• November 11, 2005
  • 7 minutes read

The MB conundrum

The MB conundrum

The MB conundrum
Amira Howeidy examines the shifting relationship between the state and Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood’s ubiquitous presence has been one of the dominating features of the parliamentary elections, signalling a shift in official attitudes towards a group once considered taboo.

On 30 October Kamal El-Shazli, assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and state minister for parliamentary affairs, told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that the "Muslim Brotherhood had established a prominent presence on the political scene… they have their supporters."

It was the first time a senior government official has publicly acknowledged the group’s influence and role in Egyptian politics.

"We have ourselves developed as a ruling party and as a government," said El-Shazli, "and things have changed. The Brotherhood has a street presence and wants to engage in political work. We don’t mind."

In an earlier sign of what appears to be a policy shift on 19 October, the Arabic Al-Ahram published the first interview in a state-owned paper with the MB’s supreme guide, Mahdi Akef.

Since the launch of the elections campaign two weeks ago Brotherhood candidates — their number has dropped from 150 to 137 — have flaunted their controversial slogan "Islam is the Solution" in the constituencies in which they are contesting. And in sharp contrast with previous legislative elections not one MB candidate or supporter has been arrested.

In the past the majority of MB candidates avoided promoting themselves as Ikhwan (Brotherhood) in an attempt to avoid arrest or harassment.

"This is the first time the MB candidates appear in public photos as Ikhwan," says Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "Their student supporters are no longer referred to as the "Islamic stream". Now they are the ’Muslim Brotherhood’."

In his popular daily Ramadan programme on Egypt’s public radio station Omar Bateesha hosted Abdel-Meneim Abul-Fotouh, who was introduced as a "member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council". Throughout the show Bateesha avoided the word "outlawed", the once compulsory epithet used whenever the group was mentioned.

Amid such indications that the government has decided that it must at least recognise the MB, the state-owned Rose El-Youssef weekly magazine and its recently released daily newspaper launched a smear campaign against the group.

"The most important challenge in the elections: the alliance between corruption and backwardness", shouted the headline on the cover of Rose El-Youssef ’s 5 November issue. Inside, the magazine’s editor Abdallah Kamal argued that the "outlawed group known as the Muslim Brotherhood" raises a "sectarian slogan, monopolises religion and claims that it is [Islam’s] spokesman… it deceives people… it does not present a platform or offer a solution".

Kamal’s lead was taken up by five other stories and opinion pieces in the same issue, with questions raised over the group’s funding. If they are so well- meaning and rich, asked the magazine’s chairman of the board, Karam Gabr, "why don’t they donate money for the care of cancer patients?"

In the same vein, the 7 November issue of Rose El-Youssef newspaper devoted eight stories and columns, in addition to the paper’s editorial, to criticising the MB. Amr Abdel-Samie, Al-Ahram columnist-turned TV host, devoted his column to attacking the editors of the state-owned press for assisting the MB in its quest for de facto legitimacy by interviewing its leaders and covering the group’s elections activities.

Abdel-Samie supported his arguments by quoting from a recent interview Akef had given to Al-Hayat. "How are we an illegal group when the supreme guide gives interviews in the national [state-owned] press?" asked Akef.

"[This is] publicly recognising the group before it gets its legitimacy — if it gets it at all," thundered Abdel-Samie.

Meanwhile, a debate over the MB’s controversial slogan "Islam is the solution" has been raging in the press. On Tuesday a Cairo administrative court issued a surprise verdict allowing the group to keep its slogan. "Islam is the solution", read the judgement, does not incite sectarian strife and is compatible with the constitution which stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic Sharia its main source of legislation. It remains to be seen whether the MB’s opponents — mainly from the NDP — will contest the verdict.

Judging a slogan legal, though, is a world away from legalising the group, and questions over the MB’s status remain unresolved.

As far as El-Shazli is concerned there appears to be no contradictions in acknowledging the MB’s political influence and at the same time denying its legitimacy. In the same interview with Al-Hayat El-Shazli suggested that "if they want to engage in politics as the ’Muslim Brotherhood’ then they are free to do so. A political party, though, is not an option."

Leading Al-Ahram columnist Salama A Salama’s widely read column on Friday probed the fluctuating state-MB relationship in blunt terms. Noting the NDP’s sudden U-turn Salama asked "what happened overnight?"

"How is the standard citizen supposed to understand this sudden change? Is it a coup in the NDP’s thinking or the correcting of a political mistake?"

The unresolved status of political groups denied legality, he argued, was one of the main obstacles hampering the progress of political life.

"The question remains: is it better to integrate this [Islamist] stream in political life in the form of a civil political party… to create a genuine democracy?"

The MB has never applied to be licensed as a political party and its leaders say such a step would be pointless since the licence is bound to be refused.

"The MB will have to resolve their status after the elections are over," says Rashwan. "I suspect the government and the political class will face them with the question: What do you want to be? Where do you stand? Do you want to be a political party? An NGO? If the group is not ready with its answers it will be in trouble."

The Brotherhood are "afraid" of this step, he adds. "Nobody in the group has the courage to define the Ikhwan because if they do it will be a historic turning point. Imagine the situation in Egypt if they take the step of applying to become a political party."