The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Regime
Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly 20% of the vote and 88 seats in the fall 2005 parliamentary elections, the Egyptian regime has launched a sustained campaign of repression against the group. It has arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members, including some of its most prominent leaders and frozen the assets of its top financiers.
The most current flashpoint between the government of President Hosni Mubarak and the Islamist opposition is the ongoing trial of 40 Brotherhood leaders, including Deputy General Guide Khairat al-Shater, who many consider to be the group”s chief strategist. After a civil court cleared the defendants more than a year ago, the government transferred the case to a military court, where the Brotherhood members are being tried for belonging to a banned group and distributing unauthorized literature. The verdict announcement was scheduled for February 26th but was postponed until March 25. Many observers believe this is an attempt to handicap the group in advance of important municipal elections on April 8. Since mid-February, close to 300 Brotherhood members have been imprisoned in a new round of arrests, including Khaled Hamza, the editor of Ikwhanweb, the group”s official English-language website.
The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement in the Middle East, with branches in most Arab countries. The group went underground during the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-70), who imprisoned or executed most its leaders. Hoping to counter the influence of the left, President Anwar el-Sadat released Brotherhood members from prison and allowed the group to operate with a degree of freedom.
As a religious movement, the group functions as a parallel social structure, providing jobs, healthcare, and other services to Egyptians. Since 1984, the Brotherhood, which is technically banned, has run candidates as independents or as part of electoral coalitions with both secularist and Islamist parties. It has also won elections for student unions and trade syndicates. The Egyptian government, and some Western observers, accuse the group of supporting terrorism and harboring a radical, theocratic agenda.
However, there is little evidence to suggest this is the case. The Brotherhood formally renounced violence in the 1970s and has publicly committed itself to many of the foundational components of democracy, including alternation of power, popular sovereignty, and protection of minority rights. There is an ongoing debate over whether these examples of “moderation,” as articulated in their electoral programs and other documents, reflect a strategic transformation or merely a tactical – and therefore – temporary shift.
Recently, the Brotherhood found itself at the center of controversy. In August 2007,it released a draft political party platform which was roundly condemned for including provisions for barring non-Muslims and women from becoming president and establishing a Islamic “commission” to approve laws. The document was criticized by leading members within the organization including influential moderates Abdel Menem abul Futouh and Esam el-Erian who were apparently excluded from the drafting process. Young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers also expressed their frustration publicly, in what became an unprecedented show of internal dissent.
The release of the platform reflected a internal tilt within the Brotherhood toward old-guard conservatives, who have grown more powerful in the absence of the some of the group”s leading reformists (such as Khairat al-Shater), who have been disproportionately targeted in the government arrests of the past year. In response to internal and external pressure, the Brotherhood withdrew the draft and promised to make revisions.
The Bush administration has stayed silent in response to the Egyptian regime”s increasing resort to repression. With Islamist groups making strong electoral gains in 2005 and 2006, the Bush administration backed off of its “freedom agenda.” In light of its priorities in countering Iran and stabilizing Iraq, the U.S. appears increasingly unwilling to criticize Arab countries for their treatment of opposition groups.
The Egyptian regime has long benefited from the perception that there are only two choices in the Arab world – radical Islamist parties on one hand and pro-Western autocrats on the other. Egypt”s leaders have a vested interest in preventing any moderate alternatives from emerging. This explains the regime”s destruction of Ayman Nour”s secular-liberal al-Ghad party as well as its repeated denial of legal status to the al-Wasat party, which broke away from the Brotherhood in 1996. And, more recently, it explains the regime”s efforts to undercut moderates within the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
Over the last few years, a growing number of American analysts have argued that the U.S. should engage moderate Islamists. Last year, congressional delegations met with Saad al-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood”s parliamentary bloc (and Katatni himself was issued a visa to participate in a March conference on Islamist politics at Georgetown University). In June 2007, the State Department convened a meeting of officials and experts to discuss the possibility of formally engaging Islamist groups. For its part, the Brotherhood, through its English-language website and occasional op-eds in Western media, has increasingly made an effort reach out to Western opinion makers.
These two developments – the Brotherhood”s emergence as a viable alternative to the status quo and American interest in engaging with Islamists – has made the Egyptian regime, as well as others in the region, nervous. Khaled Hamza, editor-in-chief of Ikhwanweb, arrested on February 20, represents the convergence of these trends. Exerting a quiet influence and a seen as a kind of mentor to the young Brotherhood bloggers, Hamza represents the possibility of a Brotherhood that is more outward-looking and amenable to a dialogue with the U.S. His arrest, and that of other Brotherhood reformers, suggests an explicit strategy on the part of the regime to shift the balance of power within the organization toward its more conservative members.
For more than a quarter-century, Egypt has been one of America”s closest allies in the region and the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Yet it continues to regress on political reform, and refuses to tolerate any strong opposition. The recent campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood – probably the worst the group has seen since the days of Abdel Nasser – threatens to plunge Egypt toward full-blown autocracy.
Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), and a fellow at the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. He is a contributor to the National Security Network”s foreign affairs blog Democracy Arsenal.