The achievement accomplished by the Muslim Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections remains a widely controversial issue. The Group, still branded as “outlawed” by official and some unofficial circles, attained 20% of the Parliamentary seats, in the time when real opposition was almost completely out of the picture. Against this backdrop, the Group has become the main opposition bloc in the parliament, the matter which raised the question of what the Muslim Brotherhood could do in the parliament where several draft laws closely related to reform are to be examined.
Under the title “The Muslim Brotherhood in the New Parliament: a Religious freedom-restricting entity or a political opposition force?”, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) held a seminar within the framework of Ibn Rushd Salon moderated by Mr. Bahey Eddin Hassan, CIHRS Director. Mr. Hassan started by indicating that the relationship between political legitimacy and legal legitimacy is a reality which the latest elections generated. The legally banned Muslim Brotherhood, enjoying a sweeping popularity, secured 88 seats despite impartiality of the elections, while the other legally approved opposition parties could only secure 12 seats.
Mr. Hassan pointed out that certain analyses went too far as to question the Muslim Brotherhoods’ agenda after they rule Egypt, whereas the realistic question should be: “what is the Brotherhood agenda till the end of this very current parliamentary term?”
Mr. Hassan argued that there are two scenarios that could be foreseen in addressing these questions, the first is that the Muslim Brotherhood turns into a real opposition force seeking to change the current situations in order to be able to carry out their own agenda; the second, however, is that the Group accommodates to the realities and requirements of the current political system based on the common grounds they share with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Dr. Essam El-Erian, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, started off by stating that both the electoral process victims and those who voted for the Group are expecting much from the Group representatives, who came from among those “good people”.
Dr. El-Erian argued that the election results added to the Group responsibilities to lead reform and change in Egypt, affirming that the Muslim Brotherhood would do the task if the others were slack to undertake it, and that they would participate with other reformers, criticizing the scared community elite that refuses to interact with the public, despite the fact that it is the public rights and interests they should be defending and protecting, not their own. Dr. El-Erian, moreover, criticized some analyses that would engender despair among the public following the Brotherhood electoral victory. He also criticized the prevalent idea that the Brotherhood attained the aforementioned seats as the voters were voting blindly in protest to the NDP, wondering why then all the voting went to the Brotherhood representatives rather than the other opposition parties!
Dr. El-Erian then touched upon a chief phenomenon of the elections represented in the end of the party system in Egypt, both its official and opposition wings, whereas the Islamist, liberalist or nationalist forces are still soldiering on. He pointed out, however, to the poor performance of the opposition fronts in Egypt, stressing that the Muslim Brotherhood have not been among the causes that led to the collapse of the opposition fronts, especially as the current phase of action requires coordination and networking.
Regarding the anticipated contributions of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliament, Dr. El-Erian argued that they would try to re-activate the role of the parliament that had been marginalized since 1954. He contended that the controversy over the constitutional amendments is focused on the role and powers of the president which, albeit important, should come second to the role of the parliament and the necessity of putting it into force in face of the executive authority.
There are many priorities for the Group in the parliament, Dr. El-Erian argued, central to which is the political and constitutional reform. He indicated that the Brothers will demand the revocation of the current party law so that party formation would be permitted merely through informing authorities, yet of course based upon objective criteria, that parties, for instance, would not be formed on the basis of religious distinction, or possess armed forces or militia, with the objective of creating a new spirit and introducing new forces to the political arena. The second priority, however, should be combating corruption and raising the public awareness regarding corruption-related causes.
Dr. El-Erian, however, strongly criticized the accusation mounted against the Brotherhood that they don’t tolerate free thought and creativity, arguing that the Brotherhood representatives submitted interrogation requests and inquiries regarding many issues; however, attention had been placed, on purpose, on the issues related some publications for the Ministry of Culture, which leaves the picture incomplete.
Starting his comment, Mr. Essam Sultan, a leader in Al-Wasat “the middle” Party (still under construction), criticized what he described as the imbalance of the elite notion of democracy, including the Copts and liberals who, as he indicated, have to take clear-cut stands regarding democracy, and whether their democracy has room for other entities and ideologies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Communists or Nasserites!
