The cold shoulder presented to the Muslim Brotherhood following its proposals for national political reform is not helpful, writes Amr Elchoubaki*
Speaking at the Egyptian Press Syndicate on 3 March, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, or general guide, outlined an initiative for political reform. This initiative generated fierce reactions, largely focussed on questions of form, not content. The first reaction came from the interior minister, who stated that the Brotherhood is a banned group, and as such unqualified for political initiatives.
Setting aside the debate on what is banned and what actually exists, I would like to state forthwith that a security approach cannot supplant a political approach to a group that exists -- one that the government and the ruling party have coordinated with during the Iraq war in more than one public rally. The fact that the Brotherhood is banned does not negate the need to have a political vision for dealing with it. The Brotherhood, after all, has 16 deputies in the parliament (the largest opposition bloc). The group boasts a majority in the Lawyers' Syndicate, has two members on the Press Syndicate board, and more than one supporter on the Doctors' Syndicate board.
The Brotherhood has undeniable presence in the country's political and syndicate life. The state, meanwhile, varies its tactics in dealing with the Brotherhood according to domestic and international circumstance. Most of the time, these tactics range from co-option to exclusion; or rather from partial co-option to partial exclusion. These tactics change according to the red lines the government invents not just for the Brotherhood, but all political forces in Egypt. The Brothers, for their part, prefer to operate within these red lines, even though they are perhaps the only force that can challenge them, at least theoretically.
The initiative may have strayed beyond such red lines, but not because of its content. After all, many Egyptian political currents have come up with similar initiatives. The objectionable point seems to be that a group with some weight made the initiative; a group with relative influence. This forced the outside world to take it more seriously than it would normally had another political current in Egypt tabled it. The Brotherhood initiative for reform addressed two audiences, the internal and the external. Although the Brotherhood eagerly stressed that the initiative was for the home- front, the timing and at least part of the content of the initiative suggest that it was formulated with an external audience in mind.
The issue of the internal and the external is getting increasingly complex. Everyone active on the Egyptian political scene is interested in this issue. It would be wrong to assume that reform ideas are solely based on internal considerations and take no notice of outside pressures. Actually, much of the criticism directed against foreign intervention seems primed for "local consumption". Criticism, and even accusations, directed against specific forces that have embraced some outside views seem motivated by the fact that these forces are competing for a platform that the state has monopolised for decades, one that the state is still determined to call its own. Such criticism does not emanate from a consensus, a principled stand that limits interaction with the outside except through conditions applying to all. Under globalisation, however, the state can no longer be the only active player on the domestic and international scene. Parties and civil society organisations have become a major player in transactions with the outside world.
The Brotherhood's initiative tackled what its leaders call "the general principle for reform" in Egypt. Its timing suggests that this group, just as everyone else, has things to say to the outside world. One has only to note the exaggerated way in which many Egyptian papers report any statement by US or European officials praising Egyptian politics to grasp the immensity of local interest in outside views.
The US and Europe, as well as the rest of the democratic world, no longer view local issues in the Third World as domestic irrelevancies. Many of these issues are becoming "domestic" affairs for the US -- so much so that US political priorities now involve the "manufacturing" of new political elites for the Arab region; elites that can adapt more readily to US global strategy.
The Brotherhood is aware of this global context. This is why its leaders have come up with a reform initiative that the outside world can accept, even with some reservations. The Brotherhood, however, is aware that its strength does not stem from the substance of the initiative, but from their being an effective political current with active cadres in a country where inertia seems to have taken hold of the political scene. The Brotherhood knows that the West is now convinced that Egypt needs politicians, not bureaucrats, to cope with international developments.
This is what made reactions to the initiative particularly acrimonious. This is why the initiative was rejected out of hand; not because of its content and detail. It is tempting to conclude that other initiatives are being accepted, or tolerated, because they come from non-existent political forces, or because their purpose is to placate outsiders -- without introducing genuine political reform, without pumping new blood into the Egyptian political system, without engaging the outside world in a meaningful debate.
The Brotherhood's initiative is actually a continuation of the reformist approach the group has followed since the 2000 parliamentary elections. It is an approach based on the fundaments of the republican system, an approach that does not place Islamic discourse on a collision course with the constitutional and political underpinnings of the system. This is why the Brotherhood stresses its commitment to a "republican, parliamentary, democratic system in the light of the tenets of Islam". Notice how the wording places the tenets of Islam after the mention of the republican system. As for freedom of expression and opinion, peaceful rotation of power, and confirmation that the people are the source of all authority -- these, the initiative copies almost literally from the discourse of other Egyptian political forces.
The Brotherhood, however, still maintains that women are not qualified to assume the position of "grand imam", a reference to the office of the presidency or prime ministry in parliamentary systems. This position reflects the Brotherhood's continued perplexity on the matter of full gender equality, despite the fact that women have assumed top office in more than one Muslim country. The Brotherhood's reference to the revival of the hesba (neighbourhood police) system introduces a dualism that conflicts with the modern concept of security. Hesba refers to the existence of a parallel body for controlling public behaviour and questioning the conduct of citizens, in an obvious encroachment on privacy. The country has a legal code that regulates public conduct, and its implementation is the job of the police. It is not the job of vigilantes who think they are morally superior to the rest of the community.
On the whole, the Brotherhood's initiative for reform was not a breakthrough in Egyptian politics. The Brotherhood has not come up with ideas that may revitalise political life. The initiative, dwelling in a traditional frame of mind, does not explore new means of introducing the reforms Egyptian elites have been urging for decades. The Brotherhood's initiative was fashioned to assert the group's presence rather than to offer new ideas. Similarly uninspired, the initiative's critics preferred to torpedo it rather than discuss reform, debate issues, or seek a cohesive strategy.
The country needs a strategy for dealing with the peaceful current of political Islam, for integrating it into political life, for turning the Islamists into civil forces, just as everyone else. We need to end the distinction between the religiously motivated and the secularly inclined, so that all may compete within the same civil, political framework. The public should have the final say, not the clerics, and not the politicians who act as if they were divinely ordained.
* The writer is an analyst at the Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Centre.