Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2005
Issue No. 742
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fighting for turf

Where is the Muslim Brotherhood/Egyptian government dynamic heading? Omayma Abdel-Latif looks into a long-troubled relationship on the brink of a major confrontation over reform

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The scope and significance of the recent agitation for change will probably depend on how three key players -- the state, the Brotherhood and the new secular reform movements -- will interact; right: Akef at the press conference calling for the release of Brotherhood detainees

The photographs on the walls of the Muslim Brotherhood's Al-Malek Al-Saleh Street headquarters, north of Cairo, may help explain the recent escalation in the conflict between the Egyptian government and the outlawed group. The shots were taken during recent demonstrations organised by the Brotherhood in Cairo and other Egyptian governorates, and feature captions such as "Freedom is the only path to political reform", and "We want real political reform".

The Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Mehdi Akef, called the demonstrations "symbolic". Others have termed the rallies -- which managed to amass thousands of supporters -- a message of defiance. If anything, the fact that the group managed to bypass ironfisted security procedures to successfully organise three pro-reform demonstrations in less than a week was nothing if not unexpected.

Akef, however, said the government should not have been too surprised. He disclosed that the group had approached security officials nearly three weeks ago for permission to hold the demonstrations. "We asked them to find a place for us to hold our pro-reform rallies and freely express the public's demands. They did not respond." Striking out on its own, the group managed to hold demonstrations in Cairo and more than 10 other governorates last Wednesday. On Friday, the same scenario took place, while on Sunday nearly 3,000 women took part in a rally in Alexandria to protest against the detention of hundreds of Brotherhood members.

The surge in the group's street-based activism, however, has come at a price, with hundreds of its members and sympathisers rounded up by the police. While an Interior Ministry statement put the number of detainees at 200, the group claimed that at least 2,000 people were taken into custody. The arrest of Essam El-Erian, an outspoken member of the group's Maktab Al-Irshad (guidance bureau), was a particular blow. El- Erian's lawyer was quoted by the press as saying his client had told interrogators that he would be running for president. The news caused an uproar, with Akef saying the group had no knowledge of El-Erian's intentions. The charges against El-Erian include being a member of an outlawed group that seeks to overthrow the regime. The death of group member Tareq Mahdi Ghannam, blamed on a harsh security response to a rally in Mansoura, was also a major loss for the Brotherhood.

The protests and arrests have raised questions about the fate of an already troubled relationship with the state. The timing, just as the government finds itself under tremendous pressure from civil and political forces to move towards real reform, and coinciding with the emergence of a nationalist pro-reform movement, has inspired a flurry of questions about where the escalation might end up.

The Brotherhood demonstrations were seen as a radical shift in the group's thinking, a clear break from its long-standing tradition (and conscious choice) of avoiding direct confrontation with the state during Hosni Mubarak's rule. Although that strategy served to protect the group, despite the occasionally harsh security strike, it also catalysed a peculiar relationship whose core element was mistrust. Today, the regime sees the group as seeking to take advantage of an improved democratic climate -- coloured by international pressure for reform -- as a means of gaining power. Other detractors take this argument further, suggesting that if the Brotherhood did end up coming to power, they would change the rules of the game, throwing democracy out the window.

When such scenarios are put to the group's senior leaders, their routine response is that the Brotherhood is not seeking power, just their legitimate political rights. Brotherhood sources also speak openly of having "a channel for dialogue" with the security apparatus; one of the reasons the group decided to go ahead with its protests, Akef said, was a "feeling that security officials were showing [greater] understanding of our demands for political reform. We thought they were also looking out for Egypt's interests, but when we approached them with our request to organise rallies, they simply turned on us."

One Brotherhood source said there are factions within the regime that are hostile to the group, who end up manipulating the security apparatus into clamping down on all pro-reform activists. "I know for a fact that some parts of the regime understand our aspirations, but there are others who are very hostile," Akef said.

The escalation may have reached its peak when Brotherhood sources were quoted by independent daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm on Sunday as saying that high-ranking security officials had threatened "to squash the group", if it did not stop taking its demands to the streets.

Deputy supreme guide Mohamed Habib and others in the Brotherhood, however, do not see a major confrontation on the way. Habib told Al- Ahram Weekly on Monday that the group rejects the idea of a confrontation "outright. It is not on our agenda, simply because it does not serve my cause. We want to express our views in the most civilised and peaceful way possible. Our agenda is reformist, not confrontational, but the security response has always been hostile."

There are growing fears, however, that the first victims of the escalation will be none other than the nascent reform movement itself. In fact, some interpret the Brotherhood's moves as an attempt to hijack the newly founded reform movement, and claim the street for itself. Wahid Abdel- Meguid of Al-Ahram's Centre for Strategic Studies said the group's actions were a reflection of what he described as "a sense of exaggerated power" that drives the aloof manner in which the Brotherhood deals with other political forces.

Abdel-Meguid's view is echoed by Abdel- Halim Qandeel, a founding member of the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as Kifaya (Enough). "They feel they are a very influential group that wants to, and can, run the process of change without embracing other political and civil forces," Qandeel told the Weekly.

He said the Brotherhood, encouraged by Kifaya 's breaking of the street demonstration taboo, decided to make themselves more visible as well. At the same time, Qandeel dismissed claims that the two groups were fighting over turf. "The last thing we want is a fight over who owns the street, or who has the ability to mobilise it better. The only thing that matters is that more and more people realise that they have a right to protest for their rights."

In Qandeel's view, a qualitative shift in the relationship between his group and the Brotherhood took place during a demonstration at the Press Syndicate on Sunday, when the two groups joined ranks to protest against the detention of hundreds of Brotherhood members, calling out unifying slogans like, "One movement, one hand."

This unity seemed to take on a life of its own just two days later, on Tuesday, when an earlier call by Akef for civil disobedience as a reform pressure tactic, re-emerged in a Kifaya statement as a potential next step in their continuing protests against the status quo.

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