Mr. Sultan added that this is about time the others defended themselves. For a long time, the Islamists have been wrongfully accused of disregarding democracy. He insisted that the time has probably come for the liberals to reassess their own agenda and reexamine their beliefs in democracy and tolerating the other and what they really signify. He explained what took place at the last elections in simple terms, such that the voters went to the ballot boxes and found only two slogans: the first of the Islamists being “Islam is the solution”; an ambiguous one; while the second was “corruption is the solution”, a clear and already realized slogan. Voters, thus, opted for the first. Mr. Sultan, however, argued that the organizational skills of the Brothers, their loyalty to their beliefs and their willingness to sacrifice anything for its defense are undeniable facts that were among the main reasons why the ordinary citizen voted for them.
Questioning how far the Brothers are ready to prioritize the nation over their organization, Mr. Sultan explained that the Group literature and the attitudes of its founders, such as al-Banna, al-Hudaiby and al-Telmisany, had always been channeled to serve the interests of the nation, and in this framework he questioned whether the interest of the nation would be best realized while prominent parliamentary names like Khaled Mohey-Eddin, Diaa-Eddin Dawood, el-Badry Farghaly, Abulezz el-Hariri and Fikri al-Gazzar are out of the picture, wondering whether the Group should have better supported these national figures to the parliament rather than gain 88 seats for its own groups regardless of other opposition forces in the parliament!
He further asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood, since its inception in 1928, had been focused on promoting causes in favor of the nation, or are merely concerned with competition. This was said in criticism to what Mr. Sultan named “the Group leadership discourse” along with Dr. El-Erian argument, which smacked of – according to Mr. Sultan – much arrogance and pride over the weaker political parties. He then questioned whether the Brotherhood representatives would involve themselves in this competitive framework or bring the Group back to the reformist track!
On his part, Dr. Ammar Ali Hassan, Director of the Research Unit – Middle East News Agency, contended that Egypt would be facing one of three scenarios in the coming phase: the first being a reformist revolution that would take place within the current political system through which it can restore control over the country, given the fact that the only obstacle facing this scenarios is the old-fashioned and rigid methods of the current system that rendered it weak. The second scenario would be that the Muslim Brotherhood take over just to inherit a heavy legacy of corruption and oppression, thus carrying the heavy burden of reform. Other forces, in turn, would be obliged to fight against the transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood themselves into a new force of corruption and oppression.
The third scenario, however, would be an alliance between the Brothers and the NDP Old Guards. He then argued that these three scenarios make it imperative for us to struggle, on the one hand, against the regime so that it would either reform itself or step aside, and against the Brotherhood, on the other, to make them rationalize their political discourse; in addition to struggling to empower other forces, in order to create multiple political forces in the field rather than leaving all the power to one entity alone.
Dr. Ali Hassan reminded the presence that the discourse of the Brother is a dual discourse as there are two wings inside their group: the traditionalists and the reformists. And although the reformists are more limited than the traditionalists, yet they are more influential and popular. However, the group applies certain techniques and strategies to cope up with the current reality, thus using an appeasing discourse that does not reflect their real strategy that they should reveal.
Dr. Ali Hassan, further, criticized the so-called right to self-criticism to all trends and figures except the Muslim Brotherhood. He affirmed that it is unfair to hold the Group accountable for its past, depending on historical givens to account for its current attitudes, ignoring at the same time the changes that have taken place within ever since. Dr. Ali Hassan, further called the Group to involve itself deeper in society and prioritize the interests of the Egyptian community over the Brothers community. He also stressed that the Brothers need to launch a rather realistic conciliatory discourse that embraces the broader sense of culture.
Regarding the Brotherhoods’ relationship with Copts, Dr. Ali Hassan argued that, compared to the NDP, the Copts would gain better advantages under the Brotherhood group. In support of his argument, he referred to the fact that the present government is reluctant to give church building permits fearing Muslim public reaction; the Brotherhood is not likely to have that fear.
