• Reports
  • November 1, 2005
  • 22 minutes read

Waiting in the Wings

Waiting in the Wings
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

 By Azizuddin El-Kaissouni & Dina Abdel-Mageed**
Staff Writers – IslamOnline.net

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Deputy Supreme Guide Muhammad Habib in his office (photo from www.ikhwanonline.com)

The unassuming office that serves as the headquarters for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood makes no secret of its tenants’ political affiliations. “Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun” (The Muslim Brotherhood), proclaims a sticker prominently displayed on the door. Inside, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally walked into a law firm or other place of business, as smartly dressed individuals march about the place, carrying files or briefcases. Not bad for an “officially banned but tolerated” organization.

Within a few minutes of entry, we’re escorted into Muhammad Habib’s office. Habib, bespectacled and sporting a trimmed white beard, is the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, or the Muslim Brotherhood, as it is often referred to; Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization and the inspiration for most modern Islamist movements.

While originally founded in 1928 as a religious reform movement and philanthropic society, the Ikhwan rapidly acquired an overtly political character. That commitment to politics has remained with the Brotherhood, even through almost two decades of Nasser’s rule that saw the bulk of the Brotherhood imprisoned and subjected to horrific tortures. The Brotherhood has adapted, renouncing militancy in favor of a renewed focus on grass-roots activism, social work, and political campaigning. By all accounts, the transformation has paid off, allowing the Brotherhood to survive intact and functioning, though admittedly within a narrow margin of freedom, where many of its more radical offshoots were violently extirpated by the government. Today, the Ikhwan is held by many observers to be the largest and most powerful opposition movement in Egyptian politics, despite the fact that the group is technically banned.

As the group’s nominal second-in-command, Habib is often sought out by the press to speak on behalf of the Brotherhood, and has featured prominently in the media for the past few months, due to the Brotherhood’s growing assertiveness and their increasing presence on the streets. With the Brotherhood expected to sweep an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the November elections, Habib is in much demand by the press, both domestic and international.

The soft-spoken and grandfatherly Habib is at ease behind his cluttered desk, and listens attentively to our questions. An assistant records the discussion and takes notes. The Brotherhood has not survived for so long without some degree of media savvy.

The conversation ranges through a multitude of issues. The regime’s ostensible efforts at political reform feature prominently. Jaded, Habib speaks dryly, and not without a significant dose of irony. “The regime is careful to maintain the status quo,” he asserts. “It has no sincere desire to take steps towards reform.”

He speaks bitterly of the constitutional amendment proposed by the President that would allow for multi-candidate presidential elections, describing it as “bound by impossible conditions that left it devoid of substance,” an opinion shared by a significant segment of Egyptian civil society. He continues, referring to the then-upcoming referendum on the amendment—described by Habib, incidentally, as unconstitutional—allowing multi-candidate presidential elections, “When you have 10,000 judges, and around 54,000 polling stations, how can judicial supervision take place? This suggests an implicit intent to rig results.” The amendment was subsequently ratified by popular referendum, and laid the basis for Egypt’s first multiparty presidential election, held September last. The result, unsurprisingly, was a landslide win for the 24-year incumbent President Mubarak.

“The cornerstone of reform is the positiveness of the people and their willingness to put pressure on the government, and to participate in the political process.” For decades, he continued, people have been hopeless, passive, and indifferent, which allowed the government to maintain the status quo. According to Habib, the Brotherhood’s main aim, before and during the presidential election, had been to urge people to participate in the electoral process, to prevent the government from rigging the results.

In fact, the Brotherhood allowed its members to vote for whomever they chose, with the somewhat vague restriction of warning them that voting for a tyrant was religiously prohibited. That they did not outright boycott the elections they had so vociferously condemned left analysts openly speculating about a possible deal between the Brotherhood and the government, a suggestion the Brotherhood denies.

“How could we ask people to boycott the election?” Habib demands. “They were on a boycott already!” a reference to the dismally low voter turnout that marred the election. For him, public participation would draw the government’s attention to the fact that the people could make a difference, which would in turn pressure it to move towards reform.

“It was an unfair game. It was like a match between Real Madrid and Kafr Abu Tesht [Egyptian slang referring to an imaginary, extremely benighted town],” Habib said. Not all the candidates had equal opportunities, he argues. “The election results were predetermined. Certainly, they were faked,” he added.

According to Habib, vote rigging was tacitly encouraged through a number of means. These included the introduction of legislative measures that facilitated fraud, and not allowing the judges to fully monitor the electoral process. These were coupled with wide-spread public apathy. With these three factors acting in concert, results could be easily skewed. Therefore, “the Muslim Brotherhood was working in those three directions,” and called for full judicial supervision of the elections, supporting the judges’ position through conferences and rallies.

