Muslim Brotherhood Trims Political Goals After Arrests

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition force, has suspended its bid for legalization as a political party following mass arrests of its members, Brotherhood officials say.

Hundreds of Brotherhood members have been detained and dozens put on trial in recent months, the organization and Egyptian authorities said. Police raided a Brotherhood resort and arrested 40 vacationers on suspicion of belonging to an illegal organization and reading banned literature, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Aug. 11. Another 40 Brotherhood officials, including businessmen who fund the group, are on trial in a closed-door military tribunal accused of terrorism and money laundering.

The crackdown has led the Brotherhood to abandon efforts to win a liberalization of Egyptian law and gain the right to openly recruit, meet and run for political office, said Brotherhood official Ali Abdul Fattah, who frequently speaks for the group. Erasing Egypt’s restrictive emergency laws was the group’s aim during the past two years of political activity in which secular and religious groups frequently took to the streets in protest.

“We are working on raising people’s awareness,’’ said Abdul Fattah. “The problem with the past two years was that no more than 10 per cent of the people were willing to take street action.’’

Islamic Bellwether

The Brotherhood is the Middle East’s oldest Islamic political grouping and claims 1 million members in Egypt. Its fortunes in the Middle East’s most populous country are a bellwether for Islamic politics across the region. Al-Qaeda, the global terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden, has criticized the Brotherhood for engaging in electoral politics.

Over the years, the Brotherhood spawned affiliates across the Middle East, many of which espouse violence as the path to power. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s, yet President Hosni Mubarak’s government refuses to legalize it.

Nonetheless, the Brotherhood won 88 out of 454 seats in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections through candidates it labeled independents. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party controls all but a handful of seats in the rest of parliament.

Last spring, the chamber approved an amendment to the constitution that bans religious-affiliated parties.

Since 2004, the Brotherhood had campaigned for the repeal of Egypt’s emergency laws, which ban unauthorized public meetings of more than five people and allow indefinite detention on charges that include “defaming Egypt’’ or insulting the president. The government promised to replace the laws with anti-terror legislation. Abdul Fattah said he thinks the new law will be tougher.

Shift in Tactics

This summer Brotherhood tactics shifted. Instead of organizing high-profile public protests over major legal and constitutional questions, the group is taking part in local fights over issues troubling different segments of Egyptian society: workers battling layoffs, activists who oppose the sale of the Bank of Cairo to foreigners, and private citizens who fear the loss of health insurance as state companies are sold.

“Our method of change now is to join with the base of society and work over time to change values and expose injustice,’’ Abdul Fattah said.

The 2005 elections were a turning point in Mubarak’s treatment of the Brotherhood, according to Samer Shehata at the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and Joshua Stacher, a post-doctoral fellow at Syracuse University. “The 2005 parliamentary elections placed the Brotherhood on the national stage,’’ they wrote in an Aug. 8 article posted on the Middle East Report Web site. “The regime’s current moves aim to put the Brothers back in their box.’’

U.S. Ignores Arrests

U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, which previously singled out Egypt as ripe for democratization, has been silent over the Brotherhood arrests. During a visit to Egypt on Aug. 1, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Mubarak she was “disappointed’’ with the detention of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, head of the secular, liberal Tomorrow Party. Nour is in the second year of a five year prison term for fraud. Human Rights Watch labeled his charges as “trumped up.’’ Rice made no mention of the Brotherhood arrests.

The independent Masry al-Youm newspaper remarked that Rice’s visit highlighted the failure to support democracy among Arab countries. “That agenda is gone,’’ the newspaper said.