Will Politics Tame Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?

Will Politics Tame Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?


– When stumping through the port city of Alexandria, whose crumbling mansions and rickety tram lines evoke long-faded glory, Sobhe Saleh of the Muslim Brotherhood vowed he had a different vision for Egypt’s future.

Egyptians fled tear gas fired by policemen at a voting site in Zagazig. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood gained parliamentary seats, raising the question whether political success will moderate its image. More Photos >

Religion, in fact, should profoundly alter both Egypt’s domestic and foreign policy, said Mr. Saleh, a 52-year-old lawyer with a clipped helmet of steel-gray hair.

“If Islam were applied, the television would not show us prostitution and people lacking all decency!” he declared. “If Islam were applied, Iraq could not have been invaded, Israel could not occupy Jerusalem, and aggression could not have been used to humiliate Muslims everywhere!”

A long-expected day of reckoning is at hand in Egyptian politics now that the Brotherhood, an illegal organization with a violent past, is entering the corridors of power for the first time in significant numbers.

The outcome of the freest election in more than 50 years could determine whether political Islam will turn Egypt into a repressive, anti-American theocracy or if Islamic parties across the Arab world will themselves be transformed by participating in mainstream politics.

No sudden earthquake is expected. But initial results from the final round of voting on Wednesday showed that the Brotherhood had gained at least 12 more seats to bring its total to 88, with seven races from all three rounds still unsettled, according to a spokesman. That is five times the 17 seats the group won in 2000.

Already, those inroads have been greeted by conflict. At least eight people were killed in violence around polling places, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, including two felled by rubber bullets fired by the police.

As it did in the second round of voting, the Brotherhood accused the government of fomenting the violence and blocking access to the polling places to limit the ability of its supporters to vote. The government said opposition forces instigated riots.

“Reports reveal a systematic and planned campaign to prevent opposition voters from going to the polls,” the Independent Committee on Election Monitoring said.

The violence is a measure of the jitteriness accompanying even the relatively modest gains the Brotherhood had made. While capturing roughly one-fifth of Parliament’s 444 seats, the group does not control enough to enact laws or even override the governing National Democratic Party.

Its well-organized campaign, built around the vague slogan “Islam Is the Solution,” did little to illuminate what it will do as the opposition.

The open question is whether political influence could transform the Brotherhood into a moderate political party, like the governing Justice and Development Party in Turkey, rather than an organization that uses Parliament as a platform to proselytize.

Its newfound role might also help answer the question whether Islamic parties are interested in democracy only as one person, one vote, one time.

“For the first time, they are not merely expected to be troublemakers but to gain the trust of their voters,” said Mohamed Salah, the Cairo bureau chief for the London-based newspaper Al Hayat and an expert on Islamic movements. “If this time people voted for the Brothers to punish the N.D.P., they won’t next time. So the Brothers face a difficult test.”

Until now, religion has occupied an awkward twilight area in Egypt’s mummified political life, grudgingly accepted but technically banned. Prohibited in 1954 after members carried out a string of violent attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood runs its candidates as independents, with scores of campaign workers jailed.

Deep apathy among the 70 million people of Egypt – by far the largest Arab country – meant turnout in this election officially averaged 34 percent, but many election analysts have put it at 25 percent or lower.

Parliament has neither budget oversight nor the power to remove ministers, serving mostly as a rubber stamp for presidential initiatives. But the Muslim Brotherhood vows to use the People’s Assembly to lead the charge for reform, pushing for expanded civil liberties, albeit with a religious tint.

Since Hassan el-Banna, an elementary school teacher of Arabic, founded the Society of Muslim Brothers in 1928, the group has insisted that a state ruled by strict application of the Islamic law, or Shariah, and God’s punishments will arrive by gradualism rather than by force.


President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government has habitually warned critics at home and abroad that his 24-year rule remains the sole bulwark against the tide of radical Islam.

Some analysts argue that the government’s strategy was to let the Brotherhood win just enough seats to force critics both here and in Washington to confront the fact that the choice comes down to the governing party or the abyss.

“The Brothers are the government’s bogeyman,” said Ibrahim Issa, the editor of the weekly Al Dustour. “It’s like you say to misbehaving children, ’The Brothers will get you, the Brothers will get you.’ The government does it so that we accept political despotism.”

Indeed, the Brotherhood’s dismayed opponents – among them governing party officials, Egypt’s 10 percent Coptic minority and most intellectuals – are warning that doom lies ahead.

“The Mullahs Are Coming!” screamed one headline in the government-controlled newspaper Al Gomhouriya, using the title reserved for Iran’s tyrannical clergy.

Talk show guests on state television have outdone themselves coming up with synonyms for shifty and sinister, while the latest nationally broadcast Friday Prayer sermon sponsored by the government blasted anyone mixing religion with politics.

