• December 21, 2005
  • 21 minutes read

’We take nobody’s permission’

’We take nobody’s permission’

’We take nobody’s permission’
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef tells Amira Howeidy the group will not change tactics, and does not trust the US

“So do you refer to us as “outlawed” in your paper?” asked the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader Al-Murshid Al-’Aam (Supreme Guide) Mahdi Akef at the beginning of this interview on Monday morning before bursting into laughter.

Marveling at the “absurdity” of the state’s relationship with the MB, 77-year-old Akef, who spent 20 years in prison, insisted the group’s legitimacy comes “from the street”. He also described recent hints from Washington that it would like to enter into dialogue with the MB as insincere, serving “only US interests and arousing people against us”.

The group’s seventh supreme guide succeeded Mamoun El-Hodeibi in January 2004 following his election by the Guidance Bureau in a secret vote. Since then the “banned” MB has adopted a gradual policy of “de facto existence” with the state.

Akef was born in 1928 — the year the MB was founded by Hassan El-Banna — and joined the group at a young age. He worked as a teacher of physical education following his graduation from the Higher Institute for Physical Education in 1950 and was active in resisting the British occupation till the 1952 Revolution. In 1954 he was arrested and sentenced to death after assisting in the escape from the country of a prominent Muslim Brother and army general who had fallen out with Nasser. The ruling was reduced to a life sentence and he was released in 1974.

Over the next 30 years Akef’s activities were focused mainly on the International Body of the Brotherhood which he co-founded in the 1980s. He was also involved in the expansion of the group’s Islamic Youth Camps in dozens of Arab, Asian and European countries. His overseas activities included establishing Islamic centres in New Jersey, in the US, and in Munich, Germany.

Throughout the one-hour-long interview at the group’s modest headquarters in Manial Al-Roda the Supreme Guide was relaxed, often making jokes, and seeming not to mind the Weekly ’s frequent interruptions.

All eyes on MB
THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD has chosen Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, a microbiology professor in El-Minia University to head the MB parliamentary bloc. Two Brotherhood MPs for the Mina EL-Basal constituency in Alexandria, Hussein Mohamed Ibrahim and Hamdi Hassan, were appointed deputy head of the bloc and spokesman respectively.

Katatni toured El-Mina two weeks ago, speaking in the Nazlet Ebed Church. Father Armia, the church’s top priest was quoted as saying it was the first time that “our constituency’s MP visits us to acquaint himself with our problems and grievances.”

The MB hosted a lavish dinner on Sunday at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Heliopolis to introduce the outfit’s 88 MPs to the media and public figures. Addressing the MPs, the group’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef said their responsibility was “huge and heavy”.

“This is only the beginning,” he said.

Citing a long list of tasks awaiting the Muslim Brotherhood, Akef said, “You must care for the nations’ interests and its citizens, both Muslims and Copts, men and women. And be punctual in your attendance.”

The parliament, he added, was likely to introduce constitutional amendments “to make the people the source of authority, to limit the president’s powers- his term in office should be limited to four years and two terms- to promote human rights and abolish the emergency law.”

Aziz Sedki, a former prime minister who now heads the National Front for Change ?an umbrella for 11 opposition parties and groups formed two months ago- addressed the gathering, demanding that “this People’s Assembly work on releasing political detainees and on stopping flagrant corruption in this country.”

Rejecting “claims” that the 17 Brotherhood MPs in the outgoing parliament practiced censorship, the chairman of the Doctor’s Syndicate Hamdi El-Sayed said the group “seriously contributed in national issues that matter to the people, including health, education and political issues.” The outgoing MB legistlators, he said, “were active defenders of this nation’s health and I expect them to perform equally well in the next parliament.”
Are the tactics of Muslim Brotherhood MPs going to be different in this parliament?

Our performance will be an extension and continuation of the line we adopted in previous parliaments. This time around the number of Brotherhood MPs is larger — it is unprecedented for us and a heavy duty. But I can claim that the MB’s performance in the outgoing parliament was distinguished — that’s not just my view but the view of many others.

But the political climate has changed, state policy has changed. How will this affect your parliamentary positions?

