The regime and the MB

The confrontation between Egypt’s ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood is heating up

Have the rules of the game changed? Is the Egyptian regime bent on undermining the Muslim Brotherhood as a political and social player in the country? And what if the Brotherhood resists? Will the regime up the ante, or will it opt for reconciliation?

The conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime is happening on three fronts. Will this country implement Sharia (Islamic jurisdiction) in the fullest sense or not? This is the first front of the conflict — the religious front so to speak.

The regime’s traditional stand is that Egypt is an Islamic state. Article 2 of the constitution enshrines Sharia as the main source of legislation. The regime often reassured the public that attempts were being made to expunge non-Islamic laws. Aside from the abolition of interest rates and the enforcement of hudud (the severing of limbs for theft, and flagellation and stoning for adultery), it has been argued this country has robust Islamic laws. The Muslim Brotherhood disagrees. It believes that Sharia is far from being the norm in Egypt. The Brotherhood maintains that the state is ignoring Article 2 of the constitution and is failing to make media, education and culture conform to Islamic traditions.

Recently, however, the regime has shifted tack. It now claims that Egypt is a civil state that respects the rights of all citizens and defends religious diversity. This is why the regime opposes the formation of any parties with a religious agenda. According to the regime, religious parties would undermine the “secularism” of the state and throw national unity into disarray. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood insists on Islam being the main inspiration of public life, just as Article 2 of the constitution suggests. The Brotherhood says that it is not trying to establish an Islamic state in Egypt but is eager to preserve the country’s Islamic legacy.

Both sides used religion to gain public acceptance in the 1980s and 1990s. In one way or another, both are still doing so today. The regime says that equality among citizens supersedes, but doesn’t conflict with Islamic legacy. It argues that citizenry rights can only be respected through the abolition of religious discrimination and of all religiously-based political activities. The Brotherhood maintains that Islam is the only true guiding principle of the nation, which means that Article 2 of the constitution should remain intact. The Brotherhood is obviously opposed to the banning of religious parties. [Ikhwanweb: Wrong, the MB opposes religious parites]

The second front of the conflict is political. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the regime has been accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of offering no political programme and of lacking clarity on such issues as democracy, political pluralism and the interaction of religion and politics. It was this line of argument that got many intellectuals to support the government against the Brotherhood in the past. The Brotherhood couldn’t credibly deny the charges, and most of its arguments throughout the 1990s regarding government through consultation ( shura ), democracy and pluralism failed to reassure its opponents.

Recently, the Egyptian regime has been losing credibility, especially among the elite. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has been reinventing itself. For the first time in its history, the Brotherhood has come up with a comprehensive political programme that, regardless of its shortcomings, answers most of the questions raised in the past. True, the Brotherhood’s programme is flowery and imprecise in its wording, but so are the programmes of other political parties in the country, including that of the ruling party.
Besides, the Muslim Brotherhood has become more sensitive to criticism, especially by intellectuals. The Brotherhood spent most of last year building bridges with various political forces in the country. This was worrisome to the regime, which was hoping to keep the Brotherhood isolated, especially from the intellectuals.

The third front of the conflict is organisational. The Egyptian regime is in the habit of overreacting to anything the Muslim Brotherhood does. It has never reacted proportionately to propaganda or political or organisational actions by the Brotherhood. And the Brotherhood has for long tried to avoid “head-on” collision with the regime. For years, the Muslim Brotherhood would refuse to send its supporters to the street or challenge the regime in any daring manner. These were the familiar boundaries within which the conflict remained for years. The last real challenge mounted by the Muslim Brotherhood to the regime was in 1995. It culminated in a barrage of military trials in which 95 Muslim Brotherhood members faced serious charges.
Back then the regime treated the Muslim Brotherhood as an illegal group seeking to overthrow the government. This was the argument the regime used to gain the sympathy of other political forces in the country, and also to dissuade any party from forging alliances with the Brotherhood. The tactic was less than successful, obviously, for the Muslim Brotherhood managed to contest the 1984 and 1987 elections in alliance with other political parties.

So how did things change since then?

First of all, the regime’s legitimacy has eroded in an unprecedented manner during the past 15 years or so. Its achievements, aside from running daily life, were minimal. In the 2000 elections, the National Democratic Party won just 32 per cent of the vote, and in 2005 the outcome wasn’t much better. Meanwhile, conventional supporters of the regime have either lost faith or started looking for an alternative. In brief, the regime has been suffering a profound crisis of trust since 2000. Consequently, any legitimate opponent had a chance of taking power.

The Muslim Brotherhood benefited from the erosion in the regime’s legitimacy. Because of the fragility of other parties and civil organisations in the country, the Brotherhood’s gains looked even more impressive than they really were. In the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood’s performance outstripped that of any opposition group in the country since the early 1950s.
Some people may belittle the Muslim Brotherhood’s achievements, saying that it made a “deal” with the government, or that the regime gave it slack in order to use it as a “bogeyman”. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood has stepped into the political vacuum and is now the most likely alternative on the political scene. The regime can no longer convince the public that the Muslim Brotherhood is a banned group, not when it has 20 per cent of parliamentary seats, and not when it is engaged in public life like any other legitimate political party. Unfortunately for the regime, both the public and the elite greeted its intimidation tactics with scepticism.

Since March 2006 — only three months or less after the start of the parliamentary session — the regime arrested dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members, including Essam El-Eryan and Hasan El-Hayawan. The semi-military parade by balaclava- clad Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Al-Azhar University offered the regime an excuse to clamp down on the Brotherhood, which it did.
Power has been shifting, however. Let me give you some figures to illustrate the change in Muslim Brotherhood attitudes over the past year or so. Between March and May 2005, the Brotherhood organised nearly 23 protests on Egyptian streets, which is one protest every three days or so. Over 140,000 people participated in these protests in nearly 15 governorates. About 4,000 people were arrested. Worried by the show of force, the regime waited for the right moment to clamp down on the Brotherhood. The Al-Azhar incident offered it a convenient excuse.
In conclusion, the rules of the game may not have changed. But the regime is becoming less tolerant of the Muslim Brotherhood. For the past 25 years, the regime has been trying to isolate the Brotherhood, just as it has been trying to undermine any political opposition in the country — Ayman Nour and his Al-Ghad Party are a case in point. For the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood is not legitimate enough. Interestingly, the same accusation could be made about the regime itself.

* The writer is a political analyst and assistant managing editor of Al-Siaysa Al-Dawliya

[pdf] The moderate Muslim Brotherhood Robert Leiken and research associate Steven Brooke


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