Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Running as religious duty

By Amira Howeidy

Essam El-Erian

Essam El-Erian, 47, is possibly the most prominent representative of the new generation of Brotherhood leaders, viewed as dynamic, pragmatic and more open to new ideas and interaction with other political and ideological trends. He is responsible for analysing and responding to press reports, prepares Brotherhood statements and acts as a bridge between the group's old guard and the younger cadre.
A member of the 1984 and 1987 parliaments and assistant secretary -general of the Doctors Syndicate, El-Erian was a key player when the group briefly flourished politically in the 1980s.
Similarly, he witnessed first-hand the government's clampdown against the group. Arrested along with 27 members of the Brotherhood in 1995, he was referred six months later to a military court which sentenced him to five years imprisonment with hard labour for belonging to an illegal group that works for suspending the constitution. The sentence coincided with then upcoming parliamentary elections which El-Erian, along with other active Brotherhood members, was planning to contest. It was the first time that members of the outlawed group had been put on military trial since 1965.
During his imprisonment, El-Erian, who had graduated from medical school and obtained an MS in Clinical Pathology and a degree in law, enrolled in Al-Azhar's Faculty of Islamic Shari'a and Law and the Faculty of Arts' History Department.
El-Erian was released last January and immediately resumed his activities in the Doctors Syndicate and the Muslim Brotherhood..


Given the nationwide arrests of Brotherhood members on the eve of the elections, and the remote chance they have of winning, how seriously does the group take the elections? Or is your participation more to promote a political message?
There is more than one reason for us to take the elections seriously. The Brotherhood's vision of political activity is not narrow. This vision derives from the Brotherhood's ideology and belief in Islam as an all-embracing religion. And politics are an integral part of Islam.
If running for election is rewarding for some politicians, even if it's only for prestige, the prospects for the Brotherhood are the opposite. All they get out of nominating themselves is trouble. Yet they insist on playing their political role that has an Islamic perspective. At the same time, they are acting for the country's political good.
Moreover, the Brotherhood has a comprehensive view of Islamic action. This is why their role in the political arena, be it participation in the various activities or direct and close contact with the public, is felt. And people always want to be represented by those who truly represent them, and they cannot find anybody better than the Brothers.
In many cases, some Brotherhood members are prodded into nominating themselves because the people want them to. If they don't run for election, it would amount to a betrayal of the trust of the people.

Compared to those who contested the 1995 elections -- before the Al-Wassat group walked out of the Brotherhood and before you and others were deprived of your political rights -- the candidates for this year's elections seem to be a second best. People, for example like yourself, would ideally run for election, but can't.
But there are other roles to play.

What role are you playing now?
I can't tell you [he laughs]. Or I'll be arrested once again! Let us be honest. The nature of the political, particularly Islamic, movements is that they are productive, imbued continuously with new blood.
And if some political parties or groups lack the vigour necessary to raise new generations, the Islamic movement, particularly the Brotherhood, do not suffer from this shortcoming. And if you had attended the recent funeral of the Brotherhood's secretary-general, Ibrahim Sharaf, you would have seen all generations, from age 11 to 80 and 90. They were all there.

Does the Brotherhood have a list of Brotherhood candidates running independently?
No. We don't even try to keep lists because we have no intention of releasing a list. We, as the Muslim Brotherhood, allow candidates to run independently. Releasing a list would contradict this concept.

But a list was released by the Brotherhood in Alexandria, including the name of a Copt who later said he will not contest the elections, causing you embarrassment.
The problem of elections in Egypt is that they don't draw the interest or attention of the public. People are dejected because the previous four parliaments were unconstitutional. So any minor event gets exaggerated attention, more than it deserves.
I mean nominating a woman is not unprecedented. In the 1987 [alliance between the Brotherhood and Labour and Liberal parties] there were women.

But they weren't from the Brotherhood.
But the principle was well-established. The women in the Islamic movement have reached a high degree of maturity that enables them to contest elections. Yet I insist that the principle is an established one.
This also applies to Copts. The only Copt who made it to the 1987 parliament ran on the alliance's ticket under the slogan "Islam is the solution." What happened this time is an implementation of this principle but in a different form...
What was published by newspapers is that the Brotherhood is willing to support a Christian candidate provided that he has good qualities, such as a nationalist position, honesty, straightforwardness and a clear position on Muslims and their legal rights.
An offer was made: 'If you nominate yourself, we'll support you.' He said, 'I'll study this' or 'I'm not thinking of this right now.' So it was merely an offer that was welcomed. Then he said that he will not contest the elections. Now what's embarrassing about that?