Everything changed except state policy. Look what happened in the elections.

But compared to the elections in 1995 and 2000 state policy has changed…

You’re saying the policy has changed and I’m saying it has not — the proof being what happened and the number of Brotherhood detainees. At the moment there are 1,200 MB members in detention. If the policy had changed there wouldn’t be any.

In 2000 they arrested 6,000. It’s much less today.

Back then 17 Muslim Brothers made it to parliament out of 75 candidates. Had the elections been fair we could have won 50 seats. What changed is the general climate that has imposed itself on Egyptian reality, not on Egyptian politics.

How did it change? Can you cite examples?

The electorate and their insistence on voting despite everything. This never happened before. When the security forces [were out in force] voters stayed at home.

Do you count both external and domestic pressures as partly responsible for this change?

I think the aim of foreign pressure is to exhaust the regime; it is not in Egypt’s interest. If foreign pressure was in Egypt’s interest, and towards genuine democracy, then the regime [raising his voice] wouldn’t have dared act in the way it did during the elections. The political establishment is doing what it is doing without worrying because American democracy isn’t pursuing Egypt’s interests. US democracy seeks to intensify backwardness in this country.

Is it true you plan to hold training workshops for your MPs ?

We always do that. The mentor core of these workshops are Muslim Brothers but then I ask participants to consult with all sorts of experts.


Are you going to avoid non-political issues, such as censoring books, that caused such an uproar in the outgoing parliament…

We need not apologise for that. We were not calling for the censoring of books and I want to be clear about that. We objected to the fact that the Ministry of Culture was publishing such [sexually explicit] novels funded by the taxes of the people.

It appears that ’reform’ has become a key word in your recent discourse. Is it going to be the focus of your parliamentary agenda, and will you prioritise some political issues more than others?

We are occupied with a host of issues. As the Supreme Guide I’m faced with many files, the most important of which concern freedom and the abolition of the emergency law, military courts, limiting the president’s powers and [amending] Articles 76 and 77 of the constitution.

Are you counting on acting in concert with the National Front for Change and in the street?

Of course. If we don’t do that we won’t achieve anything. We’re a minority. You know how they operate in parliament. I’m talking and I raise my voice and 150 [opposition] MPs are backing me. Someone can then send a motion to the speaker asking him to close the discussion. The majority vote for it and it’s closed. This happens to end discussion of the most important issues parliament faces. As long as we are a minority in the People’s Assembly we won’t have influence over decisions but we can be effective in making things clear to the public. But in the end who gets to decide? The NDP.

Some believe the political establishment has ignored appeals — 500 so far — and court orders so that it can later dissolve parliament if the MB representation proves too troublesome. Do you agree?

I don’t think so. The NDP barely clinched 75 per cent of the seats. They won 145 seats and only swelled their presence when defectors rejoined. The government won’t want to repeat this scenario [by dissolving parliament and holding elections].

How are you taking the deluge of criticism against the MB, not only from critics but from sympathisers as well?

[Laughing] I’ll tell you something. When the MB’s enemies tell us something needs to be changed and it does need to be changed we’ll do it. But unfortunately they don’t read our platform or our literature.


Do you expect every person who wants to understand what ’Islam is the Solution’ means to read the books you have published on the subject?

Yes. Before they criticise me they have to read … But they shouldn’t talk to me without knowledge. They have to read our work and about us…

The MB’s election platform states that the state in Islam is “a civil one” while in the introduction to the study The Muslim Brotherhood in Parliament 2000 you wrote that the objective of your participation in parliament and civil society organisations “falls into the framework of creating the Islamic State”. How do you explain the contradiction?

To achieve the Islamic state we need a very long time. We can only achieve it if the people want it. I’m not much inclined to use the term Islamic state. [I prefer using terms such as] legitimate government and parliamentary republic because the Islamic part is stipulated in the constitution anyway.

So is this a postponed project or have you changed your position?

No it is not a postponed project. We are seeking ways to achieve it and it requires a lot of effort. As you know we begin with the Muslim individual, the Muslim family and the Muslim community.

