Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 June 2004
Issue No. 693
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The brotherhood's latest challenge

Does the recent government clampdown on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood bode ill for the group's future? Gihan Shahine examines the prospects

The recent government crackdown on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was the most extensive since December 1994, when security forces arrested more than 80 members. Although fewer people were arrested last month, observers saw the raid as the government's harshest ever, likely to place the group's unity and activities in jeopardy.

By expanding the roundup to six governorates, arresting 54 active members in places like Alexandria and Kafr El-Sheikh (where the Brotherhood has traditionally flourished), the state was clearly targeting the group's vital human infrastructure.

Unlike the 1994 roundups, this time around the government focussed on allegedly active (rather than merely well-known) figures with key organisational roles in linking the group's headquarters with its offices nationwide. Twenty companies believed to belong to the group were also shut down, and LE3.7 million of the group's assets frozen. Its Web site was also closed.

Leading MB member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh described the crackdown as "almost the first time the state based its anti- Brotherhood campaign on fabricated reports, and not just the usual unfair allegations." Amongst the claims levelled by the government this time around was that the group was sending some of its members to conflict areas like Iraq, Chechnya and Palestine to receive military training, which would allegedly later be used to overthrow the regime by force. A state security report also claimed that the group had been carrying out organisational meetings with the aim of forming new cells and expanding its recruitment policy in order to infiltrate as many sectors of the population as possible.

Abul-Fotouh describes the raid as "a sudden escalation, which will harm Egypt's interests more than the group's, [since it basically gives out the message that] the country has an unsafe environment for foreign investment". He admitted, however, that the "escalation would, of course, negatively affect our activities."

More importantly, Abul-Fotouh told Al-Ahram Weekly, "the government has definitely miscalculated because it is absolutely in Egypt's interest to have all of its political powers united in the face of external threats such as the ones currently being escalated against Arabs and Muslims by Zionists and the US." In fact, Brotherhood members and political analysts speculated that external pressures might have catalysed the government's campaign.

Diaa Rashwan of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said that although "the US has designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, or at least as one helping terrorists, it would be very difficult to tell whether that was actually translated in the recent MB arrests."

Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan explained that, "most of the roundups were actually concentrated in governorates, like Alexandria and Kafr El-Sheikh, where the Brotherhood was most active in staging demonstrations protesting against the latest Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders."

Rashwan, the managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report, said, "the government has always adopted the same pre-emptive policy, alternately accommodating and suppressing the outlawed group, by dealing out systematic blows to abort their activities and put them on the defensive." Completely eradicating the group, however, was never part of the government's policy, Rashwan said, "not even under late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, because it would be almost impossible to make that happen".

Another common interpretation stressed that the timing of the latest crackdown, after a period of accommodation and tolerance, is itself highly symbolic: with all the current talk of political reform, the government was probably sending the group a message that they will never be part of any such reform.

According to Rashwan, the Brotherhood have lately been "more active than the [government wanted them to be] on the political scene, and in the media." Amongst their high profile activities: announcing their very own political reform agenda; and arranging very public funerary gatherings for slain Hamas's leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi, who were known for their long-standing affiliation with the group.

"The government is making it clear that it has not changed its stance, and that the Brotherhood will remain an outlawed group, with no place on the future political map," Rashwan said. Another important catalyst for the recent escalation, he said, is the government's perception that the group's newly appointed leader, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, is "a radical".

The government's crackdown, combined with an attempt by a group of dissenting Brotherhood members to establish a legal political party with an Islamic-leaning agenda similar to the Brotherhood's, has also inspired questions regarding the outlawed group's ability to maintain its internal unity.

The Al-Wasat (Centre) Party, if and when the government sanctions it, will be chaired by former Brotherhood veteran Abul-Ela Madi, and will include intellectuals, Copts and women. It may attract a number of other Brotherhood members, thus causing rifts in the outlawed group's ranks.

