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Monday, August 22, 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Future

During my travels in Cairo earlier this summer, I spoke with the locals about their perceptions on Egypt’s political and legal future.  The Muslim Brotherhood and its vision for Egypt was a center point of each conversation.

Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher and an imam, the Brotherhood’s credo was:  “Allah is our objective.  The Prophet is our leader.  Qur'an is our law.  Jihad is our way.  Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."  Its stated purpose remains the establishment of Islam as “the sole reference point for ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community . . . and state.”  Although an illegal organization in Egypt since 1954, the Brotherhood managed to become the largest and best-organized opposition group in Egypt.  It ran candidates as independents in parliamentary elections, winning an impressive 19.4% of the seats in 2005, even though the elections were widely viewed as rigged in favor of the National Democratic Party (Al-Ḥizb al-Waṭaniy ad-Dīmūqrāṭiy), led by Hosni Mubarak.

The Brotherhood played a role—though not a central one—during the revolution that toppled the Mubarak regime earlier this year.   Although the Brotherhood supported the revolution, it did not seek to dominate or capture it.  As Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, put it:  “This is a revolution for all Egyptians; there is no room for a single group’s slogans, not the Brotherhood’s or anybody else.”   In the revolution’s immediate aftermath, the Brotherhood promised not to field a presidential candidate or seek a parliamentary majority in order to mollify fears of an Islamist takeover of the new Egyptian democracy.

Following the revolution, the Brotherhood immediately began to take advantage of its position as the best-organized opposition group in Egypt and started mobilizing support.  A constitutional declaration issued by the ruling military council lifted a constitutional ban on the formation of political parties with “a religious frame of reference,” allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to establish its own party, called Hizb al-Horriya W Alaadala (Freedom and Justice Party).  The Freedom and Justice Party quickly rose to become the frontrunner for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The swift electoral timeline set by the ruling military council will likely boost the Brotherhood's electoral prospects.  The elections are on track to take place by November—eight months after the revolution—a relatively short timetable for new political parties to form, organize, raise funds, and campaign.  As an already established political group, the Brotherhood has the organizational and financial capability to quickly commence an electoral campaign.  In contrast, rapid elections will likely work to the detriment of emerging opposition parties, which have splintered into numerous factions and need more time to establish and promote themselves.

The upcoming parliamentary elections carry particular weight.  Under the constitutional amendments adopted by referendum in March 2011, the new Egyptian Constitution will be drafted by a Constituent Assembly elected by the new Parliament.  If the Brotherhood dominates the Parliament, then the Assembly in charge of drafting the new Constitution will likely reflect the Brotherhood’s constitutional preferences.   Perhaps for that reason, the Brotherhood, unlike many of the newly formed parties, lauded the military’s plans to postpone the constitution-drafting process until after the parliamentary elections.   Confident that the elections will produce a bloc large enough in its favor, the Brotherhood expects to control the constitution-drafting process as well.  The Brotherhood also rejected a set of supra-constitutional principles intended to guide the Constituent Assembly and ensure that the new Constitution conforms to certain principles such as equal rights for women and religious minorities. 

What does the Brotherhood’s likely electoral success mean for the future of Egypt?  The Brotherhood is a fairly closed and secretive group and has declined calls to reveal its constitutional vision before parliamentary elections take place.  The opinions of the locals are also mixed.  Some characterize the Brothers as “aggressive” and intent on establishing an Iran-like theocracy in Egypt.  They point to a protest that took place on July 29, 2011, when a demonstration that was scheduled to be a non-ideological rally for Mubarak’s swift prosecution became a show of force for the Islamists.  The members of the Brotherhood (along with other Islamist groups) started chanting Islamist slogans and rallying for the establishment of Sharia law, which prompted the non-Islamists to withdraw from the protest.  Others believe that the Brotherhood “is not so bad” and will do little more than perpetuate the existing role of Islam in Egyptian society (even before the revolution, the Egyptian Constitution established Islam as the state religion and Sharia law as the principal source of legislation).  That difference of opinion among the locals might reflect a generational rift within the Brotherhood itself—between the younger, more progressive, faction and the older, more conservative, members.  It remains unclear whether and how that internal rift will be resolved in the upcoming months.

At least for some Egyptians, the thirst for democracy outweighs the concerns raised about the Brotherhood.  As one Christian local put it to me, “I don’t care if the Brotherhood comes to power—as long as we have democracy in Egypt.”  There is always the possibility, of course, that the Brotherhood will use the democratic process to undermine democracy, so the result, as Edward Djerejian put it, is “one person, one vote, one time.” 

Posted by Ozan Varol on August 22, 2011 at 12:47 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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