"It knows what it doesn't want but doesn't know what it does want." But how true an assessment is this of the Muslim Brotherhood's position ahead of the Shura Council elections and amid a security clampdown, asks Amira Howeidy
In his 14 March weekly column in the daily independent Al-Dostour, Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian chose an unusual topic. Under the title 'The seven benefits of Prison' El-Erian, 56, listed, without a hint of sarcasm, the advantages of his detention, including "seclusion with God in acceptance, submission, patience, certainty and reliance". He recounted the events of 8 February when his wife woke him a little after 1am to inform him that they had "visitors" from the state security forces. "Before she finished her sentence three of them were already in the bedroom," wrote El-Erian. "They let me drink my too-early morning coffee while my wife packed my [prison] bag of white clothes which remind you of hajj pilgrims or the shroud of dead people."
And yet El-Erian, who is spending his days, as he has spent many in the past, in a prison cell -- detention without trial is legal under emergency laws --has found enough "benefits" in his incarceration to make for an argument he thought worthy of a stern op-ed.
The MB leader, elected a month before his arrest to the movement's Guidance Bureau, is a medical doctor and assistant secretary-general of the Doctors' Syndicate. His career has been punctuated by numerous arrests and several prison sentences. In a previous interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, El-Erian described prison as "death". It is the price he pays for belonging to an illegal organisation, the same price that was paid by his predecessors and is still being paid by his peers and the movement's younger echelons. But has the Muslim Brotherhood -- and for that matter its observers -- grown so accustomed to security blows that they now accept arrest rather than react to it?
El-Erian's experience is symptomatic of the political environment in which the outlawed group operates. The movement endures in this hostile landscape precisely because, say its spokesmen, it remains wholeheartedly committed to its "reform mission". Critics, on the other hand, suggest the Brotherhood's real fixation is less reform than preserving the 82-year-old movement, which enjoys significant grassroots support.
In the 2005 legislative elections the MB won 88 People's Assembly seats -- 20 per cent of the lower house. Today the MB is suffering a series of security clampdowns that began in February and which have targeted El-Erian, among other high-ranking leaders within the movement. Observers interpret the arrests as a pressure tactic ahead of June's Shura Council elections and November's People's Assembly poll.
The detentions show no sign of abating. On Tuesday morning security forces arrested 58 MB members in the northern governorates of Alexandria, Gharbeya, Beheira and from Assiut and Beni Sweif in Upper Egypt. The group's lawyers say that between 350-400 Muslim Brothers have been arrested in the last two months.
Despite the clampdown the movement has continued to lead nation-wide university student demonstrations to protest against the Judaisation of East Jerusalem. In parliament MB lawmakers have called on the government to withdraw Egypt's ambassador to Israel. On Monday, they took the lead in the press conference called by the opposition block to launch a draft law for fairer political participation. The group has also agreed to be "part of" the National Assembly for Change (NAC), headed by ex-International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed El-Baradei, widely viewed, since his recent demands for constitutional amendments, as a catalyst for change. And yet this monolith with, according to Islamic movements expert Diaa Rashwan, 2.5 million members, only makes the news when the Interior Ministry arrests its cadres.
Inevitably, Tuesday's mass arrests have seen commentators once again posing what has become a perennial question. Does the Muslim Brotherhood have a strategy beyond surviving the status quo imposed on it by the regime? With decisive parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon finding an answer is more urgent than ever. Yet judging from El-Erian's benefits- of-prison column, acceptance appears to be the MB's only tactic.
Hossam Tamam, a researcher on the Muslim Brotherhood, puts it thus: "The Brotherhood wants regime change, but their mentality is closer to that of the regime's."
"The MB will only operate within the designated rules of the political equation," Tamam told Al-Ahram Weekly, "and then only when both sides [the regime and the Brotherhood] do not cross the borders." The security apparatus, for example, will not arrest the MB's supreme guide and the Brotherhood will not take to the streets in large numbers. While the Brotherhood is by far more powerful and larger than its political adversaries, he adds, it can't be depended on to achieve change because "they will not be part of an endeavour the future of which they do not foresee entirely".
"In moments of extreme flux the MB is incapable of movement," says Tamam.
In an interview with the Weekly, MB Guidance Bureau member Saad El-Katatni said his movement is "participating in" but not "a member of" El-Baradei's assembly.
"As the assembly is not a registered organisation we don't need to be 'members' per se," he explained.
"There is a correlation between El-Baradei's NAC and our own position regarding reform and regime change. We will cooperate with them and support their demands thus far but we are a big movement extending across the nation and as such cannot be contained within the NAC."
Asked if the Brotherhood has decided on whether or not it will contest the Shura Council elections, El-Katatni says the matter is "still being considered".
The MB fielded 20 candidates in the 2007 Shura elections but failed to win a seat. Because the upper house has no legislative powers it is not a priority for the MB; indeed, it is seldom contested by recognised opposition parties. Yet the Brotherhood, which is already paying the price for considering contesting the election, has refused to pass up on the poll.
It is crucial for the MB's political survival, argues Tamam, that it contest both the Shura Council and the People's Assembly elections even if it knows it will win no seats in the former and an insignificant number in the latter.
The 2005 and 2007 constitutional amendments, which prohibit the formation of political parties based on religious platforms, facilitate the trial of civilians before military courts which cancelled the judicial supervision of elections "largely targeted the MB so as to eliminate, rather than contain or limit, its political presence," says Tamam.
Recent speculation puts the MB's representation in the 2010 parliament at 20 MPs. Tamam suggests the outcome will be "much less", not least because the authorities are wary of the Brotherhood's possible backing of El-Baradei should he decide to contest the 2011 presidential election.
"The MB will contest the elections anyway because this is the time they interact with their constituency, reactivate the frozen dynamic with their base and emphasise their presence even if they fail to win a single seat," says Tamam. But that, he adds, is all they are willing to do since the Brotherhood "lacks the political imagination" that surfaced in much smaller movements like Kifaya and which "raised the bar of dissent to unexpected heights" in 2004.
"It is our constitutional right to contest the elections regardless of any intimidation," says El-Katatni. "Otherwise we would be leaving everything to the [ruling] National Democratic Party. What we won't do is flex our muscles unnecessarily or put pressure where it shouldn't be. Everything we do is calculated. And we're not out there to lead a coup."
This is the group's existential crisis, comments Tamam. "It knows what it doesn't want but doesn't know what it does want."