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In power, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood remains secretive, defensive, critics say

By Borzou Daragahi | Financial Times,

CAIRO — For years, Mohamed el-Gebba bristled under the dictates of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive and hierarchical organization he had embraced as a teenager, only to be told by his elders that it could not emerge as either a real political party or a bona fide charity under the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

But even after Mubarak was overthrown in last year’s revolution, Gebba said, he found that the Brotherhood refused to open up and that, in many ways, it became less transparent once it began to acquire real political power.

“You have seven people who are all the time managing the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Gebba, who broke with the group last year after 12 years as a member. “Now they think they can manage Egypt in the same way.”

The downfall of Mubarak’s regime raised hopes that the Brotherhood would abandon decades of opacity to embrace the pro-democracy spirit of the Arab spring revolts.

But as President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the group, attempts to push through a constitution roundly rejected by liberals, leftists, Christians and secularists, critics say the Brotherhood’s autocratic tendencies have come to the fore.

“The Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is not just a way to gain power but an end in itself,” Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who broke with the group last year to pursue a presidential run, told an audience at the University of Chicago last month.

On Monday, Aboul Fotouh urged his supporters to vote against the constitution in Saturday’s referendum. Most liberal groups have called for a boycott of the plebiscite.

After a week of unrest in which seven people have died and hundreds have been injured, Morsi on Monday gave the Egyptian army, against which the Brotherhood struggled for decades, powers of arrest over civilians and the authority to oversee Saturday’s constitutional referendum.

In part, as even critics of the Brotherhood acknowledge, the withering attack on the organization by liberals, the private media, former supporters of Mubarak and the powerful judiciary has only entrenched the group’s leadership.

“Now what’s happening is the opposition is putting pressure on them in a way that makes them less democratic,” said Ibrahim Zafarani, a former member of the Brotherhood who now leads a small moderate Islamist party. “That forces them to close in on themselves and become more defensive.”

Upon his election, Morsi resigned from leadership positions in the Brotherhood and vowed to be a president to all Egyptians. But as Egypt’s crisis has deepened, the lines delineating the Brotherhood organization, its political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, and the presidency have blurred.

“For better or worse the Brotherhood has become more intertwined with Morsi,” said Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Center, a think-tank. “In his more autonomous months as president, Mr. Morsi said he was independent of the Brotherhood. But now is a time to close ranks.”

Last Wednesday, Brotherhood loyalists, wearing motorcycle helmets and wielding clubs, marched in formation towards a protest at the presidential palace in an attempt to crush Morsi’s opponents physically. Gebba said even though the Brotherhood leadership severely frowns upon the use of violence or weapons, the militants “must have had the permission” of those higher up to take such a visible step in defence of the presidency.

The Freedom and Justice party stated it was forced to take to the streets, “in partnership with a number of national and popular parties, groups and movements,” in order “to protect the legality and legitimacy of the elected Egyptian president and popular will.”

To defend Morsi, and perhaps bolster his sometimes choppy rhetoric on the political stump, both Muhammad Badie, the famously reclusive supreme guide of the Brotherhood, and its powerful number two, Khairat el-Shater, appeared live in rare, lengthy press conferences on Saturday.

“How can I rule Egypt when I cannot even protect my own office,” Badie said, denouncing allegations that the Brotherhood’s leaders control Morsi and referring to a series of attacks on the group’s offices.

Regardless of the ability of Morsi and his allies to run Egypt, the president appears for now to be largely consulting his most fervent loyalists. Token liberal and Christian advisers have all abandoned him, and most opposition leaders have refused to meet him until he delays the constitutional referendum.

The impression that Morsi is listening almost exclusively to his Islamist political base was reinforced by his surprise decision on Sunday to announce the imposition of new taxes on everything from mobile phone calls and beer to fertilizer, only to rescind the decision 12 hours later following public criticism by the Freedom and Justice party.

Critics of the Brotherhood point out that under Mubarak, the Brotherhood exhibited a high degree of pragmatism in order to survive as an organization, and say that staying in power remains Morsi’s preoccupation.

“The Brotherhood wants power more than money or ideology,” charged Gebba. “To achieve that, they will make a deal with evil.”

— Financial Times

© The Washington Post Company