Adel Hamouda, the editor of the new independent daily Al Fagr, positively frothed at the very idea of a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc.

“They once relied upon secrecy, underground organizations and a militia until they decided to ride the wave of democracy to reach power,” he wrote in a denunciation illustrated with a doctored picture of the Brotherhood’s leader wearing a Nazi uniform. “Once they do, they will adopt dictatorship, fascism, Nazism; they will say that they are God’s deputies, God’s in-laws, God’s friends, God’s spokesmen, and whoever opposes them, differs with them or becomes their enemy will become the enemy of God.”

A Disillusioned Nasserite

Mr. Saleh, the Alexandria lawyer who trounced his governing party opponent, dismisses such fears as groundless. In many ways, his path from childhood in a Nile delta village to parliamentary representative of one of the Mediterranean’s biggest cities reflects the modern trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sent to Alexandria for high school, he was 13 when the Arabs lost the 1967 war against Israel, and he joined the mobs coursing through the streets to reject President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s offer to step down.

The adolescent Mr. Saleh worshiped Nasser, memorizing lines from his famous speeches, which had given Arabs their first sense of pride in a postcolonial world. Indeed, Mr. Saleh’s speeches echo Nasser’s defiant tone.

“Leave peacefully with your own will, before you are forced to leave – go and never come back!” Mr. Saleh told the governing party in one speech, using virtually the same lines that Nasser hurled at Western colonial powers.

In 1971, a year after Nasser died, Mr. Saleh read “The Return of Consciousness” by the renowned writer Tawfik al-Hakim, which depicted the leader as a sorcerer who created a grand illusion. The most lasting shock for Mr. Saleh was the lie about Arab might.

Will Politics Tame Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?

Muslim Brotherhood Gains Ground He recalled a night in 1965 when five village neighbors were arrested in a national sweep against thousands of suspected Muslim Brotherhood members. Mr. Saleh, by now in university, read their trial transcripts and heard their tales of degrading torture. He knew the arrested men as devout, sincere and hard-working.

At that point, he joined the Brotherhood, deciding that only an Islamic renaissance could rescue the Arabs from their plight.

One key reason the Muslim Brotherhood has endured is that its message combining spiritual salvation with an Islamic political renaissance captures the middle-class mood – particularly among conservative professionals like doctors, engineers and lawyers.

Mr. Banna, the movement’s founder, believed that social ills could be cured by a return to the basic tenets of Sunni Islam, and that Muslims would always face enemies trying to thwart their revival.

The continued repression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, not to mention many of the 30 to 40 other Muslim Brotherhood organizations worldwide, has only added to their mystique. Syria mandates the death penalty for membership, while legal parties in other Arab countries, like Morocco and Jordan, are constantly harassed and highly popular.

The Muslim Brotherhood is often seen in two ways – as the fusty great uncle of Islamic politics, content to bide his time, or as the womb of all subsequent Islamic terror movements. Both views are true.

Mr. Banna organized a paramilitary Special Apparatus, ostensibly to train volunteers to fight in Palestine. Many did, but members also plotted a series of political assassinations.

Government gunmen killed Mr. Banna in 1949, just as the organization reached its peak, with 500,000 members. A failed attempt to assassinate Nasser in 1954 led to the Brotherhood’s being banned, with up to 20,000 members languishing in jail for two decades.

Among them was Sayyid Qutb, who wrote a radical treatise from death row arguing for armed revolt. Subsequent groups, notably Al Qaeda, base their doctrine partly on his writings.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant, volunteered in a Muslim Brotherhood clinic before founding Islamic Jihad, whose violence included assassinating President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981.

Shying Away From Violence

The Muslim Brotherhood calls all these links tenuous at best.

“The presence of these violent groups outside the Muslim Brotherhood proves that there is no place for those who support violence inside,” Mr. Saleh, said in an interview in the Brotherhood’s cramped Alexandria office.

If the group retains a shadowy aura, its leaders say, it is because decades of persecution have made it wary. Mr. Saleh has been imprisoned twice, including six months in 2003 after leading demonstrations against the American invasion of Iraq.

This election underscores the risk of groups hostile to American policy emerging through reforms. The group’s leader, Muhammad Mehdi Akef, 78, accuses the United States and its allies of carrying out brutal attacks on Iraqi civilians and mosques to sully the image of the resistance.

“Such dirty work is done by the Americans, the honorable resistance has a noble purpose so its means are always noble,” Mr. Akef, known as the general guide, said in an interview.

Mr. Saleh, asked in an interview about what the Brotherhood would do in Parliament, echoes the national platform with its typically populist positions that derive their support from religious sentiment.

He calls Israel “an aggressor nation” and says Egypt should shun it, if not sever the peace treaty. He opposes any American aid that comes with strings attached.

On tourism, he wants foreign visitors segregated so the faithful can feel comfortable in areas that require modest clothing and a ban on alcohol.

Will Politics Tame Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?

