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.
The group's arrival at the fore of the opposition's reform campaign has deepened public participation as well as political tensions throughout Egypt.
At a Brotherhood rally in downtown Cairo last Friday, about 2,000 men and women gathered in a hall as speakers denounced activists' arrests and ridiculed a new electoral law that allows for multi-candidate presidential elections beginning this fall. Under the rules, independent candidates effectively are not allowed to run, a measure commentators say is aimed at preventing the Brotherhood from participating.
Even that indoor rally was far larger than any mounted by socialist organizations or Kifaya, the opposition movement that had been in the vanguard of the anti-Mubarak campaign. Men crowded the ground floor of the hall, and veiled women filled the balconies. Chants of "Freedom, freedom! Where, where?" broke out. A speaker proclaimed: "Liberty is the hope of millions, based on the method of the prophet Muhammad." The crowd answered: "Jihad in the name of God! Death in the name of God is noble!"
At the front steps, a phalanx of Brotherhood members formed a human barrier against dozens of plainclothes government agents backed by hundreds of riot police in Darth Vader-style uniforms. Two dozen large vans stood by in case of mass arrests. Neither violence nor detentions occurred.
Abdul Fatah predicted that the group would enter a new phase of civil disobedience, including sit-ins and strikes, to obtain new political rights. The Brotherhood has said it especially wants to end 24-year-old emergency laws that restrict speech and assembly in Egypt. The government defends many of the recent arrests of Brotherhood members as justified under emergency laws that prohibit membership in banned organizations and grant police leeway to arrest people deemed to be plotting against the government.
One of the top Brotherhood operatives in Cairo, Essam Erian, was arrested at his home on May 6, said his wife, Fatima Fadl. At the time, rumors were swirling that he would run for president. Uniformed men in black ski masks sealed off Erian's street and told neighbors there would be a shootout, Fadl said.
"It was the usual thing," Fadl, whose husband has been sent to jail four times, said matter-of-factly. "They said he belonged to a banned organization trying to overthrow the government. We know the charges by heart."
The meeting on Friday night took place in the Physicians Union building under the guise of holding a syndicate meeting. Professional unions are under a degree of government control, and Brotherhood members are prominent in several of them. The arrangement encourages Brotherhood members to integrate into government structures. But in recent months, the syndicates have provided a cover for anti-government political activity.
"I am not here as a member of the Brotherhood guidance committee, but as a member of the Engineers Union," said Mohammed Ali Bishr, who presided at the meeting.
Opposition reform activity began two years ago with demonstrations against the Iraq war that metamorphosed into demands for an end to Mubarak's rule and competitive democratic elections.
In February, Mubarak proposed multi-candidate elections, but the main opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected constitutional changes that would limit participation to high-ranking members of officially sanctioned parties and would depend on monitoring by government-dominated committees. A referendum on the new rules is scheduled for Wednesday. The main opposition forces, including the Brotherhood, have called for a boycott.