But this is inconsistent. You’re saying Islamic state and your platform calls for a civil state.

Islamic is the same as civil. There is no such thing as a religious state in Islam, it just doesn’t exist. It’s a civil state. When Islam endorses a state it does so through the mechanisms that define the modern state today. These mechanisms have been defined since [the second Caliph] Omar Ibn Al-Khattab. Meaning the people are the source of authority, the ruler has to be elected and there has to be rotation of power. The principles of the civil state are the principles of Islam.


Why do you want to contest municipal council and Shura elections?

This isn’t the first time by the way. Our policy is to participate in elections: student elections, legislative elections etc. We operate as following: when there are parliamentary elections, for example, the MB’s institutions sit and study the whole thing and determine whether it is beneficial or not for the people for us to contest the elections. The same goes for the municipalities. We think and study and analyse.

Your decision to contest municipal and Shura elections is being interpreted as an attempt to secure the five per cent support needed from these bodies to nominate a candidate in the next presidential elections.

That’s not true.

Why is that wrong? You are a political power that exists.

Yes, but we are outlawed. This is not in our minds at all, not even for the 2011 elections.

Why not? Are you saying it will be problematic?

It is still too early for the presidency. And yes it will be problematic. I fielded 150 candidates for the parliamentary elections so as not to leave room for problems and to achieve the larger objective of reforming and advancing this nation.


When the US State Department spokesman signaled possible contacts with the MB you responded by saying you would talk with the US only through the Egyptian government. Who do you want to reassure?

Take it from me we engage in dialogue with everyone, with institutions, peoples, universities, civil society organisations, think tanks without limit, except Israel which we do not recognise. I’m open to dialogue with any government, but only through the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

But you don’t recognise the regime’s legitimacy. The group’s deputy supreme guide Khairat El-Shater told Al-Jazeera channel a month ago that the regime has no legitimacy.

Because [this legitimacy] wasn’t granted by the people. But the regime is not Hosni Mubarak. It is institutions and we respect and protect these institutions.

What does the US want in suggesting a dialogue with your elected MPs?

I have no faith in them.

The view is growing in Washington that it should engage the Islamists.

In whose interest? The US and Israel’s. I’m certain they want to engage in dialogue with us only to arouse people against us. They also know we will clash with them from the very first round because of their policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

As for the views in Washington to engage Islamists, again this is in the interests of the US administration. We don’t think they have anything to offer us that will be in our interest.


You were quoted as saying that should you come to power you won’t change the Egyptian- Israeli peace agreement while your election platform called for boycott and anti- normalisation movements to be supported, and a “reconsidering” of the nature of the Egyptian-Israeli relations.

I declared that we will not recognise Israel which is an alien entity in the region. And we expect the demise of this cancer soon…if they want to live with us as normal citizens sharing our rights and duties then we don’t mind. But to remain an occupying tyrannical country, then this will not happen, God willing.

Do you think Camp David should be reconsidered?

That is for the people to decide… If I had the power I would put it to the people.


What is your assessment of the Turkish model? It has been hailed as a pragmatic and a convenient alternative to autocratic regimes in the Arab world.

People keep drawing parallels between us and the Turks, Taliban, Iran and Algeria, which is nonsense.

But the AKP (Justice and Development Party) is viewed as a success from a Western perspective. Does it inspire you?

I knew them well when I lived in Turkey. [Turkish Prime Minister Regab Tayyip] Erdogan and [former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin] Erbakan are good friends. And I’m very familiar with their project and know well how the US co-opted Erdogan, who is a talented speaker and impressive character.

Erdogan took Erbakan’s social and economic platforms and implemented them. But he left out the political platform. Erdogan succeeded economically and socially because these were projects that were years in the making. But I think he failed politically. Hosni Mubarak couldn’t visit Israel but Erdogan did.

Is the MB capable of contesting municipal council elections and providing services that compete with the state bureaucracy?

We’ve done it before and we won in councils like Suez and Giza. When we proceed with something like that it is considered and fits with our abilities.

How many will contest the coming elections?

It is not for me to decide. We’re still in the process of arranging this.