Muslim Brotherhood Gains Ground “In Islam, a man doesn’t have the right to kiss his wife in public, unless he was away and just returned, so the law needn’t be applied in the airports or train stations,” said Mr. Saleh, a father of four and grandfather of two.

Turning Egypt into an Islamic state is an interim goal along the way to recreating the Islamic empire, or caliphate, of 1,000 years ago, with the modern version mirroring something like the European Union.

The mere fact that the Brotherhood could hold rallies for hours and hang huge banners in the streets flaunting its symbol – two crossed swords over the Koran – is a sea change. Previous campaigns were hurried affairs of rushing around whispering “Islam is the Solution” in cafes for at most 20 minutes lest the police arrive.

This time, some of Mr. Saleh’s attack lines bring guffaws from the faithful. He vows that before Muslim Brotherhood members sit in Parliament, seats formerly occupied by the governing party will be scrubbed seven times, once with sand. The listeners know this is the religious formula for purifying objects fouled by exposure to something ritually unclean, like dogs.

The Government Candidate

A rally by Mr. Saleh’s governing party rival, Khalid Abu Ismael, a millionaire food exporter, seemed pallid after the revival meeting atmosphere of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some in the audience said they were government employees ordered to attend.

Mr. Abu Ismael is typical of the wealthy businessmen that Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and potential heir, has gathered into a 140-member policy council for the governing party.

The basic thrust of much of its reform program is harnessing the private sector to modernize Egypt, with the governing party running slick television campaign advertisements showing beaming Egyptians cavorting along well-scrubbed streets perhaps found in Sweden.

“We can’t say anything has actually changed, but I feel like they are starting to,” Mr. Abu Ismael said in an interview over chocolate cake in the neatly pruned back garden of his splendid mansion.

The genial mogul said he had received some 7,000 job requests while campaigning and had managed to place 650 people. He expressed shock at the living conditions in some of the poorer reaches of the district. He wanted to run in a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold because he resented its attitude. “I don’t like their slogan ’Islam Is the Solution,’ as if they are the only Muslims in this country,” he said.

He and many others are convinced that if the government really tackled social ills, much of the Brotherhood’s support would evaporate. The most vocal complaints from voters condemn their abysmal surroundings despite years of governing party promises to fix unpaved streets, overflowing sewage systems, undrinkable water, utter lack of garbage collection and the like.

Mr. Saleh and most Brotherhood members are often the very community members who found neighborhood collectives to treat nagging ills, indeed the only political group active on the streets.

In his neighborhood, for example, he helped establish a local health insurance system by which poorer families paid half their medical costs, with richer benefactors underwriting the difference. During Ramadan, his charitable organization distributes free food.

“Everything they do is very well organized,” said Tahani Abdul Raouf, a homemaker with five children who attended the women’s rally. “Anything we ask for, we get. They are very respectable people, very efficient people.”

Will Politics Tame Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?


Muslim Brotherhood Gains Ground Essam el-Erian, a key strategist, thinks 75 percent of the Brotherhood’s votes were from staunch supporters while the rest were protest votes against the governing party. Other analysts argue the reverse is true, but exact numbers are elusive.

In a typical interview after one of Mr. Saleh’s rallies, an English-speaking engineer said he was voting for the Brotherhood as the best hope for change. Though he supports its conservative social agenda, Ashraf Omar, 40, said he feared replacing a secular dictatorship with a religious one.

“We want a system in the future where all the people can state their opinion, where they can change the government when they want to,” Mr. Omar said.

The Future of Democracy

Opponents question just how committed the Brotherhood is to democracy given the civil rights disasters wrought by Islamic governments in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban.

At least in the short run, both opponents and supporters of the Brotherhood expect that the election results are probably healthy for political life. The People’s Assembly has been a sleepy place, with members rarely showing up, and the secular parties with their aging leaders and ideas captured fewer than a dozen seats.

If the political process is more vibrant, more people will vote, which conversely might diminish the weight of the Brotherhood, analysts believe. Other parties might also emerge to erode the Brotherhood’s appeal as the sole opposition force.

“We have not been able to face this dilemma for so many years,” said Muhammad Kamal, a key political strategist in the governing party and a political science professor at Cairo University. “Now we have to confront it, it’s in our faces. You cannot have a true democracy in Egypt without reaching some kind of accommodation between religion and politics.”

Some experts believe that it is the Brotherhood that will be forced to adapt, not Egypt. Gamal al-Banna, 85 and the youngest brother of the movement’s founder, has long harbored doubts that Islam in the era of Prophet Muhammad provides a viable model for a modern government.

“Their spirit is not the spirit of the age, they want to live as the prophet lived,” Mr. Banna said. “The real test of the Brotherhood is to let it enter politics. They will be in a different situation when they confront the necessities of ruling, and there are only two possible outcomes. They will have to compromise or fail.”