Asked about the Brotherhood’s ambivalent attitude towards the various presidential candidates, Habib said “I know that not rallying behind a certain candidate caused some perplexity among our voters, but we made our stance clear: we chose to give people the opportunity to decide for themselves.” It would take some time, he explained, before people realized what it was like to have a political vision and be able to participate in the political process.

Habib makes the point that the people who didn’t vote were fully aware of the implications of what they were doing, and did so accordingly. For him, the low turn out—23% of eligible voters, according to the most optimistic governmental sources—was “a clear indication of a widening gulf between the government and the people.”

Habib maintains that to pressure the government, a stronger public opinion and voice would be needed. “The government is under pressure, but still more pressure needs to be applied. People who have been totally inactive for decades cannot be mobilized in two or three months.”

What about US efforts to democratize the Middle East? Were the regime’s moves towards greater political freedoms suggestive of a victory for US policy in the region? The response Habib makes is typical of most Arab and Muslim politicians.

“The American administration invaded Afghanistan, occupied Iraq, violated human rights in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They supported and continue to support the Zionist entity… and then after that they discuss establishing democracy, good governance, and human rights. The American administration has thus left us no choice to assume well of it.” He adds, “The US has its agenda, it has its interests; it is not a charitable institution.”

Central Security forces beating protesters
Habib is equally dismissive of suggestions that the Brotherhood’s recent reinvigoration was prompted by fears of their being overshadowed by the relatively smaller but more outspoken Kefaya movement. Instead, Habib maintains that the sudden dynamism of the Brotherhood was dictated by the current state of affairs, viz., increasing international pressures on the government, political stagnation coupled with resentment of the regime reaching a boiling point, and staunchly denies that it had anything to do with the rising profile of the less-popular but more ubiquitous (in Western media, at any rate) Kefaya. The rapid succession of street protests and demonstration was an attempt, Habib says, “to mobilize the Egyptian street, in a peaceful and civilized way, to pressure the regime to concede to the calls for reform.”

Here, Habib chooses to drop a completely non-sequitur hint at the institutionalism that pervades the Brotherhood—uncommon in a country that has historically been dominated by personality cults and individuals. “We are, coincidentally, conducting a comprehensive review of this period. We are evaluating and analyzing its different factors, in an effort by us to draw out the details of the coming period.”

But still, doesn’t the recent upsurge of protests by Egyptian opposition groups in general and the Brotherhood in specific, coupled with steadily-growing domestic pressures on the regime, dovetail all too well with stated US policy in the region? Habib’s initial response is somewhat vague. “We want reform on a national agenda, and we want a population that can choose its leaders of its own free will, and also has the ability to hold accountable and remove those leaders.” But then he bluntly adds “The people who wait for America to come and free them do not deserve to live free.”

Reflecting on the regime’s dealings with the opposition, Habib is of the opinion that the government’s policy towards the opposition can be summed up as: creating divisions between the various political groups; and fragmenting the groups from within, all the while relying on the public’s apathy towards politics.

With the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, the government uses a containment policy, arresting and incarcerating Brotherhood members (at the time of the interview, 11 members were under arrest and 9 were in detention). Generally, the more the Brotherhood attempted to generate a broad-based, popular appeal, the more the government would suppress them. Such suppression takes various forms, from freezing NGOs in which Brotherhood members are heavily involved, to rigging university student unions’ elections to prevent Brotherhood activists from acquiring leadership positions on campuses.

But did the wave of arrests that targeted the Brotherhood during the past few months, which saw thousands of Brotherhood activists detained, curtail their ability to act, to mobilize? Habib smiles softly, before responding. “The Brotherhood operates in an institutionalized fashion, and does not depend on individuals. Secondly, the Society is not several tens or hundreds of individuals, for us to be affected by the arrest of 3,000 of our members.” The Brotherhood’s activities continue unabated, he asserts, and their efficiency was in no sense impacted.

It is perhaps such bitter experiences with the regime that account for the cynical tone that creeps into Habib’s voice when he is asked if perhaps a sudden change in government policy, such as a cancellation of the notorious emergency laws, would be enough to elicit some form of Brotherhood endorsement for Mubarak’s regime. “I do not expect that a regime that has become addicted to forgery and the monopolization of power will voluntarily grant general freedoms and cancel emergency laws. Confidence in this regime approaches, or is, zero.” Somewhat more brightly, he adds “But our hopes lie with the Almighty and with this blessed people.”

