The Muslim Brothers and the elections
Have the Muslim Brothers reached the point of a showdown with the authorities, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed comments
For some years now the Muslim Brothers have opted for a low profile presence on Egypt's political stage, working quietly behind the scenes and avoiding direct confrontations with the authorities. Their actions over the recent period point to a shift in tactics, as they move out of the shadows to assert their presence more forcefully. It is clear that they have decided to test their strength and organisational skills at the grassroots level. Although they have previously demonstrated their ability to mobilise their followers, notably at the funerals of their leaders, the huge rallies they organised two weeks ago were on a different scale altogether, with -- so they assert -- some 70,000 people in 18 towns taking to the streets simultaneously. Despite the fact that over 200 of the demonstrators were arrested, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brothers, Mohamed Akef, said demonstrations will continue to be held without prior notice because notifying the authorities in advance allows them to abort a demonstration before it begins.
It is worth noting that on the same day the Muslim Brothers held their synchronised demonstrations, the Wafd announced it was withdrawing from the national dialogue, as did the Nasserite, Constitutionalist and Umma parties, while the Tagammu announced that it would reconsider its position. Serious disagreements had emerged between the opposition parties and the ruling NDP over the Parties' Committee, the Judicial Committee and the electoral system, in short, over most of the main issues.
As to the Muslim Brothers banned since 1954, they were not invited to take part in the national dialogue in the first place. It is hard to see how a process can claim to be conciliatory and constructive when it excludes one of the principal players in the political arena. The ruling party, which initiated the process, announced that it has no objection to allowing members of the banned organisation to join one of the existing legal parties and to take part in the dialogue in that capacity. But the proposal is based on a contradiction: on the one hand, for a political party to be legally recognised, it must come forward with a programme distinct from that of any other party; on the other, for the Muslim Brothers to be politically active, they must join a party whose programme is fundamentally different from theirs. How to reconcile these two opposite logics?
The uneasy modus vivendi that has prevailed between the state and the Muslim Brothers for so long is clearly coming to an end. There is a real problem here that requires a radical solution tailored to meet not only the requirements of the state but the valid aspirations of a party with a distinct political programme. But the problem will remain unresolved as long as its solution is envisaged not in terms of the organisation's own circumstances but in terms of the will of other parties, more specifically, of the readiness of another party to host Muslim Brothers candidates in its own ranks. This formula has been applied on more than one occasion in the past. The first time was when Muslim Brothers candidates ran on the Wafd's electoral lists, despite the sharp ideological differences between the two parties, and the second was when they ran on the Labour Party's lists, again despite ideological differences.
The fact is that the problem can only be resolved in the context of a democratically sound political structure that serves all Egyptian citizens on equal measures and without discrimination, that is, as structure open to all political parties that agree to observe the rules of democracy, including the Muslim Brothers. Stopgap solutions like the formula applied in two previous parliamentary elections to circumvent the problem backfired. In both cases, the People's Assembly was dissolved by a court judgement ruling the manner of its composition unconstitutional.
But if it is true that stopgap solutions are not the answer, it is equally true that the answer does not lie in expressions and slogans (like "Islam is the solution") that are open to different interpretations and hence more likely to complicate the problem than to resolve it, nor, a priority, in allowing the situation to deteriorate into a contest of wills played out in the streets at the expense of security and stability. Where then does the answer lie?
An important factor to be taken into account when considering the best way to resolve a problem is that the passage of time imposes its own imperatives. Things are in perpetual motion and what could have been the right solution to a problem in the past, whether the distant past or even the recent past, is not the right solution today. Because solutions are linked to interests and interests to contemporary reality, to the progress realised by civilisation as a whole, the ambiguities in the relationship between religion and modernity must be addressed. There is no contradiction between faith and modernity and the two can, and indeed must, be reconciled. From this perspective, ijtihad (interpretative judgement) and qiass (analogy) are not only legitimate but integral to the process of discovering solutions.
The security valve in consolidating democracy is the principle of rotation of power, which ensures that arriving to power through legal channels does not lead to remaining in power by non-legal ways. In countries where democracy is well established, traditions built up over centuries protect democracy against aggression. But what about countries where such traditions do not exist?
One idea is to allow international inspectors to monitor elections. However, this can only work if the national authorities are willing to cooperate, which is not always the case. For example, official circles in Egypt consider that the Muslim Brothers have been heartened in their bid to impose themselves on the political arena by the pressure exerted by Washington on the Arab countries, particularly on Egypt, to introduce certain reforms, especially recent statements by US officials calling for a dialogue with the Islamic moderates.
But Akef has denied that the Muslim Brothers intend to bow to external pressures on the Egyptian government. Claiming that he had turned down an American offer to begin a dialogue between the organisation and US officials, he reiterated once again that refusing all dialogue with the US is an issue of principle. He described the Muslim Brothers as an all-encompassing Islamic association which is trying to found a party in accordance with Egyptian laws and the constitution based on the rules of democracy with an Islamic frame of reference. Akef added that he refuses all meetings with American or European Union officials that are not arranged by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. This, he said, was, is and will continue to be the position of the Muslim Brothers.
In the final analysis, the question is whether the framework of religion takes precedence over all others. For the Muslim Brothers, the Sharia is the sole source of legislation and jurisprudence. Where does this leave ijtihad and qiass ? Are debates acceptable only in the aim of convincing others, not to be convinced by them?
As interests become more closely intertwined in the context of globalisation, there is a growing need to find common ground, to promote thinking that unites and does not disperse. Contemporary technology has reached a degree of destructive power that can expose humankind to self- annihilation. What is more important is not the positive achievements of modern technology, able to produce miracles to man's benefit, but its negative effects. One mistake and the future of life on earth can be put in jeopardy.
The whole human race is called upon to close ranks in the face of contemporary problems that are affecting us all, like environmental degradation, the shortage of potable water, global warming, different types of now diseases and epidemics, desertification, pollution and different types of discrimination, particularly of women. It is no longer possible for any section of the global population to cling to a system of thinking that is uncompromisingly antagonistic to the thinking of others.