the House earlier this month announcing that Egypt would be receiving up to US$13 billion over 10 years on top of its regular military aid package.

Mubarak has successfully played on US fears by intimating a desire to move closer to Cold War ally Russia, which is reportedly offering MiG-29 upgrades in return for nuclear contracts.

The Brotherhood already exercises significant political power through its control of professional and student associations and appears on the verge of launching a new political program that looks set to establish the basis for the formation of a new civil party.

The move is a response to controversial constitutional reforms passed in March which both affirmed and strengthened the ban on religious political parties and removed judicial oversight of elections, while significantly strengthening presidential prerogatives.

The changes allow the president to designate which court will try criminal cases, a power which he has used to send cases involving Brotherhood members to military tribunals.

According to the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, in its new draft platform the Brotherhood commits to a “complete separation of powers, the rotation of power, and respect for the rule of law” – a clear attempt to placate secular reformists” concerns regarding its intentions.

The platform calls for all economic activities to be conducted according to Sharia law while expressing support for maintaining a market economy and privatization.

Other advocated changes such as the direct election of local governors and councils and the decentralization of power to these bodies, which are currently dominated by NDP appointees, are obviously intended to promote Brotherhood predominance in a future reformed state.

Nonetheless, the overall tenor of the document appears to marry well with secular opposition demands.

Opposition parties have been drawing closer together in recent months due to the ongoing government crackdown on their activities, uniting in a March walkout from parliament to protest the constitutional changes.

Brotherhood activists have also been an increasingly visible presence at reformist protests led by pro-democracy movement Kefaya, which has, in turn, excoriated the mass arrests of Brotherhood members.

Concerns remain, with the Brotherhood”s attitude to the embattled Coptic minority and ideas for the pragmatic implementation of Sharia still in doubt for many observers, who see the movement”s quasi-military display at a December student rally as a deeply disturbing phenomenon.

However, if the NDP extinguishes popular hopes for genuine change, which could shake Egypt free from the corrupt, ossified and deeply dysfunctional political status quo, the resultant frustration will again drive Islamic movements toward radicalization.

If it fails to present the Brotherhood with an opportunity to test its new political program in the fulcrum of political contest, the NDP will effectively be allowing the movement to get away with paper pledges for which it knows it will never be held to account.

This plays into the hands of hard-line elements within the Ikhwan who would rather overthrow the NDP power structure than seek accommodations with it .