Do you think the state will allow you?

Allow us or not we are going ahead anyway. I don’t take permission from anyone. I spent 20 years in prison.


What are you going to do about your legal status?

It’s absurd. A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to see that the word outlawed disappeared from the national press. [The state-owned] Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhouriya interviewed me and referred to me as the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood without the word outlawed. And then they saw the extent of our street presence and the size of the Brotherhood and the outlawed returned along with excessive attacks against the group. So who am I dealing with exactly? An establishment? Or despotic mentalities that manipulate their positions to humiliate and rob our people? From day one I knew that my legitimacy is from the people, the street, not the regime.

So you’re content with your illegal status, which leaves the MB open to arrests and harassment?

Are we missing something? This [pointing to the small office we were in] is the office of the MB’s Supreme Guide. I had a much bigger office before I became the supreme guide. I won’t apply for political party status as long as the Political Parties Committee exists. Once it is abolished and I can exercise my constitutional right to declare a party I will. If that happens and we form a party the MB will still remain an Islamic organisation.

Do you feel it’s your right to have MB cabinet ministers as was suggested by Al-Masry Al-Yom’s columnist Magdi Mehanna earlier this week?

[Chuckling] When we get our parliamentary rights first! Am I not one-fifth of the parliament? Shouldn’t I head one-fifth of its committees? But no, the NDP elects the heads because they’re the majority… that is the mentality of the masters of the NDP.

Is there more than one mindset among those running the country?


What does that mean?

It’s an indication of the struggle to come and I pray to God to have mercy on this country. And it’s not just a struggle in the interests of Egypt, but a struggle against power and money.

The MB and parliament: a chronology
1938 : MB founder Hassan El-Banna decides to contest elections in Ismailia constituency. Mustafa El-Nahhas, the then prime minister, prodded by the British occupation authorities, persuades El-Banna to withdraw. El-Banna agrees on several conditions: that the group gain recognition from the El-Nahhas government, be allowed to publish a daily MB newspaper and licensed brothels be closed. All the conditions are met.

1942 : Following the decision of its sixth convention in 1941 the MB decides to contest elections as a group for the first time. El-Banna runs in Ismailia and five MB members stand in other constituencies despite government pressure to stop them. None of them win, and they accuse the British of rigging the vote to prevent El-Banna from entering parliament.

1976-1979 : MB candidates stand for election as individuals and not a group. Salah Abu Ismail and Hassan El-Gamal win. It is the first public activity the MB has taken since the Nasserist clampdown that extended from 1954 to 1965, when several of the group’s leaders were executed and thousands more sentenced to long periods in prison.

The 1976 elections mark President Anwar El-Sadat’s first move towards a multi-party system.

1984 : Under the electoral slate system the group forges an alliance with the liberal Wafd Party and run as a single list. They secure 58 seats, eight occupied by the Brotherhood.

1987 : The MB forms a tripartite “Islamic alliance” with the Labour and Liberal parties and together they win 60 seats, 32 going to Brotherhood candidates, including the then member of the Guidance Bureau Mahdi Akef, deputy secretary-general of the Doctors’ Syndicate Essam El-Erian and professor at Assiut University Mohamed Habib. Adel Hussein, the Marxist-turned Islamist Labour Party leader, coins the alliance’s slogan “Islam is the solution”.

1995 : Under the slogan “Islam is the solution” the MB fields 150 candidates and is met with a major security clampdown. Eighty-eight leading members — including El-Erian and Habib — are tried before military courts; 54 receive three- to five-year sentences with hard labour. Only Ali Fath El-Bab manages to secure a seat in parliament.

2000 : With elections conducted under judicial supervision for the first time the group fields 75 candidates of which 17 make it to parliament despite a security clampdown. According to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights approximately 6,000 MB members are arrested in the elections.

2005 : For the first time in its 77-year history the MB is allowed to campaign under its own name and candidates openly promote their affiliation and platform. They field 150 candidates in a third of Egypt’s 222 constituencies and win 88 seats — 20 per cent of the total — despite widespread claims of fraud and the arrest of many MB members during the second half of the poll.