Dr. Ali Hassan expressed his apprehension of the fact that the Brotherhood might regress to their reluctant and scared phase especially as they had outdone that phase in the latest elections. He contended that Egypt would lose much if the Brothers became reluctant once again, drawing attention to the fact that regression might have already happened when they voted for Dr. Fathi Sorour, the prominent NDP leader, as the spokesperson. He, also, affirmed that the Muslim Brotherhood should be politically legitimized, for insisting on excluding the Group may drive it to work secretly once more and damage the reformist trend within it. Dr. Ali Hassan then called upon the Brothers to declare a clear-cut position on the Grand Imamate versus presidency issue, and to always place public good on top of its priority list, regardless of scriptures.
Dr. Amr El-Shobky, a researcher in al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, argued, first and foremost, that the discourse of any political group or party cannot be detached from the nature of the existing political system or reality, indicating that this reality revealed, through the latest elections, a number of evidence and phenomena, central to which is the falling role of the political parties, stressing that the parties bear part of the responsibility for the deteriorated situations over the past 25 years, whereas the ruling regime shoulders the largest part, as it placed a siege over these parties, imposing certain leaderships, and stifling initiatives of many forces such as Al-Karama, Al-Wasat then Al-Ghad parties.
Dr. Shobky said that electoral battle was not political, nor was it between the civil state trend championed by the government, and another “stygian” backward trend – as depicted by the government – represented in the Brotherhood. He supported his argument mentioning that, sarcastic enough, some independent and NDP candidates used religious slogans even more frequently than the Brothers candidates did.
He added that the Brotherhood has a special structure: it is a religious da’awa group (i.e. based on preaching), based on a range of religious criteria, such as religious commitment, regular practice of rituals and deep understanding of jurisprudence and Prophetic tradition. Depending on these criteria, there are varying levels of membership. Dr. Shobky added that integrating the political dimension with the “da’awa” in later stages reshaped the constitution of the Group completely which commands the group to separate between being a “da’awa” group and the political order within.
Dr. Shobky pointed out that there are certain problems that need to be addressed, central to which is the Group position on the requests of affiliation by Christians or non-practicing Muslims. The Group also needs to declare its outright positions on issues of women, tourism and Copts, which need to be set forward and boldly discussed by the Brotherhood.
Expressing pessimism over establishing a political party representing the Brothers in the near future, Dr. Shobky explained that political organization requires clear-cut positions on certain issues in the next stage, such as power inheritance in Egypt, as well as providing a more coherent economic plan of action.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Shobky affirmed, should to be dealt with as a civil political movement within the political system, the matter which would ensue mutual responsibilities between the Group and the regime.
Dr. Bahey Eddin Hassan commented that the Brothers are called upon to revise their strategies and develop perhaps a new one, expressing uncertainty that the strategy that helped the Brothers attain their 88 seats may not be valid even for maintaining these seats, let alone acceding power. He explained that the blackmailing exercised to disband the parliament will be one of the challenges facing the Brotherhood in the coming stage, particularly with the new election bill under debate which entails the disbanding of the parliament and which the NDP is authorized to adopt at any point.
In his final comment, Dr. Essam el-Erian affirmed that he does not mind the formation of a Christian political party, adding that the Muslim Brotherhood had called one thousand Copts to be registered on the Group internal lists, a request which was categorically turned down by the Church. Dr. El-Erian stressed that the Brothers are not interested in the Egyptian presidency, and that all they care for is that all citizens would be able to stand for election, on objective, non-discriminatory terms.
Dr. El-Erian further argued that if the Brotherhood managed to open doors before party action, they will separate between the da’awa and the political dimensions within the Group. He indicated that the Brotherhood focuses on reforming government and not acceding to power.
Debate and Conditions:
In a second comment, Mr. Essam Sultan reaffirmed that democracy is the way out from the current crisis. He affirmed that the Brothers have three issues to add to their agenda, which if not tackled, their representation in the parliament would be meaningless. It would be better for the Brothers to quit the parliament, however, if they tackled them but could not achieve results. These three issues are: legitimacy of the current government, freedoms, and corruption.
Dr. Amr el-Shobky, on his part, concluded saying that there is a legitimate political debate over the terms and conditions of integrating any political trend into the democratization process, including observance of the constitution, and the basic laws of the state. He, moreover, explained that women and Copts are still grey areas that need to be more carefully tackled by the Muslim Brothers in a broadminded manner.
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