Egypt's Islamist party backs down from demand to form government

January 9, 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood’s powerful political wing has backed down from demands that Egypt’s new parliament should have the right to quickly replace the military-appointed government.

The secretary general of the Freedom and Justice Party, which is poised to win by far the most seats of any party in the lower house of the next parliament, said that the party wants to avoid conflict when the legislature is seated Jan. 23 and get through the transitional phase without angering the country’s military rulers.

His comments, made in an interview with The Washington Post, are likely to further enrage activists who accuse the Brotherhood of tacitly allying with the military rulers and betraying fellow revolutionaries for its political interests.

“Under normal circumstances, a government supported by the parliamentary majority should be formed after parliament is seated,” Mohamed Saad Katatny said. “It’s no longer our priority.”

He said that all political forces agreed with the military council in one of their meetings that the government of Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri “will be staying in office until presidential elections.”

In November, the Egyptian military announced that it would hand over power to an elected president no later than the end of June, after a week-long crackdown on demonstrations against the military council that left at least 42 dead and scores wounded.

Originally, the Freedom and Justice Party demanded the right to appoint a new prime minister when parliament formed, putting it on a collision course with the military rulers.

But Katatny said in the interview Sunday, “Right now, we are going through a sensitive transitional phase that necessitates the cooperation of parliament and the military council and the current government. There must be understanding, without clashes­ or disagreements, in order for the transitional phase to go by in the smoothest manner possible. It is very important for us to seek this.”

The parliament’s powers are still unclear and will be established in the yet-to-be-written constitution. But whatever alliance the Islamist party forms will probably set the agenda for the legislature, which will appoint an assembly to write the constitution.

The military rulers have made clear that they would like to influence the process, something the Freedom and Justice Party has rejected.

“As soon as parliament is formed, full legislative authority will be transferred from the military council to the elected representatives,” Katatny said.

His latest statements will probably further enrage activists from groups already angry with the Brotherhood for what they say is the organization’s failure to condemn the military’s human rights abuses. Those activists are calling for a full transfer of executive and legislative power from the military council to the elected parliament.

Katatny dismissed the accusations during the interview and argued that continued protests with no clear goals are ineffective and lead to chaos.“When we feel that the protest will turn into chaos, we stay away because we want sensible demands and stability, and all the times we did not go out and did not participate turned to chaos and destruction, but the times we participated always ended strongly and peacefully," he said.

The party’s political power is apparent. Its leaders have met with U.S. officials at least four times since fall and will meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns this week, Katatny said.

“Now, the Americans come to meet us in person because they have estimated that we will be coming to power, and therefore they want to know us, but we have not discussed more than the general conditions and made introductions,” he said.

He said U.S. officials are most worried about the fate of the Camp David treaty between Israel and Egypt, something the party has promised to honor although, it said, the accord might eventually be revisited.

“We are not looking for a confrontation; we are not looking for war. These are not our priorities,” Katatny said. “At the Freedom and Justice Party, we never discussed what is going to happen with Camp David. But we’ve discussed what we are going to do for the poor, what we are going to do about health, what we are going to do about education. Those are the priorities, and they will take years to fulfill.”

Katatny said that once the president is elected, a new government will be formed and that Freedom and Justice’s priority will be to lead service ministries without taking a majority of the cabinet’s positions.

One analyst said the party’s move is not surprising. The Brotherhood believes that the transfer of power from military leaders will be difficult and that confronting them head-on would further complicate the situation, said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Durham University. Instead, he said, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to contain the military’s power without jeopardizing its own reputation and newly found electoral success.

“It’s in the Freedom and Justice Party’s interest not to take power now through forming the government for many reasons,” Anani said. That’s partly to appease the military rulers by sharing power before presidential elections and partly because “leaders believe that any government to be formed now will be held to account for the legacy of Mubarak,” he said.

“The Muslim Brotherhood believes, which could be true, that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will not leave power easily and smoothly, and confrontation with it might complicate the situation,” he said.

In another development, lawyers said Monday that Christian business tycoon and politician Naguib Sawiris is going to be tried for insulting religion, months after he tweeted a cartoon making fun of Islamists.

The case was referred to court by the Cairo prosecutor after Islamist lawyer Mamdouh Ismail filed a complaint against Sawiris for posting a picture of Disney’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Islamic dress on his Twitter account, making fun of the rise of Islamism in the region. Sawiris later apologized and took down the tweet.

Human rights lawyer Gamal Eid said the move was a clear attack on freedom of expression and evidence that “there is no rule of law in Egypt.”

Also Monday, Sawiris’s political party, the Free Egyptians, said it would boycott the next phase of elections for the upper house of the parliament because of sustained and continued violations during balloting, including the use of religious slogans, which is forbidden by law.

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