Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Brotherhood according to El-Shater

A recent interview by Brotherhood presidential candidate Khairat El-Shater in the New York Times has done little to clarify the group's economic or social programme, writes Ahmed El-Tonsi*

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Khairat El-Shater

In a lengthy interview with the New York Times, Khairat El-Shater, who has now been designated as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections, made some important statements on Brotherhood positions regarding the current as well as the future affairs of Egypt. Needless to say, El-Shater is a leading figure within the Muslim Brotherhood and one enjoying considerable powers stemming from his history as a charismatic figure who has contributed much to the group's strategy and direction. It is no doubt for these reasons that El-Shater has now been nominated as the group's candidate for president.

El-Shater has also been the de facto and de jure chief financial officer of the group, with its discrete and complex network of financial affairs that are characteristic of what until recently was an outlawed organisation. However, his title of deputy supreme guide of the Brotherhood misrepresents El-Shater's real role, and there has been talk of El-Shater being involved in deciding on the group's nominations for the next cabinet, as well as, now, of being its presidential candidate.

For these reasons, statements made by El-Shater should be carefully scrutinised, particularly since he has not up till now been a frequent guest of the media, even though a growing number of Brotherhood members have talked to the media, sometimes causing confusion stemming from their contradictory statements. Commentator Nathan Brown raised the issue of too many speakers and statements muddying the waters when he said that what was needed was "not simply carefully tailoring statements, but also learning how to make those statements in one voice, something that has been difficult in the rush of recent events."

Beyond the confusion, some official declarations have also stirred tensions between the group and other states, like when a problem arose with the head of the Emirates police force following a speech by Mahmoud Ghouzlan, an official spokesman of the Brotherhood. Amid this flood of speeches have come El-Shater's words, which should be taken seriously as being from one of the group's leading figures. The New York Times highlighted the important role played by El-Shater in the management, policy formulation and the decision-making of the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to the article, El-Shater said that "recent elections have proved that Egyptians demand an explicitly Islamic state," adding that "the Islamist landslide in the parliamentary elections is an indisputable democratic mandate for an explicitly Islamic government." Despite the indiscriminate use of the words "state" and "government," the linking of an Islamic state to a popular mandate looks erratic. The issue of an Islamic state or government was not part of the electoral platform of the Brotherhood, which people supposedly voted for when choosing the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) list.

There was nothing in the Brotherhood's platform that pertained to the establishment of an Islamic state. Accordingly, those who voted for the platform of the FJP did not mandate or demand an Islamic state simply because it was not part of the platform of the FJP. At most, the term Islamic was linked to the FJP as a party with Islamic references. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has been explicit in its endorsement of a "civil state with an Islamic reference." On page five of the group's platform, for example, explicit mention is made of the need to establish a civil state that is neither military nor theocratic. People voted for the civil state mentioned in the FJP platform, not the Islamic state described by El-Shater.

El-Shater is thus deliberately altering the popular approval given to the electoral platform of the Muslim Brotherhood by describing it as a mandate to establish an Islamic state. Pushing the frontiers of a democratic mandate in this way is a serious matter because it exceeds the powers delegated to the Party to act on the people's behalf in parliament. This was supposed to be the essence of the late elections, or any other elections: choosing representatives of the people to represent their aspirations and demands and not the party's hidden programme, which is only binding on its members and not on voters in fairly held electoral contests.

Transformational steps like establishing an Islamic state, something that is in any case ill- defined and controversial, cannot be deduced from mathematical exercises involving counting popular votes in legislative elections. Identifying real or hidden popular demands should be made through popular referenda and not through the biased extrapolation of data.

The FJP has the right to lay out its vision regarding the future state and direction of Egypt. But it does not have the right to impose its vision on the population as a whole. The issue of an Islamic state should be the subject of a societal dialogue in the forthcoming deliberations on the new constitution, and such a thorny and sensitive issue should be the object of a national consensus in order that the legal and other changes that its introduction would entail would be endorsed by all Egyptians regardless of their religion, age, sex and so on. El-Shater has bypassed these steps to jump to the wrong conclusions, based on his own assumptions that come from his convictions as a member of the Islamist trend.

