Female Islamist eyes Egyptian parliament seat
By Sharon Otterman
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Soft-spoken Makarim Eldery hopes to become the first female Islamist elected to the Egyptian par-liament. The 55-year-old widow and mother of six is officially running for parliament as an independent, but her true affiliation -- with the banned Muslim Brotherhood -- is no secret.
At her headquarters in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, Mrs. Eldery greets visitors behind a green flag marked with the Brotherhood’s name and crossed scimitars. She speaks openly about her history with the movement and her goals: to lift the rigid restrictions on Egyptian political activities and imbue the nation with the principles of Islam.
"Democracy for us is not absolute freedom. It is freedom controlled by the values of religion," she said in a recent interview.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 to press the government to observe Islamic law, and emulated in other countries in the Middle East, has been banned here since 1954, when its leaders tried to kill President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Since renouncing violence in the 1970s, the Brotherhood has experienced varying levels of political repression from the secular government, which allows it to operate despite periodic crackdowns. Now is one of the more open times.
Mrs. Eldery’s candidacy, as much as the new protest movements that have taken to the streets of Cairo this year to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s 24-year rule, highlights the shifting line in Egypt between what is legal or illegal, permitted and possible.
Her presence as a female candidate in the male-dominated organization, analysts say, also reflects new forces and pressures buffeting the Brotherhood, which is considered the strongest potential political opposition force in Egypt.
The Brotherhood currently has 15 seats in the 454-member parliament, not quite 3 percent, but more than any legal political opposition party. In this year’s elections, which will be held in three phases through mid-December, the Brotherhood will sponsor 150 candidates and hopes to boost its representation to 40 or 50 seats. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) currently has 388 seats.
Before the last parliamentary elections in 2000, state security forces arrested thousands of Brotherhood members, the U.S. State Department reported. This year, Brotherhood leaders think that an atmosphere of increased political freedom in Cairo may grant them additional breathing space.
On Saturday, the Higher State Security Prosecution Office ordered the release from prison of leading members of the Brotherhood, including Essam el-Erian, a former lawmaker and senior spokesman who spent more than five months in custody.
"I don’t expect a major crackdown," said Abd El-Monem Abou El-Fotouh, a senior member of the Brotherhood, in an interview Sunday. "Of course, there is a slight concern about arrests. But there are changes. People have been able to take to the streets and express themselves," he said.
Behind the shifting atmosphere is the ruling NDP, under pressure from all sides to reform.
Popular opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq brought protests on Cairo’s streets in 2003. Some of the frustration gelled into the small but persistent anti-Mubarak protest movement known by its slogan, Kifaya -- "Enough." Many new movements, such as Youth for Change, now regularly hold protests in the capital, even though the unsanctioned events remain illegal under emergency laws.
Under heavy pressure from Washington to make efforts toward democracy, Egypt held its first direct presidential elections on Sept 7. In a sign that little below the surface has really changed, however, Mr. Mubarak won with 89 percent of the votes.
For the Brotherhood, the political shift is one of degree.
"Of course, it is relative. Only 3,000 of our members were arrested in protests between March and May of this year," said Mr. El-Fotouh. "At another time, it might have been more."
Leaders of the Brotherhood are testing the waters by asserting themselves as if they were a legal political movement. On Oct. 2, university students demonstrated for the first time under the Brotherhood’s name and slogan, "Islam is the Solution." In the past, they used a pseudonym.
The Brotherhood is also working with political allies across the political spectrum, from Marxists to liberals. On Oct. 9, the Brotherhood announced it would cooperate with nine other groups -- including Kifaya -- to form an opposition front against the NDP in the parliamentary elections.
The Brotherhood will run its own candidates, making its role in the United National Front for Change mostly symbolic. Still, said Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s leading lawmaker, the group will not field candidates in districts the secular opposition seems likely to win. "To cooperate and integrate ourselves as an opposition is a goal," he said.
"The coalition means a lot to the Brotherhood," said Diaa Rashwan, a specialist on political Islam and extremist groups at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The group seeks de facto legitimacy."
