Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Muslim Brotherhood Leader Akef Spells Out His Ideas for Democracy

Posted by vmsalama on September 15, 2005

By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt

 

CAIRO: Just as an opposition meeting at the Journalists’ Syndicate was winding down last week, a very different type of gathering was commencing at the Lawyers’ Syndicate next door.  From around the corner, one could hear the thunderous call by hundreds of male voices repeatedly chanting, “God is great.”  There was no mistaking this group’s affiliation. 
For whatever image the Muslim Brotherhood (Akhwan El Muslimeen) may project, history reveals the Brotherhood of today may in fact be a gentler, more tolerant organization, whose political agenda preaching for peaceful democracy has often overshadowed its more commonly known push for a rigorous Islamic government.  At age 77, with risk of losing support to some of the younger, more liberal movements which have spurred up in recent years, the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood has gotten a face lift so to find its place in this age of reform.  With a presence in 70 countries, a target audience of the fastest growing religion in the world – some 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide – and dozens of Islamic organizations spawned off of it, the Muslim Brotherhood has a choice.  It can stay true to his age-old ideologies, or evolve with the times. 
Maybe it has done both.  The group’s soon-to-be 77 year old leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, whose soft-spoken, no-nonsense rhetoric has won him mixed reviews on the world stage since being elected into his role in January 2004, says it is the group’s long history and experience that has kept it in touch with the needs of the Egyptian people.  “We have a role in the Egyptian society,” he says.  “By the confession of all people, the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest community that exists on the Egyptian streets.  There is no democracy in Egypt but it is a dictatorship that is coming from the roots.  There is no democracy of any sort in Egypt.”

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The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 at the climax of British colonialism in Egypt.  A young school teacher by the name Hassan Al-Banna, angered by what he considered British thievery of Arab culture and ideals, called for Muslims to reject all Western influences.  Their mission would expand as an effort to prepare society to spread Islamic culture through any means possible, be it in the media, at mosques, through public organizations, at universities, or through the government. 
As time elapsed, colonialism ended, and the Brotherhood was not satisfied with the direction Egyptian politics was headed.  Egypt went from being a monarchy to a police state.  The Muslim Brotherhood felt that Egypt’s government violated the laws of Islam and Shari’ah through means of corruption.  On the flipside, the government, fearing they would be overthrow by the Brotherhood, played the defense.  There were assassination attempts on government officials, including President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  In response, there were thousands of Brotherhood members arrested across the Arab world. 
It would be long before the government and Muslim Brotherhood would find it in their power to carry on a somewhat harmonious existence – albeit superficially.  The group has remained vocal about several key issues – particularly the imprisonment of hundreds of their members, a move they call unjust, and their restriction from running for government positions on an official platform.  Sitting as independents, Brotherhood supporters now hold 13 seats in Egypt’s 454-seat legislature.
“The tyrannical countries that depend on the security forces, they can’t achieve reform by themselves,” presses Akef.  “They must first communicate with the people for reform to exist.  Good steps toward reform must come from the presidency in order to avoid bloodshed.”
In recent weeks, reformist movements in Egypt have become more outspoken than ever – particularly following the May 25 referendum vote where nearly a dozen people – mostly women and journalists – reported being abused by plain-clothes police and National Democratic Party (NDP) supporters.  “The people are tired.  They are in pain.  They are against tyranny,” says Akef.  “[The government] must call out to the people and see what they need first.  Without this initiative, maybe there will be reform, but not for a very long time.”
It is imperative, opposition movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Kafaya (Enough) stress that the government refrains from obstructing the public’s right to free speech and demonstration.  The government maintains that the Egyptian people are free to do so – Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif emphasizing the point on a recent visit to Washington.  Akef laughs, saying he has yet to see even the most peaceful, symbolic protests received without hostility. 
“We decided to make a public convention and say our opinions, but [Mubarak] actually refused,” says Akef.  “We asked to make marches in the streets, and he also refused.  It was all just symbolic, but he refused.”
In a recent interview with the Daily Star Egypt, Kafaya leader George Ishaq emphasized the importance of all opposition groups – including the Muslim Brotherhood – to work together, saying “there will never be change if we don’t stand together against the oppression.”  Akef downplayed the notion of any partnership, as Kafaya pushes for a more secular rule than the Muslim Brotherhood would support.  Akef’s response simply was “I work with all people that want reform.  We want reform and we support it.  We support [Ishaq].”
To stress the Brotherhood’s political agenda, Akef in recent weeks called out to all the brothers to refrain from raising the Quran at protests, saying that the demonstrations are open to all people, not just members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Recently, Al-Azhar issued a fatwa calling protests “haram,” as they interfere in the general order of society.    Akef is quick to brush it off, saying that he himself is an active protestor. 
Still, this group which spawned Hamas, planted the root for Al-Qaida and now publicly endorses peaceful reform and democracy is facing a greater challenge than ever.  Despite it’s diverse appeal worldwide, the struggle remains in their effort to be viewed primarily on the basis of their political agenda, and less so on their religious ideologies, as the Islamic world continues to combat stereotypes of terrorism and violence. 