Leading Brotherhood member Essam El-Erian said that even though the current state of affairs would negatively affect the group's activities, it would not threaten its basic existence or unity. "The Brotherhood has adaptive policies to deal with massive roundups, which have always been a constant government policy." Although the sheer number of people detained this time may be large, El-Erian said, "it is still not enough to destroy the group's huge infrastructure."

Rashwan agreed that, "the government only means to hamper the group's activities, but not eradicate it, which would require a far more comprehensive confrontation."

Other analysts cited the Brotherhood's legacy as a constant component of the nation's social fabric and political life, as well as its proven ability to survive serious attacks like the one that took place in 1994, when most of those arrested were sentenced to three and five years in prison. This time however, Rashwan pointed out, most of those arrested belong to the group's middle generation, and are considered its most effective members.

Amr El-Choubaki, also of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the group's internal unity would probably remain solid as a direct result of the country's generally stagnant political environment. "So far, it seems there is no real intention on the government's part for any political reform: none of the reform talk goes beyond the level of chatting, and not a single concrete step has been taken," El-Choubaki told the Weekly. That dynamic, combined with the Brotherhood's focus on social advocacy rather than a clear-cut political agenda, may even boost the group's internal unity.

That may change, El-Choubaki speculated, if the government sanctions Al-Wasat. "If Al-Wasat becomes really effective, it may threaten the Brotherhood by polarising a number of the more liberal middle generation, who are the most effective of the Brotherhood ranks."

But, as most political analysts speculated, if the political environment remains stagnant, Al-Wasat will be rendered as ineffective as all other political parties, which "would give the Brotherhood further credit, and further convince the group's members that their political ideas have no way of surviving outside the framework of the Brotherhood," El-Choubaki said.

Only in the highly unlikely scenario where the Brotherhood is sanctioned to become a legitimate political party, said El- Choubaki, would any real rift occur between "the old guard, with its religious propagandist approach and limited political vocabulary, and the middle generation, with its Islamist-leaning civil political approach".

The difference between the two generations, according to El- Choubaki, is "primarily in the manner in which they address the divine and the sacred."

The group's leadership (mainly from the old guard) urges piety and advocates Sharia (Islamic law). Another faction, while calling for the implementation of Sharia, "does so with a commitment to peaceful political endeavours". The latter faction mainly includes members of the middle generation, who readily "admit that their ideas are politically disputable, not divine mandates", El- Choubaki said. This more "modernist vision tackles religion as a culture more than a holy text".

That difference in perspective was the main catalyst that drove Madi and a group of former members to abandon the Brotherhood in 1996 and attempt to form Al-Wasat. While the Brotherhood itself discounts the splinter group as numbering fewer than eight former members, Madi insists that, "more than 200 members, who are politically active and have a clear-cut political agenda, have left the group over the past eight years."

Madi told the Weekly that, "we, the dissenters, disagree with the Brotherhood on mixing politics with daawa (religious advocacy). We believe that, to achieve any of our aims, the two cannot be mixed." Madi also attributed "the predominance of the old guard with its radical views", as well as the group's ongoing outlawed status -- "classified neither as a political party or a non- governmental organisation" -- as other reasons why some members abandoned the Brotherhood.

At the same time, Madi does not think Al-Wasat, if ever sanctioned by the government, will pose a threat to the Brotherhood's unity, because "we have a different civil and political agenda which regards Islam as a civilisation, not a religion, and accepts all people from all sects and religious backgrounds." As such, he said, "only a few Brotherhood members would fit our political perspective."

Abul-Futouh agreed that Al-Wasat was unlikely to attract many Brotherhood members for the "simple fact that its agenda does not accommodate the group's goals."

He also denied that there was any sort of clash within the Brotherhood's ranks: "We may have differences, but we also have an efficient and democratic mechanism to overcome them. There is no rift between the old guard and the middle generation, since we all agree that politics and religious advocacy are inseparable."

Abul-Fotouh was also optimistic that the Brotherhood would "ultimately manage to establish a political party because without the Brotherhood there can be no talk of democracy or political reform. The Brotherhood is here to stay."

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