Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 April 2010
Issue No. 992
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The regime and the Brotherhood

This year's Egyptian parliamentary elections will be an important test of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood's intentions and the efficacy of the regime's attacks against it, writes Hossam Tammam*

Click to view caption
File photo: Egyptian farmers on a donkey cart pass various election banners with slogans including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood slogan "Islam is the Solution" in Beni Sweif, 90km south of Cairo, November 2005

The parliamentary elections due to take place in Egypt this year represent a crucial juncture in the future of the country's political life. The previous round of elections in 2005 confirmed the division of the political landscape into the ruling party and the delegitimised opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of the remaining political parties.

However, the next round of elections brings the possibility of new and radical change as the regime moves to oust the Brotherhood from the political scene in order to ensure its own domination of the 2011 presidential elections, which will be decisive for the future course of the Egyptian state. And this move may be concealed by the return of "formalism" to party political life.

The blow that the regime recently dealt to the Brotherhood, shortly after the elections to the Shura Council, can only be interpreted as an attempt to strip the organisation of the de facto legitimacy it has acquired over past decades. In doing so, the regime seeks to transfer the Brotherhood from the category of delegitimised organisations to that of organisations that are outside the law.

The Brotherhood's determination to run in the upcoming elections will therefore be a test of the stability of the changes that have occurred within the movement over the past three years, in the face of its decades-long legacy of action in the public sphere.

It is no exaggeration to say that the parliamentary elections to be held in Egypt this year are exceptional. They are perhaps the most important to be held in the contemporary history of the country, as they will leave their mark on Egyptian political life as a whole, and even the entire Egyptian state.

One important aspect of these elections is that they are supposed to confirm or redefine the shape of the next parliament and the dominant forces within it.

Significant changes to the composition of parliament accompanied the previous elections in 2005, which saw the retreat and even erosion of the political parties, including large, veteran parties such as the Wafd Party, the National Unionist Party (Tagammu) and the Nasserist Party, which won just eight of the 450 parliamentary seats.

A further major development was the dramatic rise of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which won 88 seats, representing 20 per cent of the total and thereby confirming its standing as the country's largest opposition force. The Brotherhood came to share the forefront of the Egyptian political landscape with the ruling party.

However, the significance of the present elections lies primarily in the role they will play in the 2011 presidential elections, as the Egyptian regime is a presidential republic in which most powers are concentrated in the hands of the president.

According to recent amendments to the constitution passed in 2007, any independent candidate in the presidential elections must obtain the endorsement of 250 elected members of the People's Assembly, the Shura Council and the local provincial councils, at least 65 of whom must be from the People's Assembly.

Through this amendment, the regime has striven to ensure that the composition of the next parliament will specifically preclude the Muslim Brotherhood from exercising influence, particularly since the political parties as a whole have little chance of exercising real impact: no political party can put forward a candidate unless it has at least five per cent of the membership of the People's Assembly and the Shura Council.

This was not the case in previous elections, and the regime has also established its full control over the local councils and the Shura Council. That being so, the greatest challenge it now faces is how to assert its control over parliament, the sole means of dominating the presidential elections, by identifying potential candidates and their prospects of victory.

The challenge facing the regime is particularly urgent, given that the possibility of building broad political coalitions that agree on a single candidate who enjoys the approval of the public as a whole has increased. This possibility has been underscored by the entry of some big names into the race, headed by Mohamed El-Baradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This could allow the Muslim Brotherhood, or other political forces that the regime regards as illegitimate, to influence the selection of the next president of Egypt.

Moreover, this year's parliamentary elections are no less important for the Brotherhood itself. The organisation, which succeeded in the last elections in consolidating its position as the largest political power opposed to the regime, faces a serious challenge as a result of the legal prohibition against it, which it has neither succeeded in removing nor made any serious efforts to do.

The Brotherhood thus faces an existential question about the extent to which it can continue to play a part in political life as a force on the ground that is recognised but at the same time outlawed. In the last elections, the Brotherhood won more than 10 times more parliamentary seats than the other opposition parties combined.

However, all the indications are that shifts taking place on the ground are paving the way for the Brotherhood's exclusion from political life after expectations that it would seek a way to integrate itself into the Egyptian political system.

