Banned Group Leads Dissent in Egypt

Students held demonstrations in Cairo on Feb. 14 to mark the 1949 assassination of Hassan Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The group, the largest organized opposition force in Egypt, promotes rule by Islamic law.
Students held demonstrations in Cairo on Feb. 14 to mark the 1949 assassination of Hassan Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The group, the largest organized opposition force in Egypt, promotes rule by Islamic law. (By John Moore -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 23, 2005

CAIRO, May 22 -- The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest organized opposition force in Egypt, has evolved into the country's most assertive campaigner for democratic reforms by defying bans on its political activities and spearheading a series of demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.

Over the past two months, the Brotherhood has organized protests in a dozen cities and towns, wresting the spotlight from secular organizations that until recently had dominated the drive to unseat Mubarak, Egypt's president since 1981.

The Brotherhood has paid a heavy price for its new vigor. According to government figures, more than 750 activists have been arrested since March 27. Brotherhood officials put the number at more than 2,000. On Sunday, police rounded up 21 members in several cities, including a high-ranking official, Mahmoud Ezzat, in Cairo.

On May 4, during a police crackdown on a protest march in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura, one activist suffocated after security forces fired tear gas at the crowd, according to police and media reports.

Nonetheless, the group is determined to persevere, said Ali Abdel Fattah, a member of the Brotherhood's leadership guidance council.

"This is an historic situation," he said in an interview. "The price we are willing to pay shows that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be ignored. We have become a political party without authorization."

Religious parties present a predicament for proponents of democracy as democratic movements emerge across the Middle East. Secular political groups eye Islamic forces with suspicion, regarding them as undemocratic organizations that want to ride democratic principles to power and then institute authoritarian rule.

As it promotes democratic openings in the Middle East, the Bush administration nonetheless opposes some Lebanese and Palestinian Islamic political organizations, which the State Department has labeled terrorist groups. Earlier this year, the State Department objected to the six-week detention of Ayman Nour, a secular Egyptian presidential candidate, but has been silent on the arrests of Brotherhood members.

Until late March, the Brotherhood had stayed on the sidelines of anti-Mubarak demonstrations. But the organization has come under pressure from two sides: secular groups that took a lead role in anti-Mubarak demonstrations and accused the Brotherhood of collaborating with the government; and Islamic extremists, including members of al Qaeda, who have poured scorn on the Brotherhood for being a graying organization that gets nothing done.

Abdul Fatah said the Brotherhood was determined to have a place in the marketplace of change. "Not to work hard is to head for the grave," he said. "We fight, therefore we exist."

The Brotherhood is a 77-year-old institution that promotes rule by Islamic law. The group once espoused violence as a vehicle for change but renounced the strategy in the 1970s. The group, which still operates under a cover of secrecy, is a model for many Islamic-based political organizations, including Hamas, the Palestinian organization, and groups in Syria, Jordan and Sudan.

The Egyptian government says the Brotherhood foments violence, but it tolerates the group as a kind of social, charitable and professional organization that has 13 members in parliament, although they are nominally seated as independents.


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