The optimism is also in evidence when Habib discusses November’s upcoming parliamentary elections. He believes the situation will be better this time around, for a host of domestic and international reasons, despite the fact that the 2000 parliamentary elections saw 5,000 Brotherhood members arrested before and during the voting. Regardless, the Brotherhood seeks to play a more influential role in the forthcoming elections by upping the number of its candidates standing for the People’s Assembly. But despite such ambitious planning, Habib is no less disillusioned by Egyptian politics.

“The government looks down on the Egyptian people. The ruling elite consider themselves above the law,” Habib said. He quoted a minister as addressing the public, saying: “The law exists to be implemented upon you,” [emphasis added]. He spoke of how the ruling elite controlled everything, designing and issuing as needed to further their own interests.

Habib leaving a polling station after voting in September’s presidential elections (photo from www.ikhwanonline.com)

As one step towards reforming the status quo, Habib calls for amending the laws that govern the formation of political parties in Egypt. Until recently, the law dictated that establishing a political party required the approval of the Parties Committee, which consisted of government ministers and MPs, all of whom were members of the President Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. However, recent amendments to the parties’ law have made altered the composition of the Committee somewhat, adding three “independent public figures” and three former judges to the panel.

Generally speaking, what Egypt needs, according to Habib, is for solid foundations to be laid, foundations for the building of a democratic, institutionalized state, a state built on a true separation of powers.

And yet, many people express concerns about the prospect of Islamists ascending to power through democratic means, and then turning against the very democracy that brought them to power, tearing down those same democratic foundations they had spoken so glowingly of. Habib’s is peeved. “Have they tried the Muslim Brotherhood? What are the guarantees that any other party has given?”

Critics of the Brotherhood often point to the fact that the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide is not popularly elected as evidence of an inherently anti-democratic nature. Habib dismisses the claim. “We wish the Supreme Guide could be popularly elected. We wish.” But political conditions, Habib says, make that a practical impossibility. He points out that attempts to convene even the elected General Shura [Consultation] Council was met by a harsh government crackdown, with jail sentences being handed down to participants by a military tribunal. As such, the Brotherhood found themselves forced to choose a path Habib describes as “the lesser evil.”

After much back and forth on Egyptian domestic politics, and an ill-timed interruption by a phone call from an insistent reporter who prodded the Deputy into an apoplectic tirade on corruption in provincial councils, the discussion tangibly shifted to the Brotherhood’s religious platform, the subject of much speculation but little actual investigation in the Western press.

For example: Shari`a law. The term is sufficient to generate near hysteria in the media. Habib’s response is careful and measured, explaining that Shari`a is much broader than the concept of hudud, or religiously prescribed penalties, that has so aroused the fears of many. “We have to distinguish between Shari`a as a general concept and the actual implementation of hudud. It is a part, yes, and an important part, but it is not the sum total of Shari`a. Shari`a is broader, more comprehensive.” Shari`ah law’s aims, as described by Habib, are utopian, to say the least: the establishment of a society founded on freedom, justice, brotherhood, and equality before the law, a society where “the nation is the source of authority, people freely choose their rulers and representatives, and hold them accountable, and can impeach or remove them.” Hitting closer to home, Habib expounds on a Shari`ah that allows for the freedom to establish political parties, and a free press; where there is no emergency law, but rather, the separation of powers.

Habib reiterates the Brotherhood’s perspective on the application of hudud punishments, that people cannot be judged according to the stringent requirements of Shari`ah until such time as society is deemed to be sufficiently, well, utopian. “We must first create a spiritual society. The citizen must be granted his full rights, psychological, mental, moral, material, to live as a human, with his rights and honor and humanity respected.” A society where people’s needs, in terms of health, employment, education, etc, are provided for, and where corruption has been adequately reduced. It as at that point, when such a society exists, Habib states, that a transgression by a citizen must then be met with the deterrent punishments of Shari`ah.

And until that day, a theoretical state governed by the Brotherhood would function under the existing (secular) laws and penal codes?

“Certainly! Or life would be ruined!”

But what of those other famous stumbling blocks for Islamists, women’s and minority rights, under such a state?

Popular protests against the regime have been increasing (Reuters)
Habib restates the official brotherhood line, being that women have the right to work, to vote, to stand for parliamentary elections, to be government ministers… but not to fill the state’s top executive post, though Habib deftly glosses over this. “Knowledge, ability, and efficiency are not male monopolies. We have women [in the Brotherhood] who are more knowledgeable and more capable than most men. We must not deprive society of such generative abilities and innovative powers, which can help our country progress.”