Regarding the ongoing battle between the Islamist trend, with its different groups, and other political forces on the form the constituent assembly should take, El-Shater's words can be taken as indicating the possible root causes of this conflict. Evidently, the Islamist trend has been endeavouring to monopolise the drafting of the constitution, aiming to lay the foundations of what the trend has dubbed an Islamic state. The new constitution, in this way of thinking, should reflect the recent landslide victory of the Islamist trend in the parliamentary elections, with many of the trend's activists seeing in this victory a popular mandate to establish an Islamic state. In other words, in promoting such a state, El-Shater is not just laying out his own strategic vision, but is also providing the essential background to the present crisis.

It then becomes easy to understand the current alliance between the Brotherhood, the Salafis, and other Islamist groups, in their fight to control the drafting of the new constitution. Perhaps it is this alliance, rather than that allegedly made between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Brotherhood, that commentators should focus on. By the same token, El-Shater's nomination as the Brotherhood's candidate in the presidential elections should be seen as part of this newly forged alliance, with the New York Times interview explaining the details of the relationship between El-Shater and the Salafis.

To be fair, there is nothing wrong in forming political alliances, especially during transition periods, and even hiding the true political agenda of an alliance should not necessarily be considered a bad thing, as this would show small understanding of politics and politicians. Instead, the mistake that commentators are making could be that many of them have not properly understood the nature of the Brotherhood as a political organisation, since, formed of politicians and not pastors, the group has mastered the art of political survival. With this in mind, Egypt's current historical juncture may have been perceived by some leaders within the group, among them its chief architect and ideologue El-Shater, as being the right moment for the Brotherhood's project to be fulfilled. Mohamed El-Beltagui, a leading figure in the FJP, highlighted this when commenting on the Brotherhood's position regarding the constituent assembly, by saying that the Brotherhood's Islamist agenda, worked out over the past 80 years, could not be achieved in a matter of months.

In the same New York Times interview, it was mentioned that El-Shater has been meeting with foreign ambassadors, executives from multinational corporations and Wall Street firms, and a parade of United States senators and other officials, telling them that "Islam requires democracy, the free market and tolerance of religious minorities." The terms used are directed towards western audiences, and there is a risk of misinterpretation on the local level. Egypt's Copts are not a "religious minority", and such a description entails repeating a flawed western perception of the Muslim- Coptic relationship in Egypt. El-Shater should have elaborated more on this, particularly since there has been uncertainty among some Copts following the landslide victory of the Islamist trend in the last elections.

Addressing current Coptic anxieties should include more than stressing tolerance. Cordial visits and phone calls are not sufficient to pacify the anxieties felt among many Copts, and reassuring statements made to the western media may not be the best option or the right vehicle either. Similarly, El-Shater's unconditional zeal for capitalism should have been linked to the overall orientation of the group regarding social justice, which was not mentioned in the interview. Earlier in the year, in a February interview with the London Financial Times, El-Shater said that a free market economy should pay attention to questions of social justice. He also criticised the Brotherhood's electoral programme for not mentioning the free market economy as the major economic orientation of the group.

El-Shater's statement that Islam requires the free market excludes other Islamic interpretations of the economic sphere. The idea that Islam requires the free market looks like El-Shater's own version of ijtihad, and it is an opinion that is not unchallengeable or even binding. On the contrary, there have been many other opinions issued by Islamic thinkers that have stressed different conclusions. El-Shater, a former leftist, could have remembered views popular in the 1960s, which highlighted the common ground between Islam and socialism. Put differently, El-Shater should not have made his own interpretation of the free market a requirement of Islam, which has been diverse enough to accommodate different perspectives provided that they do not contradict its own jurisprudence.

As such, El-Shater's adoption of the free market economy is a political choice, and it should not have been presented as an Islamic requirement. Indeed, the group's supreme guide, in line with its habit of issuing conflicting statements, has decried both socialism and capitalism as the means towards economic prosperity. This statement was issued just one day after El-Shater's words stating that Islam requires free market capitalism.

In fact, the group's entire economic platform has scarcely been made clear. Save for the vague mention of a free market economy as the major economic paradigm, the group has not laid out a comprehensive plan of action to achieve economic recovery. The group's leading financial expert should have highlighted the main premises the Brotherhood intends to adopt in order to alleviate the economic woes that the vast majority of Egypt's people are subject to. Apart from the institutionalisation of alms, repeatedly favoured by the group's leaders, there has been little mention of social justice. Yet, a Party that includes the word "justice" in its name should be able to come up with strategic initiatives and sound development plans that would help to alleviate the appalling economic conditions of a society in which 40 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line.

