Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood under fire

The Egyptian government has intensified its onslaught on the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of key local elections next month, Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.
The Egyptian government has intensified its security crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in recent weeks in a clear effort to keep its primary political rival off-balance ahead of nation-wide local elections on 8 April.

Ishmael

“And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
—Genesis 16:12

Perplexity

“…upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity…”
—Luke 21:25

The Brotherhood claimed earlier this month that over 800 of its members had been detained in recent police sweeps, around 600 of whom remain incarcerated – media estimates are lower. Dozens of MB election candidates are reportedly in hiding, fearing arrest if they emerge prior to polling day.

Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Director Hossam Bahgat, told ISN Security Watch, “We believe that some serious violations of basic human rights have been committed over the past two years, primarily against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Brotherhood has greatly expanded its involvement in recent electoral cycles, standing a large slate of candidates in the 2005 People’s Assembly elections. Standing as independents, due to the official ban on the movement, MB candidates sent shockwaves through the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), winning 88 seats in the 454-seat lower house.

President Hosni Mubarak’s government has launched recurrent large-scale crackdowns against the MB since the poll, continuing a pattern of repression and unofficial accommodation that has characterized state-Brotherhood relations since the latter’s foundation in 1928.

“Any legal [law-abiding] person is against having a religious party, especially in a country with a multi-religious population,” Dr Mohamed Refaat el-Said, chair of the leftist Tagammu party, told ISN Security Watch.

“The law insists that any organization in Egypt should not be a part or a center for an international organization, and they are,” he added.

“Revolution”

On 15 March, MB Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdy Akef warned that government efforts to prevent Brotherhood candidates from standing in next month’s poll threatened a dangerous “public outburst.”

Quoted in the Egyptian Daily Star, he said, “Egyptian society is in a state of rage. If the government’s policy remains as it is, the situation will only get worse and a revolution will break out. This will destroy everything.”

A November 2006 MB demonstration involving a martial arts display by student supporters dressed in paramilitary uniforms was seized upon by the state-run media but does not appear to presage a reversal of the movement’s decision to reject violence in the early 1990s.

Election officials ensured that only 438 of 5,149 prospective MB candidates were allowed to register for the April poll. Some candidates reported receiving verbal and legal threats from election officials and others were allegedly assaulted by government supporters.

El-Said revealed to ISN Security Watch that Tagammu’s list for the local elections had also been severely delimited by official intervention. “We have 600 candidates and they’re minimized by the pressure of the government to just around 250,” he said.

The local elections were delayed by two years following the strong showing by the Brotherhood in the 2005 Assembly polls.

Brotherhood on trial

Referring to purported rights violations against Brotherhood members, Bahgat said, “These heightened after their significant win in the parliamentary elections of 2005.”

He added that this “reached a culmination in the referral of a group of their leaders, who were all civilians, to military courts even though they have been acquitted by a civilian court of the same charges.”

On Tuesday, the Hikestep Military Court again postponed a scheduled hearing for 40 prominent Brotherhood members until 15 April, in a clear effort to prevent the further politicization of their trials. The defendants include MB strategist and financier, Khayrat El Shater.

In backing the current ban on the MB, el-Said said, “The major thing is that the law insists that they should offer their funds to be inspected by the Central Association of Accounting, and they have refused. They should announce from where they got these millions and how they spent it.”

“We [Tagammu] are against putting them in prison,” he added, “And we are against any military accusations and any military courts.”

Last May, the Egyptian State Administrative Court, ruling on the Brotherhood case, found that “the referral of civilians to military tribunals is unconstitutional.” Mubarak, who had earlier sent the 40 Brotherhood members to the military court, appears to have ignored the ruling.

The accused now face charges of belonging to a banned group and of possessing anti-government literature. More serious charges of involvement in terrorist activities and money-laundering were reportedly dropped in December.

Bahgat sees these government moves as part of a wider “crackdown on all sorts of different [groups] whether it is the independent judges’ movement or independent rights groups, or media: newspapers and satellite channels.”

The Judges’ Club has emerged as a key opposition center pushing for judicial freedom from government interference. In response the government passed an emendation preventing judicial overview of polling alongside a raft of other constitutional changes in March 2007.

Referring to the amendment, el-Said said, “We were against it […] We have a tradition of non-transparency that we should fight against. And we are in favor of judges inspecting” the polls.

