In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood’s charitable works may drive political support

AWSEEM, Egypt — For needy families in this dusty village outside Cairo, Mohamad el-Seesy is a useful man to know.

A devout member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Seesy, 45, leads an Islamic charity that has burrowed deeply into the community by providing an array of religious and social services.

The organization has given a widow an oven for baking bread, bought uniforms for a girls school and even arranged marriages. For the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Seesy has handed out meat from a camel that he and his volunteers butchered themselves.

Theirs is the face of the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful Islamist force that had been officially outlawed under President Hosni Mubarak. Now, as the Brotherhood maneuvers in the hectic run-up to September elections, Seesy’s work offers a glimpse at the Brotherhood’s extensive roots in this society, which could give the controversial group an enormous advantage in shaping post-revolutionary Egypt.

“They are active all year round, active and working,” said Taha Haroum, 37, who runs a stationary supply shop here and knows Seesy and his charity. “They have the ability to knock on every door.”

Although the Brotherhood was a latecomer to the Jan. 25 uprising that eventually ousted Mubarak after nearly three decades in power, the organization has already emerged as one of the most formidable contenders in Egypt’s new political landscape, largely because of its well-disciplined and well-funded organization.

“They know where to get large numbers of votes,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University. “They could be the only organized group in the assembly.”

The Brotherhood, whose members have previously won elective office as independents because the organization was banned as a political entity, recently announced plans to form the Freedom and Justice Party. Last weekend, the leadership unveiled a platform that included frequent references to sharia, or Islamic law.

Unlike the platform the Brotherhood had promoted in an unsuccessful bid to establish a party four years ago, however, the group has disavowed positions banning women and Christians from the presidency. It has also backed away from a 2007 proposal to create a committee of clergy to vet new legislation, Sayyid said.

To allay fears of a power grab, the Brotherhood has said it will not offer candidates for president or for more than 35 percent of the new parliament’s seats.

Yet many Egyptians believe that the pledge might not mean much if candidates who are sympathetic to the Brotherhood decide to run for office as independents or on other party tickets.

A senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abdul Moneim Abul Fotouh, has already told a local newspaper that he is considering running for the presidency as an independent.

“I would run independently because I would represent Egypt and not the Brotherhood,” Fotouh told the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. “But I will always feel fondly for the group.”

Regaining its footing

There are other signs that after some initial stumbles, the Brotherhood has found its stride in the fast-changing post-revolutionary period.

On the eve of the March 20 vote to amend Egypt’s constitution, Brotherhood members walked Awseem’s streets with bullhorns urging everyone to vote. They also reminded people of the importance of a 1980 constitutional provision that enshrines Islam as the sole origin of ethical authority, said Haroum, the shopkeeper.

Sayyid said the Brotherhood has emphasized its commitment to social justice for the poor, promising to build schools and hospitals — a populist message that resonates in a country where per capita gross domestic product is $6,200 a year.

Yet some Egyptians are wary of the Islamist movement and its potential to hijack a shift toward democracy that was achieved principally by others.

“I don’t like them ideologically because religion is peaceful, and they are extremists,” said Mustafa Abdel Hamid, 37, a butcher who said he intends to vote for more moderate and secular candidates.

But others discount those fears. If anything, these Egyptians say, the Muslim Brotherhood might become more pragmatic if actually forced to govern.

Playing down Washington’s worries

Seesy, in an interview, sought to dispel worries about the Brotherhood, which have been especially pronounced among policymakers in Washington.

Seesy, who grew up in Awseem before studying law at Cairo University, joined the Brotherhood in 1985. Detention and torture by Mubarak’s security forces only intensified his resolve to fight back by handling the cases of people targeted by the regime.

Seesy’s charity serves people regardless of their religion and has no formal affiliation with the Brotherhood, he said. But Brotherhood members hold the charity’s top leadership positions and fill its ranks of volunteers.

Seesy also took pains to say that his organization’s efforts on behalf of the poor flow from the heart and from the Koran, not from ulterior political motives.

But Seesy — who allows that he would not mind representing his village on a Muslim Brotherhood ticket if party leaders approved — acknowledged that good works make for smart politics: He knows that lending a hand or a prayer can build the kind of loyalty that is useful at the polls.

“It’s a normal choice that people feel about what is provided to them unconditionally,” Seesy said. “To that end, they get behind him to support him in any election, whether it’s local or parliamentary.”

That’s okay with Haroum, the shopkeeper, who said he does not believe the Muslim Brotherhood would remake Egypt into a theocratic autocracy like Iran. If given the chance, Haroum said, the Brotherhood could, over time, steer Egypt toward a society infused with religion, not dominated by it.

“Their strategy is that they will go step by step,” Haroum said.

Special correspondents Muhammad Monsour and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying