Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Civil options

The 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood has become an NGO. What does the move signify, asks Amira Howeidy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Sunday 22 March marked the 85th anniversary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founding by Hassan Al-Banna. After a long and turbulent history one of its leaders is now Egypt’s president and the first post-revolution parliament — now dissolved — was dominated by the group’s MPs.

Such developments might indicate a golden era for a movement which survived decades of state prosecution. But with mounting, and increasingly violent, opposition to their rule from political forces and resistance to their new status by some state institutions, the golden age remains as distant as ever.

It is institutional resistance to the group which poses the most immediate threat. In a case that has been pending before courts for decades a panel of judges recommended on 20 March that the Muslim Brotherhood be dissolved. While the panel’s advice isn’t binding on the administrative court which is expected to issue its own verdict on the Brotherhood’s legal status soon it is widely viewed as a prelude to a ruling that won’t be in the Brotherhood’s favour.

On the day the panel’s advice was made public the Muslim Brotherhood announced it had already registered as an NGO. The news was confirmed by the minister of social affairs who told Al-Shorouk newspaper that the group began the registration procedure in May 2012.

A new NGO law is currently being debated in the Shura Council. Critics say the draft law, which restricts the foreign funding on which the vast majority of existing NGOs rely, has been tailored for the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the Brotherhood’s lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, it will “accommodate entities” like his group.

Until the new law is ratified by President Mohamed Morsi the Brotherhood’s registration as an NGO is a temporary legal response to what senior members say is primarily a political issue. The new NGO’s manager is the nephew of the Brotherhood’s ex-supreme guide Mahdi Akef. None of the group’s leaders are registered as members although the address of the NGO is the same as the Brotherhood’s head office in Muqattam, the building from which the current supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, and the group’s Guidance Bureau, operate. Yet under the 2002 law under which the NGO is registered neither Badie, as supreme guide, nor the group itself, has any legal status.

Abdel-Maksoud describes the situation as “odd” but “temporary”. It will apply, he says, only until the new law comes into effect.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the Higher Administrative Court was due to issue its verdict in a case filed to dissolve the Brotherhood and close its headquarters. In an attempt to buy time the Brotherhood, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the State Lawsuits Authority, have already requested another defence before the court, according to Abdel-Maksoud.

The case is symptomatic of the confusion that prevails in Egypt between the legal and the political. Last June the then ruling military generals dissolved parliament based on a recommendation by the Constitutional Court. Earlier this month a court suspended Morsi’s call to hold parliamentary elections based on a questionable election law.

In the Brotherhood’s view these and other court cases filed by their opponents are an attempt to thwart their ascendance to power through the ballot box. But the petition to dissolve the group is more existential.

“How can someone question our legitimacy and existence when we’ve existed for 85 years?” said an angry Mahdi Akef. “This is unacceptable. We will remain, as we are, no matter what.”

Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood four years after the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate. The 1923 constitution placed no restrictions on the formation of political parties and civil society groups. In 1948 the government issued a decree to dissolve the group. The Muslim Brotherhood appealed and in 1951 an administrative court ruled the group was in full compliance with the civil society law of 1945.

Two years after the 1952 Revolution the military junta dissolved the Brotherhood again, clamping down on its leaders, some of whom were executed, others sentenced to life in prison. The group was forced underground until Gamal Abdel-Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Al-Sadat. In 1977 the group’s then supreme guide Omar Al-Telmisani contested the military decree dissolving the Brotherhood. The case was never resolved. The group continued to exist and function as a political force that the state tolerated but refused to recognise.

Following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster the Brotherhood entered into negotiations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Like everyone else, SCAF’s generals recognised that the Brotherhood was Egypt’s primary political force, the only group to command a popular, grassroots base. The Brotherhood’s size, history and influence left no room for debate about its legal status. Only after the group’s ascendance, and the intensity of the political conflict between it and the opposition, was a case filed questioning the Brotherhood’s legal status.

The paradox is that the first case concerning the group’s legality since Al-Telmisani’s 1977 appeal is happening under a president who hails from the Brotherhood.

“The head of the regime was removed but the body is still intact and it’s resisting the Brotherhood in power,” says Mohamed Soffar, a political science professor at Cairo University who specialises in Islamic groups.

This might explain the legal battle, but it doesn’t mean that a court decision will threaten the group’s existence or that being incorporated as a legal NGO is its salvation.

Since the revolution the Brotherhood has undergone many changes, not least the formation of a political party and securing the nation’s top job for one of its members. The widely held view is that the Freedom and Justice Party enjoys no independence from the Brotherhood and is effectively run by the Guidance Bureau which also influences the president. The group’s status is bound to affect both.

For most of its 85 years the Brotherhood was forced to operate in secret. Its structures, administration and mindset have all been conditioned by the experience. But what now that it is no longer an underground group?

Nobody seems to know how the old organisation will develop. Soffar suggests that the amount of opposition and hostility directed at the Brotherhood which, contrary to its past experience, isn’t from above but from below, could act to reinforce the group’s unity. Equally, though, should the group remain too rigid, it can all too easily snap as the winds of change blow.

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