Shifts in the Brotherhood’s rhetoric are easing its slow passage into the political mainstream. Instead of using "the lexicon of godly salvation," Muslim Brothers have focused in recent years on such goals as justice, freedom and democracy, which they identify as Muslim values, according to Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center.
Peaceful role sought
The group’s 2004 reform initiative, for example, called for free and fair elections, the right to demonstrate and hold meetings, and the lifting of the emergency laws in force in Egypt since 1981, which give the government wide latitude to repress political activity.
Most analysts agree that the Brotherhood wants to participate peacefully in Egypt’s political scene. On the other hand, many caution against legalizing the Brotherhood without first opening up the political space to encourage other parties. The highly organized Brotherhood could overwhelm the political system, causing "flux that could lead to catastrophe," said Hugh Roberts of the International Crisis Group.
"The Brothers are hobbled by their lack of legal status, but the legal opposition parties are kept in a cocoon. Everything’s been done to keep these parties politically atrophied," he said, including restricting their ability to distribute pamphlets or hold rallies.
The Brotherhood also is becoming more sensitive about how it appears to the outside world -- including the United States, which the group’s Supreme Guide Mohammed Mahdi Akef has called "a Satan out to control the Islamic world."
Mr. El-Fotouh, the senior member of the Brotherhood, said the U.S. government is guilty of terrorism and equated President Bush with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The Brotherhood’s ideology has inspired the creation of many militant Islamist groups, including Hamas.
The main reason Muslim Brothers now demonstrate under their own name, Mr. El-Fotouh said, is "to distinguish themselves from other Islamist groups, particularly after September 11 and the association of Islamists with terrorism."
"Authoritarian governments such as this one [Mr. Mubarak’s] stifle moderate Islamist movements like our own, so it seems that any Islamic political group is tied to terrorism. But on the whole, the Islamic movement [in Egypt] is a peaceful one," Mr. El-Fotouh said.
Not considered ’terrorist’
The U.S. government does not consider the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not meet with any of its representatives during her June visit to Cairo to press Mr. Mubarak for democratic reforms. "Egypt has its laws, it has its rule of law, and I’ll respect that," she said at the time.
Mrs. Eldery’s candidacy is another sign of a Brotherhood increasingly concerned with how it presents itself to the outside world, even if she is unlikely, if elected, to wield much power in Egypt’s notoriously weak People’s Assembly.
She is the widow of the Brotherhood’s one-time secretary-general, Ibrahim Sharaf, but she is not a high-ranking member of the party.
While many women are involved in the Brotherhood, most, like Mrs. Eldery, are active in the women’s or social-services wings and are the wives or daughters of male cadres.
Women are not fully integrated into the main political structure, and there are no women in the organization’s top political ranks, according to Heba Raouf Ezzat, a political scientist and scholar on the Brotherhood at Cairo University.
But Mrs. Eldery is also a fresh new public face for the Brotherhood.
Petite and calm, in a lavender kerchief decorated with curlicues, the assistant professor of literature and criticism at Al-Azhar University seeks to change the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood is anti-women -- a message she says is "some sort of psychological warfare from the opponents of the Brotherhood."
While being interviewed, she was flanked by a lawyer and media coordinator. She has attracted significant international attention, and has been interviewed by Spanish, German, Italian, British, Egyptian, and Iranian journalists, she said.
If elected to represent the Nasr City district of Cairo, Mrs. Eldery said she would not seek laws requiring women to wear the veil, which she considers a matter of personal choice. She also wants to encourage women to get involved in public life and teach parents to value education for their sons and daughters equally.
"Contrary to what people think, Islam has protections for everyone’s freedom. Islam says that men and women are equal," she said.
Mrs. Eldery is the second female member of the Brotherhood to run for a seat in parliament.
Jihan El-Halafawi, who is also the wife of a powerful Brotherhood official, won in her district in 2000, but a legal challenge by the government kept her out of parliament.
Mrs. Eldery said she expects the worst from state security forces, despite Egypt’s slowly shifting political climate.
"I do this in obedience to God," she said. "We are prepared for anything."