In the upcoming elections, the Muslim Brotherhood will either make the transition to establishing a decisive presence for itself within Egypt's political life that makes it hard to ignore, or the elections will serve as the gateway for the organisation's exit from political life.

If the fact that it won 20 per cent of parliamentary seats in the last elections did not earn it legal legitimacy, then its former configuration, with no investment in the legal order, was also like an ectopic pregnancy. In the absence of other strong political parties, the situation has developed into a two-way contest between the regime and the Brotherhood, and this is now on the verge of turning into a zero-sum conflict in which one side eliminates the other.

The Brotherhood's position in public life is largely the product of far-reaching transformations in the way the organisation reacts to events and developments in the political arena. Participating in elections tops the Brotherhood's priorities in political life.

Yet, since the early 1970s participation has not just been about the Brotherhood's desires. Instead, it has also been about the opportunities presented to it by the regime, according to the predetermined rules of the political game.

CONTEXT OF THE BROTHERHOOD'S PARTICIPATION: The Muslim Brotherhood's long history of participating in elections articulates the multiple strategies adopted by the movement in order to gain access to available political outlets. This history began with the pivotal phase of the 1984 and 1987 elections, following which the Brotherhood endeavoured to gain control of the trade unions. This stage was critical as it saw the beginnings of a change brought about by the entry of new blood into the organisation, with members of what was later known as the "public work movement" joining its ranks.

These members all belonged to the generation of the 1970s, the generation that established the Islamist movement on the campuses of Egyptian universities. These students then entered the trade-union struggle and revived the idea of participating in the system, which was originally introduced by the Brotherhood's first guide ( murshid ), Hassan El-Banna. This followed the organisation's attempts -- following the release of its members from prison -- to disassociate itself from the repercussions of the spread of ideas of isolationism from state and society, as prescribed by Sayed Qotb, the Brotherhood's first, and perhaps only, theorist.

The Brotherhood's entry into the sphere of public work was a structural and intellectual product of these two factors. Thus, the results of the new election strategy will also be apparent at two levels: in the structure of the organisation, and in what can be termed the intellectual shift that follows new facts on the ground. At the structural level, one can speak of the emergence of two major streams that have split the Brotherhood.

The first is the public work movement itself, whether open or reformist, which formed within the arena of student, trade-union and openly political action and is known as the "reformist" stream. The second is the organisational stream, which manages the Brotherhood's structure and pulls the strings. This stream can be designated as "conservative".

At the level of ideas, the Brotherhood also chose to join the category of other political and social organisations by distancing itself from the use of violence as a means of effecting change. The Brotherhood strove to create de facto legitimacy, which has often been more important than the legal legitimacy that it has failed to gain, in spite of its successes in elections.

Yet, the context of the Brotherhood's participation in the country's political life, which has been subject to shifts from time to time, was to alter its course, perhaps irreversibly, at the beginning of 2007.

The change began with that year's constitutional amendments, which were clearly aimed at excluding the Brotherhood from politics by underscoring the ban on the establishment of political parties of a religious character, or on those employing religious slogans, and at strengthening the standing of political parties in elections.

The latter amendment came at the expense of the individual candidature model, which had been the Brotherhood's preferred, and at times only, means of participating in elections, since it was a movement without a formal political party.

A further provision of the amendments was the cancellation of judicial review, which had been the principal guarantee of fair elections. The mid-term elections to the Shura Council in 2007 ruled out a repetition of the scenario of those to the People's Assembly, and in 2008 the local elections sent out a definitive message that there was no place for the Muslim Brotherhood in the country's political landscape.

The ongoing arrests and military trials, the liquidation of the economic institutions that fund the Brotherhood, and the media campaigns against the movement that have been underway since the beginning of 2007, all also signal that preparations for the phase we are now witnessing began early on.

Indeed, the amendments, which affected many provisions of the constitution from the article on the election of the president to that dealing with the electoral system, have underlined the special importance of this year's parliamentary elections, which will determine who is to hold the position of president of the republic.

It is no longer possible for the regime to allow a repetition of the scenario of the 2005 elections for two main reasons. Firstly, the state of political polarisation that ensued has been extremely costly in terms of the media activity and public visibility it garnered for the Muslim Brotherhood, through which the latter was able to portray itself as a strong organisation socially and the leading political opposition force.

