Taking their chance
Mohamed Habib, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, talks to Amira Howeidy
about the group's parliamentary elections tactics
A typical afternoon in the middle-class district of Manial Al-Roda is crowded with Ramadan traffic, school children returning home and election bunting strung across the streets, zig- zagging between buildings and lamp posts. Given the preponderance of banners urging people to vote for Mohamed Thabet Mekki, the National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate, Al-Manial might appear as a government stronghold. But Manial Al-Roda is also home to the head office of the "outlawed" Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt's largest opposition group. When security forces closed the Downtown headquarters of the MB in one of its toughest clampdowns in 1995, the group's head office moved to a modest apartment at the far end of the conspicuously quiet Al-Malik Al-Saleh St. Two palm-sized white and blue stickers printed with Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (The Muslim Brotherhood) affixed to the sides of a first floor wooden door are the only sign that this is the headquarters of the group which has emerged as the NDP's main opponents in the 9 November parliamentary elections. Inside, a handful of people are glued to an Al-Jazeera TV interview with Mohamed Khairat Al-Shater, deputy supreme guide of the MB. The other deputy, 62- year-old Mohamed Habib, is busy being interviewed by two reporters. Known to be politically savvy and open, Habib, a professor of geology, is in charge of the MB's parliamentary elections file.
Fielding 150 candidates across the nation, the group is operating in an unprecedented harassment-free environment -- in 2000 approximately 6,000 Muslim Brothers were arrested ahead of the parliamentary elections while in 1995 many of the group's leaders were tried before military courts -- and freely flaunting its slogan "Islam is the solution".
MB candidates in Alexandria and Al-Minya are campaigning online via newsletters and sleek websites and the "Islam is the solution" slogan has been reinvented as a smooth modern logo with white letters set against a blue background and a white leaf. "Together for reform" has been added for good measure.
In an extensive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Habib outlined the MB's strategy and expectations during the elections period and beyond.
The Muslim Brotherhood is allowed to flaunt its once-taboo slogan, none of your members have been arrested, your candidates are promoting themselves freely and the state-run media no longer automatically refers to you as "outlawed". What is going on?
Let me talk about the general atmosphere and our reading of the political scene. There is the NDP, the ruling party, which is contesting the elections in all 222 constituencies; it is trying to win a two-thirds majority at least. Then there are the political parties which recently formed the United National Front for Change. The front was faced with many difficulties, largely because of the lack of time in which to properly coordinate ahead of the elections. And then there are the marginal parties.
The MB represents the strongest social and political currents in Egypt. It has an organisational structure, institutions and presence on the street. We could have fielded 444 candidates like the NDP, but we preferred to keep the number at 150. They are spread across as many constituencies as possible, approximately one-third of the parliamentary seats.
So are you leaving some constituencies uncontested for the NDP candidate?
We do leave some constituencies uncontested when the NDP candidate is a symbol like [parliamentary speaker] Fathi Sorour or [chief of the presidential staff] Zakariya Azmi, but this is not a hard and fast rule. The late [Supreme Guide] Maamoun El-Hodeibi, for example, ran against [then Minister of Social Affairs] Amal Othman in Doqqi and in this round [MB's]Hazem Ismail is running against her.
We are in fact coordinating with the front and with other political forces, though not, of course, with the NDP.
We are talking about a climate that's not only different from 2000, but different from last year. There is a lot of criticism of the president, his family and the establishment, something that has never happened before. To have more than one candidate run for the presidency -- it was a charade of course -- but nine candidates competing against the president, it is a step forward.
And you are no longer referred to as banned.
Well there are some negatives coming from the [state-run] media but we are treated as a group that exists and that is active. You will notice that no one stops our marches, our conferences go ahead, our banners are everywhere across the nation, perhaps less in Cairo than elsewhere. Also, no one has been arrested till now. Rigging the ballot though, that is a different thing. We think the vote will be rigged, though in a different way than before.
We still have the emergency law, the independence of the judicial authority law has not been issued yet, and judges are not empowered to fully supervise the elections. The electoral roll should be an embarrassment to the regime -- all those millions of dead people -- it's unfathomable. There are hundreds of court cases demanding that voter lists be updated but nothing happens. They leave the possibility of electoral fraud wide open, though it is likely to be on a smaller scale than in the past. Instead of 80-90 per cent of the vote being manipulated, it will probably be 60 to 70 per cent this time. But it will happen.
Then there are the businessmen who control [elections] and their resources will play a role in the tally.
The MB appears to have the money to influence elections so why refer only to businessmen?
Fame rather than wealth goes the saying. You can see our headquarters for yourself...
But you hosted the most lavish political Iftar of Ramadan. It was the talk of town for a week.
Paid from our own pockets.
If you will spend that much on an Iftar, how much money are you willing to spend on your election campaign?
We don't do Iftars every month. It is an annual event. The elections are very different. We don't have a centralised [financial] system in this respect and it varies from one district to the other. Some candidates have a good base of MB supporters, in other constituencies that less so. But our human resources are extensive.