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A suicide bombing in Cairo’s Khan El-Khalili bazaar in early April which killed two French tourists and an American, an injured 18 others, instilled a fear in many of a revived Islamic movement in Egypt.  The attack came months following terrorist attacks in two Sinai resort towns.  Two more attacks would follow in Cairo.  The Muslim Brotherhood was quick to condemn the attacks, calling them “cowardly.”  However, they would add that the attacks were a “reaction to the injustice” of President Mubarak’s cap on the opposition. 
In the United States, a report released by the national commission investigating the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001 revealed that the architect of the attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, confessed to having roots with the Muslim Brotherhood.  In the report, Mohammed told interrogators that his inspiration to carry out a jihad came from his days as a member of Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood, attending desert youth camps at age 16.
Akef stresses that it is the duty of Muslims worldwide to carry out a jihad appropriately against those who look to rob them of their homeland.  He says only in such circumstances will he condone violence.  “Jihad for Muslims starts with a personal jihad,” he explains.  “It’s not only Islam, it’s the entire world.  To invade another’s land is a crime. When Israel invades another land, it’s a crime.  When America does it, it’s a crime.  When the French went to Algeria it was a crime. We fight them until they flee.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, according to Akef, has no intention of making peace with Israel at any time, saying that any Arab country that does is serving the interests of the United States.  “We will never acknowledge Israel because it is a group of people coming from around the world to invade a land that is not theirs and to kick out the people who live there,” he says.  “[The Arab countries] are agents of the United States.  All of the Arab countries are submitting to America.”
Acknowledging that Egypt does receive some $2.2 billion in economic assistance from the United States annually – second only to Israel – Akef insists that the Arab countries, Egypt especially, should learn to properly utilize its own natural wealth and resources.  “Why should we take money?  Why can’t we rely on ourselves?  We’ve got resources like petroleum, the Suez Canal, agricultural, we’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world but the tyrannical people made it one of the poorest countries.”  The Muslim Brotherhood is an example, he says, as it receives funding only through its own supporters.
Still, Akef stands strong against his critics.  “I don’t care what anybody says – the agents, external or internal.  There are people in Egypt that are getting money from outside just to stand against the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a mature community existing in the Egyptian streets.  It’s got its weight and its trust and they are scared from this.”
In a country which has remained comparatively liberal, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood fear that should they come to power, adoption of Islamic rule will result in the backward motion of society.  A recent editorial in the Washington Times makes a comparison between Akef and the Muslim Brotherhood with Khomeini and the Islamic regime of Iran.  Akef strongly opposes this, saying that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime have stark differences.  “Our code is on peaceful guidelines,” he says.  “The violence is only under one condition – when our land and our countries are occupied.  When someone tries to get our land and our country, we are against it.  Any other situation, we never use it.”
Still he is quick to dismiss that any nation – be it Iran or America – has got the right idea when it comes to governing its people.  The missing factor, he says, is true democracy.  “The government that works right must respect the people’s opinion.  There is no government that respects the people’s opinions.”
Akef looks to the future with great optimism that one day a member of the Muslim Brotherhood will be chosen by the people to lead this nation.  “We won’t go ahead unless the people choose him,” he notes.  “In this time, the people will be convinced with the codes and ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And when the Brotherhood says something, the people will agree.”
In the meantime, Akef is not encouraged by talks of referendum changes and multi-candidate elections, a move he calls an attempt to “confuse the people.”  He even brushes off questions surrounding the use of international election monitors.  “America has eyes on Egypt more than the Egyptian government.  USA knows about Egypt more than Hosni Mubarak knows Egypt,” says Akef. 
Whatever the future holds for the Egyptian people, Akef communicates that the Muslim Brotherhood is there to support them through their struggle toward a democratic existence.  “Egyptians have been under this forcible burden,” he says.  “But at the same time, the Egyptian people are good, wise people.  I myself am optimistic about a good future.”
(Me Interviewing Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, Courtesy of Daina Moussa)
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