Secondly, the context that was suited to the 2005 scenario has receded with the passing of the period of feverish change that swept through Egypt and the region at large at the time. This period was clearly linked to the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the largest of the Islamist forces that profited from the increase in political openness in 2004. And this context was also connected to specific international developments and to the launch of projects aimed at the reform of the Middle East as a whole.

A remarkable transformation helped to lessen the rejection of Islamist movements within Western political circles, and the idea of dealing with them, or even integrating them into the political regimes of the states in which they operate, won greater acceptance. Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood was no longer a sufficient reason to block the organisation's political presence, and the evolution in discourse and practice that came with this became a clear threat to the regime.

On the other hand, the amendments have had a major impact on the structure of party political life in Egypt. The regime will now attempt to control the composition of the new parliament, in order to prevent the Brotherhood from becoming the source of a potential alliance against it, particularly following the announcement by its new guide of his willingness to enter into an alliance with other political, social and cultural forces in the country as a whole. This has included an alliance initiated by the organisation in March 2004, which led to the formation of the National Front for Change, which included the main opposition parties and the Kifaya Movement.

If established, such a new alliance could support a candidate in the presidential elections, in accordance with the conditions set out in the constitutional amendments. This would present a threat to the regime.

Following the political impasse between 1995, when the campaign of arrests and military trials was launched against the Brotherhood, and 2005, when the most important parliamentary elections that the Brotherhood have run in were held, the past five years have seen the two streams within the organisation make a strong appearance. A decisive turning point came with the elections to the Guidance Bureau and the election of the organisation's guide in late 2009, which resulted in the removal of reformist figures in favour of those who really pulled the strings.

Such developments were to be expected in the light of the constitutional reforms adopted by the regime, which made it clear that the Brotherhood's chances of gaining enough seats in parliament had faded.

INTERNAL DEBATES IN THE BROTHERHOOD: The interactions between the two wings of the movement -- the conservative, organisational stream and the open, reformist stream -- were not only the outcome of the last internal elections, which resulted in the selection of the Brotherhood's eighth guide from what is known as the Qotbi current (in reference to the radical thought of Sayed Qotb) and the takeover of the Guidance Bureau by the organisation's hawks.

Indeed, one could contend that the elections merely reinforced prior developments that had begun within the movement's ranks, with the increasing appearance of reformist figures in the media and their frequent discussion of sensitive political and cultural issues. Thus, the results of the internal elections made the debate within the Brotherhood itself public in an unprecedented manner.

The internal debate within the organisation appeared to reach a climax with the publication of the Brotherhood's political programme in 2007. This programme was regarded as an appropriate response by the organisation to discussions over political reform in Egypt and to the supposed role of the Brotherhood therein. It also clarified the organisation's desire, or at least its non- opposition, to its transformation into a registered political party, and thus its acceptance of the rules of the political game.

The programme seemed clearly to reflect the powerful presence of the reformist current in the organisation and the fact that it had benefited from the "reformist spring" the country lived through from 2004 to 2006.

However, the document's finishing touches and final production proved that at critical moments decision-making still lay in the hands of the conservative stream. The organisation demonstrated its adherence to the Brotherhood's general line of prohibiting a woman or a Copt from serving as president of the republic and of demanding religious oversight of the legislature. These are the main issues that have attracted criticism since the Brotherhood set out its political platform.

The siege imposed on the reformist stream within the Brotherhood's institutions has also continued. It was figures from the conservative, organisational stream that stood in the elections to the organisation's council in mid-2008, and five new members were appointed to the Guidance Bureau, all of whom were from the conservative stream.

The reshuffle within the Brotherhood came to an end with the internal elections of December 2009, which resulted in the complete isolation of the reformist stream after its most important figures -- Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Mohamed Habib -- departed from the Guidance Bureau. However, the conservative stream was nevertheless forced to put forward Essam El-Erian as a compromise figure, partially as a means of defusing the opposition's reaction, but also as a way to keep in check the reformist tendencies of El-Erian, who always appears disposed to compromise.

The series of blows that the regime has dealt to the Brotherhood are part of a clear strategy of weakening the organisation at critical junctures. The first campaign of arrests and military trials to which the organisation was subjected in the mid- 1990s was perhaps an anticipated result of what was known as the "Salsabeel Case" from late 1992. This case signalled a qualitative transformation in relations between the movement and the regime, whereby the character of their interactions shifted from appeasement to a permanent, but gradual and sometimes limited, confrontation, depending on the surrounding context.