Indeed, the Brotherhood is fielding a number of female candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections in November. But when asked a direct question of the percentage of females within the Brotherhood’s leadership cadres, Habib refused to be drawn on specifics, choosing instead to describe it as a “good” number. “We cannot overlook the situation under the Egyptian regime and its repressive security policies, and we don’t want to expose our women, our daughters and sisters, particularly as the regime does not discriminate, and does not have the ethical standards to allow it to distinguish between men and women. For example, State Security Intelligence (SSI) can call a woman in for questioning… and as you can see, detentions, torture in SSI headquarters…” Habib trails off in mid-sentence. “We’re not in a healthy environment,” he states, recovering. “The [political] climate, unfortunately, is sick and corrupt, and we are protective of our daughters and our women.”

As for Egypt’s Christian minority: “Society gives our brothers, the Copts, their full rights, and deals with them not as a minority, but as regular citizens, with all the rights of citizenship. They have our same rights and our same obligations. We don’t look at them as a political faction or bloc, but as citizens, and therefore we can work with them in all areas.” Copts, according to Habib, would face no “glass ceiling;” they can work their way up or be appointed to the highest positions, “As long as they are qualified, and as long as these positions are appropriate.”

On a more controversial note, what of evangelists and Christians who wish to proselytize in a state ruled by the Brotherhood? Habib visibly hardens here—the only time during the whole interview. He is, to put it mildly, indignant at the very notion, and the rejection is unequivocal. “I’m sorry. Our creeds have to be respected.” The foremost responsibility of a Muslim ruler, he points out, is the protection of the Shari`ah, and the state’s institutions are obliged to work towards that end throughout society.

On the subject of Egypt’s international relations under the Brotherhood’s government, Habib posits that the Brotherhood would deal with other states as equals. He speaks of the Islamic duty to cooperate in goodness, to “produce conventions and charters between states to implement justice, peace, and stability, and to achieve prosperity between nations.” The jab at the US administration is not far coming. “But this is not what the US administration wants. It wants a global hegemony, and control over everything. It wants supremacy in every field over all nations.” Habib contemptuously refers to this mindset as Darwinian, survival of the fittest. “And as such, we want to be strong. We want our country to be powerful, to be self-sufficient, so as not to have to reach out [for aid] to others, so that it can deal with the rest of the world on an equal footing.”

There are no surprises in terms of relations with Israel. “It is an occupying power controlling Arab and Muslim land, and Islam has ruled that the people of any nation subjected to attack and occupation, its sons and daughters, must defend it.” The issue, Habib emphasizes, is that Israel is an occupying power that engages in massacres, assassinations, settlement building, not to mention the construction of the separation wall.

An Islamic Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Habib, would be a civilian state with an Islamic frame of reference, meaning that legislation passed must be in accordance with Islam. He notes that, legally, this is theoretically the current state of affairs, owing to article two of the Constitution, which identifies Islam as the source of all legislation. Realistically, however, “the regime does not wish to obey the constitution, or respect the law, or even implement judicial rulings.”

In such a state, government would be freely and fairly elected by popular vote. Parties would be voted into office on the basis of a specific platform and program, which they would be obliged to implement during their term in office. Failure to do so would allow the people to remove said government from office. “We believe in democracy, and we affirm the principle of peaceful transition of power” as a central tenet for any such state, Habib states.

But what of political parties, especially those that espouse, for example, secular platforms? In such a state, with a true separation of powers and an independent judiciary, Habib maintains that any party can be founded on popular consent, and that, should the authorities have reservations about the party, deeming its program or practices to be a violation of the constitution or antithetical to the “values of the nation or the core traditions of society,” then the issue must be referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court, which would decide on the matter. “We as an administrative authority would have nothing to do with this matter.”

And what of the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, if it is ultimately granted the right to form a political party? That, according to Habib, is the subject of an ongoing debate within the Brotherhood. One view holds that the Brotherhood should then transform completely into a political party that incorporates all the activities currently performed by the Society. The other side argues in favor of preserving the structure of the group, and merely creating an affiliated political party. Both suggestions, however, are currently moot, due to “the atmosphere of political repression” prevalent in Egypt.


** Azizuddin El-Kaissouni  is the editor of Muslim Affairs’ Views & Analyses page. A graduate of the American University in Cairo. He holds a BA in Political Science with a specialization in International Law. You can reach him at [email protected]

Dina Abdel-Mageed is staff writer for the Muslim Affairs section of IslamOnline.net. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, she holds a BA in political science with a specialization in public and international law.