Yet, the evidence points to the fact that the group favours nearly the same economic policies as those adopted by the former ousted regime, which may explain the ambiguities surrounding its economic policies, since these aim at restoring the status quo ante in terms of the same economic order with few, if any, structural or radical changes. Hassan Malek, a Brotherhood member and a leading tycoon, hailed the ousted regime's economic policies by saying that the policies implemented during former president Hosni Mubarak's rule were "on the right track", but had been overshadowed by corruption and favouritism. The Brotherhood's ill-defined identification of social justice on the one hand and frank adoption of the Mubarak regime's neo-liberal economic policies on the other represents a continuation of the ousted regime's economic management, which paved the way to the January Revolution.

In the same New York Times interview, El-Shater highlighted what the newspaper described as "dissidents" within the group. El-Shater's reply to questions on this made clear the group's determination to maintain its ideological cohesion, and the fact that those who do not conform to its views have had to make their own choice to leave. Examples of dissidents such as Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Mohamed Habib were mentioned, and there was mention, too, of dissatisfaction among the group's younger members, who have been pressing for the reform of the organisation.

These younger members have on occasion expressed their support for Abul-Fotouh as a presidential candidate, knowing that the Brotherhood itself has not offered him its support despite the long years he spent as one of its leaders. Many younger members, and even some leaders of the group, have expressed their support for Abul- Fotouh, despite the instructions of the group's senior leaders. Such moves within the apparently monolithic hierarchical organisation of the Brotherhood have gone hand in hand with some younger members disobeying the instructions of the hierarchy not to participate in the early events of the January Revolution.

That the group imposes tight discipline on its members and adherents has been evident for some time, and it has long contributed to its success, particularly in the days when it was operating as an outlawed underground movement. However, this tight discipline now needs to be revisited, and the group has plenty of room for splits and breaks. The term "dissidents" is a simplification, since what have been going on have been tacit and covert debates, albeit sometimes making themselves more manifest, within the group's membership. But the fact remains that the group's declining ability to accommodate the different perspectives of its own members is a grave sign in terms of its ability to participate in any endeavour to build a national consensus on a particular policy or personality. The current controversy over the selection of the constituent assembly to draft the new constitution may not be the last confrontation between the FJP and the growing numbers of its opponents inside and outside the legislature.

The Muslim Brotherhood has not undergone the changes necessary to transform it from being an outlawed opposition group to the largest political party in the first free elections to be held in post-revolutionary Egypt. There has also been little clarity or transparency regarding the real programme of the FJP, as well as its future steps. No less serious has been the exclusive attitude of the Party, its leaders and its MPs, which has further weakened an already narrow national consensus. As a result of the points made by El-Shater in his recent interview, we can now imagine that some elements within Egyptian society will now become more and more excluded, even as the Brotherhood would be making a mistake of historic proportions if it presumed that it could impose its views on the nation as a whole.

Whatever the magnitude of the landslide victory achieved by the FJP, the Brotherhood should not see its leading position in parliament as an open mandate.

It is not ever-lasting or open-ended. Moreover, the popular mandate it received was not an exclusive one, as the FJP does not have an absolute majority. All this is basic to any transition period in which all the major forces should aspire to act together to build a national consensus.

In his pioneering work on transitions to democracy, the American political scientist W.W. Rostow stressed the importance of establishing and maintaining what he described as an explicit consensus in which political leaders should accept the existence of diversity in unity. This emphasis on achieving national consensus has not been the approach and apparently not even the orientation of the FJP, particularly since its victory in the last legislative elections. Statements like those made by El-Shater, particularly when coupled with exclusionist attitudes and behaviour from the FJP, are dangerously undermining, if not sabotaging, the precarious national consensus that is considered by many to be the most important prerequisite for any democratisation process.

The last paragraph of the interview with El-Shater includes a statement made by one US senator after meeting him, the senator saying that he had noticed that El-Shater "seemed to wield considerable power without holding any public office," and that he saw some American parallels. "'I think they call that Chicago,' the senator said." We may remind ourselves that in 1954, during a similar transitional period, the late Egyptian journalist and writer Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous wrote one of his most famous articles, entitled " al-jameiyya al-sirriya al-lati tahkum Misr " (the secret group that is ruling Egypt).

* The writer is a political analyst.

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