However, all the campaigns share two important elements. The first has been the desire to reverse the Brotherhood's gains and to block its attempts to capitalise on its presence and expand. From here has come the regime's targeting of the Brotherhood's economic forces and the siege it has imposed on its sources of funding by arresting and then imprisoning wealthy businessmen affiliated with the organisation. The arrests included those of the Brotherhood's second deputy guide, engineer Khairat El-Shater, and his partner Hassan Malek, in May 2008.

The second element is that the attacks aimed at the Brotherhood are not greatly affected by the international context, but are instead concentrated on the spheres of influence into which the organisation expands and their relation to the development of the political regime, though the two have sometimes coincided as they did during the last elections.

The most striking feature of the current confrontation in 2010 may be the fact that the Brotherhood figures targeted by the regime's campaign against it are from the upper echelons of the organisation's leadership within the Guidance Bureau (three persons), including Deputy Guide Mahmoud Ezzat. The current campaign has been rivaled in scale only by the attack on El-Shater in 2007.

Yet, the regime's insistence on targeting the conservative leadership in particular, including even El-Erian, suggests that it is continuing a strategy of inducing constant tremors within the organisation, though these do not go so far as to risk threatening it with schism or total collapse, in preparation for the changes that are expected to follow the next round of parliamentary elections.

The most important point of disagreement is therefore the regime's reaction, which has been almost equal to the preceding actions of the Brotherhood. The organisation's heavy public and media presence, and the issues it has exploited in order to voice its stance within the Egyptian political arena, including the Palestinian issue, means that the attacks have come at an expected cost.

This has especially been the case since the internal elections were held within the Brotherhood that attracted the widest media coverage in the movement's history, and after the new guide intimated his desire to form an alliance with various political forces and parties at his inauguration ceremony.

The current confrontation between the Brotherhood and the regime is an existential one, although it has not yet escalated to the eradication of the organisation. The regime is aware that the cost of eliminating the Brotherhood would be considerable in the absence of a community- based alternative to it and the lack of a political programme feasible without it.

Its attacks on the Brotherhood are therefore aimed at its presence in society as a whole, which is rivaled in importance only by the fate of the regime itself. This is a regime that, centred on the office of the president, stands at the threshold of presidential elections that will play a significant role in determining its future. The seriousness of the confrontation with the Brotherhood explains why the charges against the organisation this time around have sought to evoke the history of the latter's relationship with the Egyptian Islamist movement through the use of charges related to violence, apostasy, conspiring against the regime, secrecy, Qotbism, etc.

These accusations are directly tied to the Nasserist period, which saw the largest-ever campaign to eradicate the Brotherhood, then considered a threat to the regime and to the nascent revolution.

Therefore, the regime's current attacks on the Brotherhood can only be interpreted as an attempt to strip the organisation of the stamp of de facto legitimacy it has acquired over past decades. They thereby seek to transfer the Brotherhood from the category of delegitimised organisations to that of organisations that are outside the law.

That being so, the Brotherhood's determination to run in the upcoming elections will be a test of the stability of the changes that have occurred within the movement over the past three years, in the face of its decades-long legacy in the field of public action.

It could also be argued that the developments that have taken place in recent years are not merely the tip of the iceberg, emerging like internal disputes within the Brotherhood rising to the surface. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in terms of progress made in the movement's political practice, which makes the idea of squandering its gains on the ground out of the question, even if the conservative stream in the organisation continues to hold the reins.

It can be assumed that the movement will continue to proceed according to the ebb and flow of the political and social context. The movement alternates between appearing as a political party striving for legal legitimacy in an open way and reverting to the model of an autocratic organisation that prefers to safeguard the status quo, so long as this precludes any acts of sedition that would threaten both its own gains and those of the regime.

Thus, it can be argued that the question of whether or not to be present at the heart of the political system and work from within it is a main choice for the organisation.

However, this is a choice that will be determined by what options the Brotherhood has in negotiating during the current phase, and by whether these relate to the developments that have shaken it up internally, or to the strategy of containment that the regime will pursue against it in the run-up to the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

* The writer is an expert on Islamist movements.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 992 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Focus | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Entertainment | Heritage | Special | Living | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map