• Reports
  • December 1, 2005
  • 7 minutes read

Mutual containment

Mutual containment
The Muslim Brotherhood, far from adhering to defined principles, is a movement that employs political opportunism at will, writes Salah Eissa*

The most important revelation of the first two stages of parliamentary elections is that the theoretically-banned Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has made substantial gains. The MB has won 76 of the 302 seats filled so far; that’s slightly over 25 per cent. Of the 110 candidates the MB had nominated, 70 per cent won. In proportional terms, this is the top performance so far of any of the parties contesting the elections. Regardless of the outcome of the third phase, the MB is going to be the second largest parliamentary bloc in the People’s Assembly. It has won fewer seats than the NDP, but much more than all opposition parties combined.

The MB performance came as a surprise to the public. And many politicians, intellectuals and Copts have greeted it with alarm. But there is a reason why the MB did so well. That reason is related to the state of political ambiguity in the country, in society, and among the political elite, including the ruling party.

The sudden ascendance of the MB is a natural outcome of their alliance with the existing political regime. In 1975, the government and the MB forged an alliance following political negotiations between imprisoned MB leaders and Anwar El-Sadat’s government. Mahdi Akef, the current MB supreme guide, took part in these negotiations. The two sides reached a deal of six points, with each making three promises to the other. According to the deal, disclosed by Ali Ashmawi, who was part of the negotiations, in memoirs entitled The Secret History of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sadat’s government undertook to erase all the legal consequences of the case known as the Sayid Qotb conspiracy. The government promised amnesty to all those sentenced in connection with that case, and pledged to release the leaders of the MB militia who were still in detention even after having served their full sentences. The government promised to return MB members to their government jobs. And it promised to let the MB resume its propaganda activities unimpeded, preaching inside and outside the mosques.

In return, the MB promised not to fight the government (Ashmawi says this was a promise of support to the government), renounce violence, and never take up arms again against the state. The deal was one of mutual containment. Both sides agreed to uphold the agreement and implement it, but skirmishes kept occurring. Both sides kept pressuring the other in a variety of ways. Some may recall the media campaign Sadat waged on the MB. Sadat arrested some MB leaders in September 1981, because they supported the Iranian revolution and were criticising his policy. Later on, President Mubarak rounded up MB commanders, who were busy re-building the group’s administrative structure, and put them to military trial.

Because of the deal, Sadat was in a position to use the MB to his own advantage. He used the MB to give his rule a religious veneer, which he employed to clamp down on the radicalism of the Nasserist era with relative ease. Sadat used the MB to eliminate the political influence of one common enemy, the leftist opposition. Although the deal spoke of the MB renouncing violence, Sadat allowed the MB to use violence against leftist students in the 1970s.

The MB agreed to the deal out of the conviction that their party is the party of God and that anyone else — Muslim or not — belongs to the party of the devil. The party of God, according to MB literature, can justifiably hold alliances with unjust regimes and corrupt officials in order to promote its own cause. The MB has a long history of allying itself with the powers that be, corrupt or not. Brotherhood members used such alliances to strengthen themselves. This is why the MB went into alliance with the Wafd Party in 1942, when Wafd was allied with the British. During World War II, Wafd allowed the MB to preach in mosques and refute Nazi claims that Hitler had converted to Islam.

When the Wafd was replaced by an alliance of minority parties, the MB switched sides, and proceeded to fight a ferocious battle against their former ally. Later on, the MB assassinated Mahmoud El-Noqrashi, leader of the Saadi Party, one of the minority parties in the new government. The Saadis retaliated by assassinating the MB founder, Hassan El-Banna.

The MB did a few things to help Sadat, but dedicated most of its time to promoting its own interests. It used the country’s mosques not just to preach but also to promote its political ideology, and to re-build its organisational structure. And it went on doing the same under Mubarak, whose government honoured the same deal, albeit for a totally different reason. By the time Mubarak was in power, violent Islamic groups had grown so strong that the government had every reason to stay on the MB’s good side.

The MB continued to use the policy of mutual containment for its own purpose. It infiltrated the masses and rebuilt its strength. It went on collaborating with the powers that be, switching alliances for the sake of convenience, and waiting for the time it would be left alone in the arena. The MB kept waiting for the right time to take power and establish an Islamic republic.

A mere glance at the Egyptian political map of the last 30 years shows that the policy of mutual containment is at the heart of the current crisis. Suddenly, everyone sensed that the MB was poised to gain parliamentary majority. The MB could have conceivably won the current elections had they fielded candidates in all constituencies, not just a third.

For years, the MB has been a political party as well as a religious society. The MB was legally banned but allowed to operate. It had all the advantages of a religious society, and none of the impediments placed on political parties. The government saw the MB as an ally and so did the United National Front for Change, which is a coalition of opposition groups.

I am not saying that the policy of mutual containment was entirely wrong, or that its historic reasons are no longer valid. We still need to deal with the MB. The MB has a place on the political map of a democratic and civil state. What I am saying is that the policy of mutual containment should be based on clear principles, not on opportunistic concepts as was the case in the past. For one thing, the MB should achieve a separation, in theory and practice, between the religious and the political, and announce that much in public. Unless the MB does that, and unless we help it to move in that direction, even if we have to fight it all the way, the entire nation — including the MB — will find itself in a dark channel. And it won’t be easy, this being the case, to find an exit.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira weekly newspaper.