“But we suffered very much from some judges. […] Some of them are Muslim Brotherhood, some of them accepted pressure, he said.

Platform dispute

“Last year the regime introduced an amendment to the constitution barring the establishment of any party on religious grounds, specifically to exclude them [MB] completely from the political scene,” Bahgat said.

“And it became even more difficult for independent candidates to run for the presidency. So effectively the regime managed to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from the competition in presidential elections or in parliamentary elections,” he said.

The Brotherhood effectively ignored the constitutional ban later in the year in seeking to establish the basis for a future party while addressing criticism of a lack of clear policy positions through the drafting of a shadow party platform.

A work in progress, the second draft of the platform released in September firmly anchored the movement’s commitment to parliamentary democracy and its focus on social welfare, while confirming adherence to the concept of a Sharia state.

Subsequent internal debate over controversial stipulations, that key political leaders must always be Muslim men and envisaging the passage of all government legislation in consultation with a panel of senior Muslim clerics, has exposed fundamental divisions within the movement and appeared to signal the primacy of conservative elements in the drafting.

To el-Said, the platform debate confirms that “there is a lack of political understanding in the leadership. This is the weakest leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in all its history.”

“Who can accept it when they vote against the amendment of the constitution to respect nationalization and the rights of citizenship,” he asked. “They didn’t want to give women and Christians any rights. For instance, they insisted that women do not have the right to get [political] authority. They say that their religion prevents [this], which is not true.”

NDP referendum

With the Brotherhood effectively prevented from presenting a concerted challenge to the NDP both in last year’s Shura Council elections and in next month’s poll, attention now turns to the impact of April’s ballot on internal factional battles within the NDP.

The affiliation of local NDP representatives is important in deciding the identity of the next president given that, under a recent constitutional amendment, any prospective candidate for the presidency must receive the pledged support of 140 local councils from 14 districts, and a number of MPs.

The secular opposition is in no position to win the necessary provincial and parliamentary support to stand a presidential candidate in 2011, raising the specter of a return to the one-candidate presidential polls of the recent past.

Asked if Mubarak’s son Gamal was being groomed for the presidency, Bahgat said, “They are not even denying it any more; they are not admitting it but it clear that he is being groomed to replace his father.”

Death knell

The succession of virtually uncontested national and local polls could prove a death knell for the already staggering democratic reform program instigated in recent years under intense US pressure.

Only three independent candidates won election to the Shura Council last year in polls marred by official moves to block MB candidacies and the prevention of voting on election day in some Brotherhood strongholds, which were flooded by police.

“The Shura was, and the local council elections will be, non-elections,” Bahgat said. “It was abundantly clear that without judicial supervision and with the continuing application of emergency law that there is a de-facto monopoly by the ruling National Democratic Party over domestic politics.”

In the wake of a highly critical US State Department human rights report, and with the White House openly criticizing the arrest of opposition figures, President Mubarak sent a shot across the bows of the US this week, signing a nuclear cooperation pact with Russia, while reportedly negotiating major arms and trade deals.

In a clear sign that the reform push is over, the Bush administration has blocked Congressional efforts to draw down US$100 million from the annual US grant to Egypt.

“The last two years have shown that the regime is too important for western powers to risk instability,” Bahgat opined. “So the US lost its base interest in democracy. The EU is still prioritizing other regional [issues] such as security, counter-terrorism, Palestine and migration, and [only] then maybe some rhetoric on political freedoms and democracy.”

With a lack of concerted international pressure it will be up to the Mubarak government to decide on the nature and timing of a necessary return to the unofficial accommodations of its previous modus vivendi with the Brotherhood, which enjoys significant power and support in professional syndicates and other organizations.

Explaining the strong influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within professional associations, el-Said said, “The middle class is suffering too much from NDP policies and at the same time the left didn’t provide enough support to the middle class. So they didn’t find any group which is giving them a hand except the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Ultimately, the Brotherhood knows that it will not be allowed to bolster its electoral power significantly in coming years and has a clear interest in ending the government crackdown, which is designed primarily to disrupt its financial and organizational infrastructure.

The NDP also has a clear interest in a return to normalcy, as Bahgat explained:

“There is no denying that the Muslim Brothers over the decades have won sympathy and expanded their popular support because of the government’s violations committed against their leaders and their junior members.”

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