Is the Muslim Brotherhood a threat to Egypt’s aspirations for freedom or simply a moderate political party? Conflicting reports have lead to confusion about whether or not the movement should be feared. Political commentator and Egyptian resident Linda S. Heard offers her analysis
The atmosphere post revolution in Egypt is still upbeat. People are hopeful. Most expect an open, pluralistic and democratic political system to emerge. There is also unease however, due in part to fears that the Muslim Brotherhood - banned by Mubarak’s regime - is set to loom large in upcoming elections. But just how justified are these concerns?
During the heady days of the revolution whenever I asked ordinary Egyptians whether or not the freedom they’d been promised would be abused by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Muslimin) they would either shake their heads or throw me a scornful glance. This is a ‘youth revolution’, they would say, the ‘facebook revolution’.
Don’t be influenced by Hosni Mubarak’s warnings about the Brotherhood. That was simply a scare tactic he used to hang on to power.
That opinion seemed credible then. The Brotherhood had neither instigated the popular uprising nor fuelled it to any great extent. Indeed, the organisation’s spokesmen had gone out of their way to present their movement as tolerant and freedom-loving. What’s more, in Tahrir Square its members had joined hands with secular Egyptians and Coptic Christians in a shared nationalist spirit.
Following the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that, although they planned to transform their movement into a political party, they would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming election and would only target 30 per cent of the parliamentary seats.
However, I still had doubts about the Brotherhood and these grew after I watched Kamal El-Helbawy, a member of the party and the group’s former spokesman, being interviewed by Zeinab Badawi on the BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’ TV show.
Mr El-Helbawy did his best to come across as liberal, but he refused to be pinned-down as to whether his organisation would accept a woman president or whether women would be expected to adopt the veil or not. For me, the 65 dollar question asked by Ms Badawi was this: “Is the aim of the Muslim Brotherhood to establish a state in Egypt that is governed by Shariah law?” “If the majority of the people and democratic practice allows it,” Helbawy answered.
When I discussed my suspicions - namely that the Brotherhood was reinventing itself, or pretending to, as a prelude to joining the mainstream - with friends from Alexandria, which is a known Brotherhood stronghold, they shrugged them off. Several explained to me that in recent months, support for the Brotherhood has been steadily waning.
Sunday March 20 was an historic day for Egypt. For the first time in 30 years, the Egyptian people voted freely and fairly in a national referendum on constitutional amendments, designed to pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections as early as next autumn.
A ‘No’ vote
Most of the young revolutionaries were pressing for a ‘no’ vote which would have led to elections being postponed for more than a year as they needed time to form new parties and promote their respective agendas. They feared that without the existence of credible opposition parties - discouraged from forming during Mubarak’s era - early elections would favour candidates from the well-known and well-organised Muslim Brotherhood, which has built up a following over decades in small villages and towns partly because of the community work it carries out - opening schools, clinics and orphanages.
To the dismay of the revolutionaries however, only 77.2 per cent of voters accepted the amended constitution. The Egyptian blogger and political activist Sandmonkey posted an astute analysis of what went wrong on his blog. “Cairo is not Egypt,” he wrote. “This may seem obvious to others, but let me repeat that point again. Cairo is not Egypt. Stop your Cairo-is-the-centre-of-the- Universe chauvinism. Twenty-five million live in Cairo. Sixty million live elsewhere. And, let’s be honest. The No-vote people did not manage to get their message across to the people effectively.”
He was exactly right and that’s why it’s difficult to fathom just how much support the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys in small villages and towns in Egypt. The movement may be opting out of securing the big prize for now but it is working towards a massive parliamentary and presidential coup in four year’s time.
Should the Brotherhood succeed in gaining a parliamentary majority and the presidency at a later date, Egypt will be turned into a far more conservative country with a glacial foreign policy vis-à-vis the US and Israel. Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official, says, “I think it’s highly likely the Muslim Brotherhood will push very hard for a review of the treaty with Israel.”
Ironically, while most Egyptians remain stoic at the prospect of one day being governed by the Brotherhood, Glen Beck of Fox News is practically hysterical. He’s got it into his head that the Brotherhood wants a global Islamic state, “a civilization alternative” and are out to Islamise North America.
Other influential Americans are just as panic-stricken, including Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who has issued a long press release warning that the Brotherhood wants to create a state that existed in the 13th century in Egypt, and calling upon Americans to be “cleareyed about the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical Islamic agenda with a pledge of jihad against the West and the State of Israel”.
Personally I think that Mr Beck and Mr Kirk are over-reacting. The Ikhwan is not what it was in the late 1940s and 1950s when it was allegedly involved in assassinations of various Egyptian political figures including President Gamal Abdul Nasser. However a number of issues concerning the Brotherhood remain unanswered. What, for example, is its true agenda? Would the Egyptian military allow the party to take power? How would the international community react to Egypt if it were ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood? And how great is the party’s following? At present, it’s impossible to know as people until now have been reluctant to admit their loyalty.
Recently, as I was leaving one of my favourite Alexandria coffee shops however, the manager came over to bid me goodbye with this jovial parting shot: “Don’t forget to shop for a burka. The Ikhwan Muslimin is coming.” As someone who considers Egypt home, somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to smile.