But the information released by the Alexandria Brotherhood placed his name on their list of candidates.
No, his name was not on the list. What was announced was that the Brotherhood intends to support any Christian candidate with such and such qualifications...
This was a positive step and should have been welcomed by everyone. But we were surprised to see all this hype and debate in various circles, especially the press which viewed it as a game or manoeuvre.
If indeed it was a manoeuvre, the Brotherhood would not have nominated [the Coptic figure] Gamal Asaad Abdel-Malak. His name topped the [tripartite alliance's] ticket in the constituency of the Supreme Guide [then Hamed Abul-Nasr]. Moreover, the Supreme Guide personally supported him and issued a statement to that effect. So where is the manoeuvre?

You are an illegal group, and yet you can't see why these measures are taken against you? Isn't the Brotherhood responsible for what happens to it?
Of course it's a mystery for all who wonder how we managed to have 37 MPs in the 1987 parliament despite our illegal status. So who should be asked this question? The government. Who makes the law in this country? The government.
Now how can a major political force whose presence is felt in society not have a legal status? This is a mystery. And it's known to all and sundry that it is literally impossible to exclude this force from public or political domains. Even if it is placed behind bars, as Gamal Abdel-Nasser did, it will still exist.
So the question that the government must answer is why won't it legally recognise the Brotherhood?
When was the last time the Muslim Brotherhood sought legality?
This is a case that has been in the courts for the past 25 years. And it will continue to be there for years to come because it has nothing to do with the Brotherhood. I mean who doesn't want legal status?

Why hasn't the Brotherhood applied to become a political party?
If there is absolutely no political will [on the government's part] whatsoever, can someone who is politically active operate in a country without knowing its political rules?
Now the Political Parties Committee is a government body and the government's top officials have repeatedly stated that the Brotherhood can't operate but its members can be politically active independently.

Yet, you insist on contesting the elections?
Yes, as individuals, independently.

So you prefer this rather strange situation, de facto but illegal existence? And are you actually waiting for the courts to rule on your 25-year-old case?
The licensed political parties are getting dissolved and those who applied for licences were turned down once and twice. All the doors were shut in their faces. So, where is the environment and will for political action?

Some observers argue that the reason the government turned against the Brotherhood in the early '90s was because your group was too mild in condemning the violence unleashed by armed Islamist groups at the time.
The Brotherhood issued statements condemning the violence from the first day it erupted. What more were we supposed to do? And before the condemnation, the Brotherhood was never involved in any act of violence. And when Brotherhood members were put on trial, they were never accused of using violence. All we were accused of was being politically active.
Secondly, our position on violence was very clear. We said that we're against all forms of violence and any incorrect application of the Islamic religion. Yet we also said that violence shouldn't be fought by security measures alone. And this is what was taken against us.
So, am I supposed to condemn violence and not express my opinion on how it should be ended?
On the other hand, violence at that time was not limited to Egypt, but existed elsewhere in the region, which raises question marks on who was funding it. Then suddenly it stopped in almost all the countries where it was once rampant. So it seems that the objective was to tarnish the image of Islam deliberately... I also believe that the violence was intended to bring our peaceful political activities to a halt.

But it was argued that the Brotherhood could have acted differently...
No, there was no other choice for the Brotherhood. Were we supposed to take up arms and fight those who unleashed the violence? And would the government allow such a thing to happen?

In your opinion, were the 1987 elections fair?
No. In my constituency, at least four of the candidates on our ticket won, but only one actually made it to parliament. We deserved at least 120 seats in the 1987 elections, we actually won that many, but were given only 60 seats.
But this is what happens in elections in Egypt, ever since 1924. All of them, with the exception of one, were marred by fraud.

Despite your charge that the 1987 elections weren't fair, it was only in those elections and the elections of 1984 that the Brotherhood won seats in parliament.
Just because I made it to parliament doesn't mean that I'm supposed to say the elections were fair. The rigging in the 1987 elections was flagrant. And the reason we made it was the use of the slate system. Winning had to do with the percentage of votes a slate gets.

Your Supreme Guide was recently quoted as saying that the Brotherhood will establish their state in 30 years. What do you think of this statement?
Such statements must be seen within the context in which they were made. The Supreme Guide said that the Jews worked for 50 years before establishing their state and 50 years afterwards, and yet it was still an unstable state.
So why would anyone find it a far-fetched idea for the Brotherhood, 100 years after its establishment, to see their movement bear fruit -- a country that applies Islamic Shari'a [law]?

Related stories:
Brothers forward a new image, and a sister 31 August - 6 September 2000
'Too early to decide' 3 - 9 February 2000
See also The Brothers' last sigh?


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