Muslim Brotherhood sits at Egypt’s new democratic table

The group's new political party, Freedom and Justice, faces an uphill struggle; group has yet to define its positions.

By DAVID E. MILLER / THE MEDIA LINE
February 23, 2011 22:08
Muslim Brotherhood leaders

Muslim Brotherhood press conference 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)

 
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The Muslim Brotherhood – which had been the standard bearer of Egypt’s opposition until non-aligned protesters forced President Husni Mubarak out of office this month – is forming a political party, as it seeks to ensure it place for itself in the country’s new democratic politics.

But the new party, to be called Freedom and Justice, faces an uphill struggle. The Brotherhood officially remains banned in Egypt and its leaders declined to detail what its positions will be or even state with certainty whether non-Muslims will be able to hold leadership positions. Analysts say many Egyptians are suspicious of its Muslim agenda.

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Moreover, once the only significant opposition to the rule of Mubarak and his predecessors – Gamal Abd Al-Nasser and Anwar Sadat – was largely sidelined during the three weeks of protests that shook Egypt and now faces a plethora of new rivals for Egyptian votes.

"This is a major political maneuver," Gamal Abd Al-Gawad, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told The Media Line. "The Brotherhood is trying to establish itself as a legitimate power in society, which enjoys legal status."

The US and Israel will be carefully monitoring the Brotherhood’s success. They fear the group aims to recast Egypt is the mold of Islamic Iran, tearing up the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and opposing American interests in the region. Some analysts have questioned its fealty to democratic values and fear it will use elections to seize power.

So far, however, the Brotherhood has presented itself as a force for Islamic moderation and has



The announcement of the new party on the group’s website was brief, and Muhammad Badi', its general guide, added little at a Monday press conference. "This move has been taken in response to the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people for a better future and a bright tomorrow,” he said.

The Brotherhood has been illegal in Egypt since it was alleged to have been involved in an assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954. Nevertheless, officially running as independents, 88 Brotherhood candidates won seats in the People's Assembly, occupying 20% of Egypt's lower house, in 2005 elections. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) dominated parliament, but the Brotherhood dwarfed the other, legal opposition parties.

The US pressured Mubarak  that year to conduct a freer and fairer vote than he had allowed in the past, but by 2010 the Egyptian leader reverted back to fixing elections, and the Brotherhood was crushed by the NDP.  The group began the move to form a party in August 2007, but did not submit the legal paperwork to Egypt's political party committee, headed by Safwat Sharif, a Mubarak loyalist.

With a transitional government promising elections later this year, other opposition groups are coming back to life or being formed. Earlier this week, an Egyptian court authorized the registration of the Wasat, or Center Party, headed by Abul-Alaa Madi and Issam Sultan, two Brotherhood breakaways. On Tuesday, it held a press conference

The Freedom and Justice Party will be entirely independent of the Brotherhood, Muhammad Al-Katatni, a member of the group's Guidance Council who has been named the new party’s chairman, told Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on Wednesday. Under current Egyptian law, the party can still not run, because it is based on a "religious or sectarian tendency."

Abd Al-Gawad said the Brotherhood was making a special effort to "play by the rules" in order to dispel internal and external anxieties.

"The Brotherhood is trying to avoid scaring the Egyptian public, because most Egyptians, like many foreign players, are afraid of it," he said. "The Brotherhood has announced it will not appoint a candidate for president nor will it seek a majority in parliament, trying to look magnanimous."

But on Wednesday Katatni did not rule out the possibility of Freedom and Justice nominating a presidential candidate. "It is hard to tell right now. When the party is formed, it will decide the matter," he told Al-Masry Al-Youm.  

Abd Al-Gawad said that although a major player in the Egyptian scene, the Muslim Brotherhood was by no means the leading force in Egypt. He said the Brotherhood was scared of mounting an aggressive political campaign only to lose, so it has adopted the "patronizing" tactic of treading carefully.

Nevertheless, Maye Kassem, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said she supported the Brotherhood's decision to form a party, saying it would put the group firmly inside into Egypt's political arena and force it to conform to the country's rules.

"The exclusion of the Brotherhood has given it an aura that other political parties in Egypt never enjoyed," Kassem told The Media Line. "Now they will no longer be perceived as persecuted martyrs."

While the Brotherhood right now enjoyed its effective organization and grassroots social work, especially with the poor, other parties – even in the socialist left - could be as popular if they were equally well-organized, Kassem maintained.

The Brotherhood indicated it has reconsidered its previous stance of excluding Coptic Christians and women from leadership roles in Egypt. General Guide Badi' said the new party would be "open to all Egyptians," which led Coptic intellectual Rafiq Habib to publicly entertain the idea of joining it in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm this week.

Leading clerics such as Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Tunisian Islamic leader Rashed Al-Ghanoushi were approached by the Brotherhood but preferred not to rule on whether a Copt or a woman can run for president, saying the matter was better left silent. Qaradawi, a popular Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, turned down an offer to lead the Brotherhood in 2004, saying the position would constrain his actions.

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