So what is your popular base?
We don't compile statistics. We can't because of harassment, tracking and restrictions. They say 750,000: but are they Muslim Brothers? The MB is not a bloc or a nucleus isolated from the rest of the population.
Our people work voluntarily, not for money. The NDP spends money on everything: they pay the person who hangs the banner and those who wrote the banner etc. They pay for everything and this consumes a lot of money. We have people who volunteer, who do this work for free.
The people trust us, we have credibility, which is why we don't need to buy people's votes.
Other than promoting your slogan freely how has your election strategy changed as a result of the political climate?
"Islam is the solution" is not just a slogan, it encapsulates the nuanced initiative for comprehensive reform that we announced at the Egyptian Press Syndicate on 3 March 2000. And we have not changed, though there might be some emphasis on political and constitutional reform, since they are the opening to all other forms of reform.
The NDP's Mohamed Kamal said on Monday his party would file a complaint against the MB because your slogan violates the elections law.
We are not violating the law. The elections law bans slogans that could incite sectarian strife which isn't the case with "Islam is the solution". The Egyptian constitution says that Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic Sharia the source of legislation. Our slogan isn't simply an expression of our own identity but of the identity of the Egyptian people. It is our reference.
Why did you make a point of fielding a female candidate?
Women constitute half the society.
But the MB seems eager to have a female candidate even if she isn't as qualified as potential male candidates. Makarem El-Deiri's statements have been criticised by many.
We want to emphasise the right of women to contest elections and hold political office. We hoped to field tens of women in the elections. We have extremely qualified sisters who are competent and capable. There are geniuses, and women with great potential. Distinction didn't come to men and then stop there. But there are problems. We have a sister, for example, a university professor who is doing a great job in social work and also in syndicate work. But she has six children and recently gave birth to a seventh. What can we do? We wanted to support her candidacy but her husband objected because of the new born.
But the female element in the MB remains limited and ineffective. Why are there no women on the Guidance Bureau for example?
In 1995 the MB's Shura Council held a meeting. The police arrested 83 of them. Then the [authorities] set up military trials. Some of the detained were sentenced to five years, others got three years. We work, and continue to work, in a repressive, tyrannical climate. Look at the detentions and the torture that happen in the State Security Investigation headquarters and which lead in some cases to the death of detainees. Should we subject our women, sisters, daughters to this?
After his release from prison, MB leader Essam El-Erian said the security mindset has changed. Do you agree?
There is no such thing as a security mindset. There are political decisions. The political momentum and congestion on the Egyptian street... [and] the persistence of foreign pressure on Egypt caused a change in the strategic vision of Egypt's political leadership. Some sort of release was needed to prevent an explosion.
Do you concede that other, smaller groups like Kifaya began to break this congestion while the MB remained watching?
I want to say something. Kifaya does not have an organisational structure. On my own I can say whatever I want, right? And the state will ask who is this person anyway? But when I'm responsible for a family I have to take them into consideration. As a group we were subject to repression and horrific torture in prisons... Our experience has been stained with blood through long decades.
I have a question: if the MB organised a small scale demonstration, will the [security forces] treat it the same way it treats a Kifaya demonstration? And why not? There is a state of intense polarisation. There are no parties, no political forces. There are no movements in the street except the state with its repressive forces and the MB. What happened when we fielded 150 candidates in 1995? Military trials and all the candidates detained. In 2000 we were forced to reduce the number of MB candidates to 75.
But Kifaya's demonstrations were also violently suppressed.
That happened later, when their voice got louder. It's not that we don't want to give them credit. We just want to describe things as they are.
But you decided to follow suit and take to the streets...
And the result was that they broke our bones and arrested 3,000. How long did the Kifaya activists spend in prison? Two hours? A day?
Are you saying they are protected by foreign pressure on Egypt?
No, I don't want to say that.
And that the MB enjoys the same form of protection...
Are you saying the MB has not taken advantage of international interest in what's happening in Egypt and the de facto international monitoring of the situation here?
When 3,000 Muslim Brothers were arrested the US administration didn't move.
The American administration turned a blind eye to the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, despite all its flaws. Then it talked about the referendum and how it should be fair and elections should be free, but this is a form of political deception. If they really wanted genuine democratic change, the constitutional amendment should have been done the right way and the door should not have been shut in the face of independent candidates [contesting the presidential elections].
How many Muslim Brothers will make it to parliament this time?
I say approximately 50.
If state policy remains unchanged and the MB is allowed to operate freely, will you pursue a political reform agenda? Will you take to the street to achieve the reforms you are demanding?
Taking to the streets is not the only method, and not an end in itself. There are conferences as well. If we are allowed to organise a conference and allowed to mobilise tens of thousands to attend it then we will say yes, we are on the threshold of a positive environment and there is a chance. But the street is not yet ready.