Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 November 2011
Issue No. 1071
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Muslim Brothers in Tunisia and Egypt

The connections seem obvious, but are they valid, asks Amany Maged

Click to view caption
Muslim Brotherhood members campaigning for the upcoming parliamentary elections

Soon after the Tunisian revolution ousted Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, the Egyptian revolution followed a similar path, though it resulted in former president Hosni Mubarak facing trial whereas the Tunisian president fled the country. In both Tunisia and Egypt there surfaced political parties formed by Islamists who had suffered the ordeals of prison under the previous regimes. In Tunisia, Al-Nahda movement revived and re-engaged vigorously in public life. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis received fresh bursts of energy and entered post-revolutionary politics with vigour.

Al-Nahda's success in winning 90 seats in Tunisia's constituent assembly has raised the question whether the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamist trend in general, will be able to score a similar victory in Egypt's parliamentary elections.

Observers of Islamist movements in the Arab world see similarities between Islamists in the two countries. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt by Hassan El-Banna in 1928, is the largest and most influential Islamist movement in the Arab world. In the post-1952 period, in particular, its members were frequently persecuted and imprisoned and the organisation, itself, was banned. The ban was lifted following the 25 January Revolution and the group soon formed the Freedom and Justice Party.

According to the Muslim Brotherhood, its aim is to promote "comprehensive reform". Long the largest opposition movement in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, it sprouted numerous offshoots during the past half-century. It now has affiliates in 72 countries.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing are key players in the political arena. It remains the foremost Islamist political force, though some young members of the group have left, as have prominent members such as Abdel-Moneim Abul- Fotouh, Mokhtar Nouh and Mohamed Habib.

Inspired in part by the Muslim Brotherhood's history of persecution and in part by post- revolutionary circumstances, the Freedom and Justice Party espoused consensual politics. It entered the Democratic Coalition and vowed not to contest more than 50 per cent of parliamentary seats -- it has not kept the promise, and is in fact contesting 65 per cent -- in an attempt to reassure its opponents. It has stressed its commitment to power-sharing through a coalition government, and has also promised not to field a candidate for the presidential elections.

In Tunisia Al-Nahda Party used similar tactics. Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, emphasised the strength and popularity of his movement, cautioning that "any government formed without it would be weak," while at the same time pledging Al-Nahda's commitment to power-sharing.

Al-Nahda Party's articles of association do not declare a link to the Muslim Brotherhood, but nor has it denied the connection. Some sources maintain that it was ideologically and organisationally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas others say that while Ghannouchi considers the Muslim Brotherhood an ally, he does not see it as having any authority, be it hierarchical or moral, over his own movement. Yet the fact remains that Ghannouchi, Al-Nahda's founder, is a member of the International Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Nahda shares a number of traits with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both, says Islamist expert Ali Abdel-Aal, have a strong organisational capacity and access to substantial funds. He expects the Islamists in Egypt to do well in parliamentary elections but doubts they will secure an overall majority. Al-Nahda, he adds, issued several messages following the electoral victory that entitled it to head the assembly charged with drafting the new constitution, clearly intended to reassure its opponents.

Ghannouchi stressed to the Tunisian public that he would not be "another Khomeini". In a statement delivered after the elections he stressed that Tunisia would be a free, independent and prosperous nation that safeguards the rights of all its citizens, regardless of gender or religious affiliation. He added that Tunisian women would not be forced to wear the veil.

He also sought to reassure critics with regard to freedom of artistic expression. In an interview on Tunisian television he said cinema did not constitute a threat to public morals. Islam, he argued, encourages theatre, cinema and photography. He characterised Islam as itself "a work of art".

On Israel, he said that Al-Nahda had no intention of dealing with it.

"We will remain open to the world, but not to Israel, because it is an occupying power. There will be no recognition of it, no diplomatic relations and no commercial exchange."

Reinforcing Ghannouchi's message, Al-Nahda Secretary-General Hamadi Al-Jebali announced that the party "will allocate half the seats it won in the constitutional assembly to women activists in the movement, regardless of whether they are veiled or not". As though to confirm this commitment Souad Abdel-Rahim, who is unveiled, was given a ministerial position in the interim government.

Observers anticipate that Al-Nahda will nominate either Munsif Al-Marzouqi, secretary- general of the Congress for the Republic Party, or Mustafa bin Jaafar, secretary-general of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, as president. Both are moderate leftists.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, allied with the liberal Ghad and Karama parties, has also pledged not to field a presidential candidate. Freedom and Justice Party Secretary-General Mohamed El-Katatni has also said his party will not seek to impose its own candidate as parliamentary speaker, and wanted only to ensure that whoever does occupy the position is competent. In the past El-Katatni had stood against Fathi Sorour, the NDP's long standing, and now imprisoned, People's Assembly speaker.

Whatever reassuring noises Al-Nahda makes the real challenge -- as in Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood -- is to ensure that its commitment to moderation remains firm. The Muslim Brotherhood must now follow up on its reformist pledges. Will it, one wonders, allocate half its own seats on the committee charged with drafting a new constitution, to women? And if it does, what will be the reaction of the even more staunchly conservative Salafis?

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