Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Reconciliation no longer taboo?

The reception of Saadeddin Ibrahim’s initiative for reconciliation with the banned Muslim Brotherhood reveals that times are changing, writes Amira Howeidy

Reconciliation no  longer taboo?
Reconciliation no longer taboo?
Al-Ahram Weekly

If it had happened a year ago it would have caused a massive media and political uproar. Instead a proposal put forward by sociologist and civil rights pioneer Saadeddin Ibrahim for the authorities to reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood is being debated, criticized and allocated space in leading daily newspapers.  

The proposal has been ignored by the government which designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in December 2013, five months after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Thousands of the group’s leaders, members and sympathizers have been rounded up and detained. And the vast majority of terrorist attacks in Egypt continue to be blamed on the group, either directly, or indirectly, through what security authorities say is the Brotherhood’s association with militant groups in northern Sinai. The Brotherhood has repeatedly denied any involvement in violence.

Ibrahim’s reconciliation initiative is a loose, verbal proposal. It centres on the Muslim Brotherhood apologising to the Egyptian people for their actions in recent years, and vowing to end all violence. In return the authorities would release the group’s leadership from prison and allow the organisation to return to public life – including political activity - through legal channels. Ibrahim has suggested parliament sponsor the initiative given most politicians would be “reluctant” to embrace such a role.

The crackdown against the Brotherhood has fragmented a movement whose legendary discipline and organisational savvy saw it rise to power, seemingly inexorably, in the wake of the 2011 uprising which ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. Yet since being removed from power in 2013 the Brotherhood has disintegrated. Its most active members are now in prison. Those who have avoided detention are fractured and have been driven underground though a smaller, still active group continues to operate in exile, most based in Turkey and Britain.

Ibrahim says when he floated the idea during recent meetings with Brotherhood leaders –including the group’s secretary general Mahmoud Hussein- and younger members in Turkey, reactions were mixed. The group’s senior figures and ex-MPs were more receptive, he said, while younger members, bent on “vengeance”, rejected it.

Hussein, who has denied discussing the idea with Ibrahim in Turkey, says he rejects the notion of reconciling with those who “have blood on their hands”. On the other side of the divide a number of MPs have already voiced their objections to “making peace with a terrorist group”. The refusals would normally be enough for the initiative to sink without trace since it was first floated earlier this month. The fact that it hasn’t – it continues to get attention, even if unfavourable, in columns and pro-regime newspapers – raises questions that may be more interesting to the actual fate of the proposal.

Until very recently reconciliation was a taboo subject. Even at the height of turmoil following Morsi’s ouster and the violent dispersal of the pro-Brotherhood encampments in Rabaa and Al-Nahda Squares, when the issue was pressing to say the least, the subject was met with zero-tolerance from officials and non-officials. Then deputy prime minister and liberal politician Ziaad Bahaa El-Din, best described the climate in an interview with CNN when he said that reconciliation had become “a dirty word” in Egypt.

The vaguest hint of reconciliation would be met with fierce criticism. In July 2013, when a group of left wing and liberal activists and intellectuals issued a statement rejecting the principle of political exclusion, they were silenced not by mouthpieces of the regime but by fellow liberals and leftists.

“The [political] climate has changed,” says Tamer Waguih, a leftist writer who co-authored the statement three years ago. Ibrahim’s initiative, per se, might not be so important– very little is known about his motives, after all. What is significant now “is that it is breaking the taboo surrounding reconciliation” argues Waguih.

Ibrahim is now 77. His public profile has been shaped by his time in prison under Mubarak and by the political roles he sometimes sought and the controversy they raised. A sociologist trained in the United States, Ibrahim’s political experience began during his time as head of the students’ union and member of Nasser’s Socialist Union’s youth wing in the 1960s. He went on to be an advisor to Nasser’s successor - and in many ways his antithesis - Anwar El-Sadat. Before Mubarak turned against him Ibrahim was given rare access for his research to scores of jihadists detained during the Islamist insurgency in the 1990’s. His work on political Islam at the time was considered pioneering, though his efforts to open channels of dialogue between both jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood in Western circles courted controversy.

According to veteran left-wing journalist Mona Anis, Ibrahim began conducting "go between" missions between different Islamist factions and national and foreign powers in the 1980s. She mentions the sociological survey Ibrahim conducted involving Islamist prisoners arrested following Sadat's assassination in 1981, and recalls witnessing a mediation effort in 1995 involving Tunisian dissident and political asylee Rachid Ghanouchi.

Ibrahim’s proposal coincides with other signs of discontent over the status quo. Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi has proposed a “civilian alternative” to the current dispensation, while members of the committee that drafted the constitution have formed an association tasked with defending and upholding the new constitution which they say is being undermined.

Even supporters of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi have publicly voiced concern over the state of human rights, lack of democratic reform, political deadlock and economic crisis. Abdallah El-Sennawi, a prominent Nasserist columnist and supporter of Al-Sisi, suggested in a recent and widely circulated article that there is Western pressure on Al-Sisi not to complete his first term in power.

“It’s difficult to dismiss Ibrahim’s initiative as insignificant especially if we take into consideration what’s being said about Western pressure,” says Anis.

But in post-revolutionary Egypt, where three administrations have already had a stab at running the country, it has become increasingly difficult for observers to understand or evaluate the political situation and what is going on within powerful state institutions.

“One can detect a crisis,” says Waguih, “but reacting to a crisis can go in two directions. There can be talk about alternatives and a role for the opposition or an even heavier handed approach to dissent.”

Given the current opacity the importance of Ibrahim’s reconciliation initiative might best be assessed by the longevity of the continuing conversation about it.

“Without official blessing any attempt at reconciliation will be met with failure,” says Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor and columnist whose published proposal for an exit to the political crisis in February 2014 met with blanket condemnation. Accused of being a member of a Brotherhood sleeper cell Nafaa , a secular figure who received frequent requests for TV appearances prior to his proposal, received no further invites.

Ibrahim may have faced criticism but his proposal has not elicited the same level of denunciation. In fact, it increased his TV appearances.

“Reactions have changed,” says Nafaa. “A year ago the authorities projected a more confident position. Today there seems to be a desire to listen more attentively.”

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