A new dynamic
wonders how effective the regime's usual "carrot and stick" manner of handling the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to be
In late March, Egypt's most influential opposition block, the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, appeared to adopt a new dynamic. With increasing calls for political reform, and the emergence of several movements to this effect, it was only natural that Egypt's oldest opposition group would want to play a leading role in the anti-Mubarak movement staging protests nationwide.
In the process, some 900 of the group's members have been arrested, including prominent activist Essam El-Erian and the group's secretary-general, Mahmoud Ezzat. Ezzat's arrest on Sunday, along with 25 other members, was the latest in a series of clampdowns that began on 27 March. On Monday, the state security prosecutor ordered that Ezzat and his colleagues be remanded in custody for 15 days. The suspects are facing charges of belonging to a banned group, conducting demonstrations without government consent, and inciting the public towards civil disobedience in an attempt to abort the referendum as well as upcoming parliamentary elections.
A security report said that Ezzat, El-Erian and the others schemed to undermine and overthrow the regime by spreading rumours of [state] incompetence in fulfilling public needs and failing to provide solutions for people's problems.
In response, Brotherhood MPs submitted 37 statements to the People's Assembly's National Defence and Security Committee regarding the detainees, who included religious scholars, university students and professors.
Clamping down on the Brotherhood is not novel; neither is occasionally allowing them to stage public gatherings or participate in social events. In both cases, however, it has always been up to the security apparatus to decide when to wave a carrot, and when to use a stick.
As harsh as the latest clampdown may seem, political analysts said the group has seen far more severe repression over their eight decades of activity, and have thus learnt "to keep a low profile" when the heat is on.
The new dynamic, then, is noteworthy. The group's leaders are now openly calling upon human rights activists at home and abroad to interfere in their struggle with the government, and exert whatever efforts they can for the release of their detainees. On Monday, the group's Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef along with other group members were quoted by BBC as calling upon international human rights groups to intervene to resolve the issue of the group's detainees. Akef wondered why none of the renowned international human rights organisations (like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch) -- which hasten to issue statements of condemnation when less religious elements find themselves in the government's claws -- had not reacted as strongly to the hundreds of Brotherhood detainees.
The latest developments have also inspired some political analysts to urge the state to adopt a different method of dealing with the group. The argument is that in order for the Middle East in general, and Egypt in particular, to achieve political reform and combat terrorism, it ought to integrate such "peaceful" moderate groups to act as "buffers" against extremism.
Some point to increasingly vocal US calls pushing for the group's legitimacy. On Monday US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed unease following the roundup of Ezzat and the others, but did not go as far as condemning the arrests. He said the US disagreed "with many of the things the Brotherhood stands for, yet, we do believe that people in Egypt as everywhere, deserve a chance to express themselves, and to carry out peaceful political activity".
Lobbying for the Brotherhood's right to "peacefully organise and compete for seats in parliament" the Washington Post also joined the fray. On Monday, columnist Jackson Diehl wrote that Egypt had the opportunity to achieve a "breakthrough and lead the Arab world towards genuine democracy", if it considered integrating the Brotherhood into the political system. But refusing to take up the challenge, he argued, "makes a successful transition less likely not only for Egypt, but also for its neighbours."
Another Post article quoted a leading Brotherhood activist, Ali Abdel-Fattah, describing the struggle with the government as "a historic situation". Abdel-Fattah said the group was willingly paying the price for its political participation, in a bid to prove "it cannot be ignored". He said the group's persistence had established their existence as a party, albeit one that was officially banned by the government.
Has the balance of power somehow shifted in the Brotherhood's favour as the regime faces an array of forces incessantly demanding free and fair elections and an end to the 24-year-old emergency law, which gives authorities a free hand in curbing and manipulating political activities? In any case, whether the Brotherhood's intentions are "inciting disobedience" -- as the regime sees it -- or "simply participating peacefully in liberalising Egyptian political system" -- as suggested by Diehl -- political analysts like Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Centre's Diaa Rashwan were adamant that "these movements will not simply disappear, and hence need to be integrated into the political dynamic."