The shape of things to come
By taking their case for political reform to the street the Muslim Brotherhood are helping to reshape the politics of dissent, reports Omayma Abdel-Latif
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The Muslim Brotherhood, some holding the Qur'an, demonstrate in downtown Cairo on Sunday
When Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, told a press conference last Wednesday that the group was planning to hold a rally to protest the current political stalemate, one reporter asked whether he was apprehensive of the authorities' reaction.
"We have become fearless," Akef said.
The group's decision to take their case for political reform to the street -- it is the first time the Brotherhood has organised a rally to address a domestic issue -- created havoc in downtown Cairo.
The announcement that the rally would be held in front of the Peoples' Assembly on Sunday at noon left the security apparatus edgy but on full alert. And on the day of the demonstration the security arrangements turned parts of Cairo into an almost citizen-free fortress.
The security build-up began with the pre- dawn arrest of 50 members of the outlawed group, a move intended to preempt the demonstration from taking place at all. Asked whether the Brotherhood's demonstration would take place an officer on duty at the supposed scene of the rally responded firmly: "We will not," he said, "allow them to have one."
He was right, in a sense -- the end result of the security cordon being not one demonstration, in front of the People's Assembly, but three, scattered across town.
In Ramses square an estimated 3,000 thousand protesters gathered. A second crowd gathered in Bab Al-Louq, near Tahrir Square, while a third assembled in Al-Sayeda Zeinab, not far from the assembly. That they were prevented from converging on their target destination left the protesters no option but to stage their demonstrations where they were. The hundreds of riot police encircling Cairo's downtown were left at a complete loss.
Angry citizens stuck at security check points cordoning access to many governmental offices and ministries complained about the heavy- handed security measures and at some checkpoints seemed on the verge of staging a demonstration of their own.
While an Interior Ministry statement issued on Sunday did not name names, it blamed "some groups" for the chaotic traffic jams.
These groups, the statement said, had no justification to protest in the street since they have representatives in the assembly who could convey their views.
The heavy-handed tactics reflected what Mohamed Habib, deputy supreme guide, described as the state's obsession with the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian street. Habib pointed out that the Brotherhood's decision to take to the streets was "a symbolic one" aimed at encouraging political reforms and to protest against any attempts to circumvent the president's call to amend Article 76 of the constitution and allow for multi-candidate presidential elections.
"We basically wanted to protest against the arrests and continued clampdown on the group," Habib told the Weekly during the demonstration.
Many analysts see the Brotherhood's decision to take their case for political reform to the street as rather more than symbolic, arguing that it marks a dramatic shift in the group's long standing policy of avoiding any outright confrontation with the state. Whether or not the decision was intended, as Akef suggested, to break the fear factor, or whether it indicates that the Brotherhood has abandoned its strategic decision to bow before state pressure, remains as yet unclear. And, the Brotherhood's decision to go it alone, acting independently from other political forces even over an issue upon which they agree, begs more questions than it answers over the relationship likely to emerge between the outlawed group and other political forces in an election year in which alliances will come increasingly to the fore.
"We will only support the president's nomination if he responds to our conditions before entering the presidential race," Akef said at last Wednesday's press conference.
It would be premature, he continued, for the group to name a candidate for the presidency from its rank and file.
"This has not been an issue of discussion," he said, and the Brotherhood was not turning into a political party any time soon.
"The Brotherhood does not derive its legitimacy from any state organs which are themselves illegitimate but from the Egyptian street." Akef added that the group had often extended its hand to the regime but the latter has never responded to "our gestures of reconciliation".
Asked why he was not coordinating with the Kifaya movement, a group of Egyptian activists from across the political spectrum, who had planned a demonstration for 30 March, later cancelled by the Interior Ministry, Akef was vague.
"Kifaya's demands are our demands," he said.
Akef rejected any suggestion that the group had failed in its dealings with opposition forces. "The Brotherhood did not fail, it is rather the opposition that has preferred to join the government's camp. It is their loss, not ours."
And as proof that the group was not intent on presenting itself as an alternative to the regime Akef referred to an incident when the US ambassador wanted to meet with members of the group. They insisted that Egypt's foreign minister, or another high-ranking official, be present at the meeting.
Towards the end of the press conference Akef dropped what many thought was a bombshell. The group would be happy to endorse the nomination of Gamal Mubarak, head of the NDP's Policies Secretariat, as a presidential candidate. In the view of the Brotherhood, said Akef, there is no difference between the father and the son. What matters is that elections be free and fair and not held under the emergency laws.
"If Gamal Mubarak accepts these conditions we will have no problem endorsing his nomination," he said.