Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood May Be Model for Islam's Political Adaptation

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood hold a poster of candidate Saber Nour as police prevented them from entering a polling station north of Cairo in December.
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood hold a poster of candidate Saber Nour as police prevented them from entering a polling station north of Cairo in December. (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 3, 2006

CAIRO -- Mustafa Mohamed Mustafa, a legislator from the Muslim Brotherhood, stood on the Egyptian parliament's tiered floor, pulled out a copy of the constitution and waved it at the speaker, Fathi Sorour, who belongs to the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak.

It was a sign, under parliamentary rules, that he wanted to speak, and he did, criticizing the government for allowing an old French aircraft carrier to pass through the Suez Canal on its way to India's shores to be dismembered for scrap metal. Environmental groups said the ship, loaded with tons of asbestos, posed a pollution hazard.

Sorour, with the backing of the parliamentary majority held by Mubarak's National Democratic Party, expelled Mustafa "because of his insistence on speaking in a loud voice" and the desire to "preserve order in the chamber." The entire Brotherhood bloc, 20 percent of parliament, walked out.

Last weekend's uproarious session put on display Egypt's new political reality: the emergence of the Brotherhood, formally banned under Egypt's restrictions on religiously based parties, as the country's only vibrant opposition force. It is an experiment watched closely not only in Egypt, which has been ruled by a succession of military leaders for more than 50 years, but also around the Middle East, where Islamic political groups are using the wedge of elections to enter mainstream politics.

The Brotherhood has long been the model for Islamic political movements and has close ties with the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which won last week's Palestinian legislative elections. Though the Brotherhood formally renounces violence in Egypt, it provides outspoken support for Hamas's armed campaign against Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood has tried to quickly position itself as a mainstream reform party. Its parliamentary program reads like a high school civics book. It promotes freedom of speech, which means an end to Egypt's quarter-century-old emergency laws that prohibit gatherings of more than five people and permit prosecutions on such vague grounds as besmirching the country's image. It also promotes the independence of unions and professional organizations, transparency of government transactions, a crackdown on corruption and freedom for political prisoners. The Brotherhood is not pressing for Islamic-oriented social changes, such as mandatory use of veils by women or a ban on alcohol.

"No one needs be afraid of us," said Essam Erian, a top Brotherhood official. He pointed out that the group was cooperating with other political parties and pro-democracy movements to forge a strategy of street demonstrations and propaganda to promote reforms. "We want to be more than a voice," Erian said. "We want to take action."

In month-long legislative elections last November and December, running its candidates as independents to skirt the government's ban on its political activity, the Brotherhood won 88 of 454 seats. It put up only 130 candidates so as not to alarm Egyptians, the group's leaders said. Secular opposition parties barely made a dent at the polls.

After the elections, the Brotherhood attracted criticism from a number of parties that otherwise have nothing in common. Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and leading candidate to succeed his aging father, said the group's emergence was "having negative repercussions on the electoral and political process."

He suggested the ban on religious parties might be enforced. "The question of how we should deal at the political and legal levels with attempts to circumvent the national consensus banning religious parties is on the table," Mubarak told the state-run Roz al-Yusef newspaper. "The group has no legal existence, so from the legal point of view we must deal with it on that basis."

On Jan. 6, Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian fugitive who is Osama bin Laden's top aide, issued a video message from hiding in which he attacked the Brotherhood for being an unwitting tool of U.S. policy in the Middle East. "That is the truth of the political game America is playing in Egypt, through presidential and parliamentary elections, to exploit the masses and their love for Islam," he said. "They said they won 30 seats, now they say they have won 80, and in five years' time they will say 100. And so goes strategy to concede them some space."

A few days later, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads al Qaeda in Iraq, also attacked the Brotherhood. In an Internet audio message, he asked: "How can anyone choose any other path but that of jihad? I appeal to the Islamic party: Abandon this strategy which is a losing one for Sunnis."

Erian responded with irony, calling the critics of the Brotherhood "a strange alliance."

The Brotherhood is hobbled in parliament by the ruling party's two-thirds majority. Mubarak's party not only can pass any legislation it wants, it can make constitutional changes. The Brotherhood can use the body as a forum, as it did in the case of the French ship. It returned to the floor of parliament after Mustafa issued a pro forma apology.

In lieu of legislative clout, the Brotherhood peppers committees with requests for information. Last week, it demanded a report on torture from the defense committee. It also presented the Interior Ministry with a questionnaire on the status of 30,000 detainees it considers held illegally. As part of a pan-Egypt charm offensive, the parliamentary bloc formally wished Christians a Merry Christmas.

The Brotherhood's disciplined presence has forced one change. Parliament used to hold morning and evening sessions, but ruling-party delegates regularly missed the late-night meetings. Because votes can be held no matter how many delegates are absent, the Brotherhood's insistence on attending all sessions with a full delegation forced the ruling party to curb its absenteeism, and parliament voted to move the night sessions to the afternoon.

Brotherhood members come and go from the parliament chamber to meet the five-times-a-day prayer requirement. The other night at the close of a session, several were on their knees praying in a lounge decorated in ersatz ancient Egyptian style, with a statue of a pharaoh at one end.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company