By Vivian Salama, Dahlia Kholaif and Caroline Alexander
Bloomberg (Click here for original story)
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood didn’t immediately join the spontaneous street demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak. Now the Islamist group, the country’s largest opposition faction, is positioning itself to help shape the country’s political future.
The Brotherhood waited a few days after the uprising began and then publicly supported the protesters, saying it shared their goals: an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule, a new constitution, open elections and a new all-party government. Mubarak’s Feb. 1 announcement that he won’t seek another presidential term may allow the Brotherhood, brimming with grassroots skills, to take advantage.
Photo by Vivian Salama
“They are the most organized and most popular, with a hierarchy in Egypt in terms of membership and leadership,” said Omar Ashour, an Egyptian lecturer on Arab politics at the University of Exeter in England. “In the post-Mubarak period, they may have a role,” even though “their involvement right now isn’t major.”
Founded in 1928, the same year Mubarak was born, the Muslim Brotherhood has influenced Islamist movements across the globe, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories, which the U.S., European Union and Israel consider a terrorist organization. As conditions change in the Arab world’s most populous country, the group may have to allay concerns about the role it will play. The Brotherhood is banned from politics in Egypt, and members have had to run for office as independents.
Essam al-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader who was arrested several times under Mubarak, says the opposition is united. The Brotherhood is working with “liberals, secularists, communists and every section” to ensure “the transition from a tyrannical corrupt regime to a civil democracy that guarantees equal rights to all,” he said in a telephone interview from Cairo.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is part of Egypt’s people, and we acquiesce in the verdict of the people, whatever it may be,” al-Erian said, adding that the group seeks “a democratic regime with the Islamic Sharia as a reference,” which he said already is enshrined in Egypt’s constitution. Sharia is based principally on laws from the Koran, sayings by the Prophet Mohammed and the opinions of Muslim scholars, and it’s the basis of some areas of Egyptian law though not the penal code.
That stance may conflict with other vested interests. Egypt’s military leadership is committed to the foreign policy pursued by Mubarak, who has helped Israel blockade the Hamas- ruled Gaza Strip and sought to rally Arab support against Islamic extremism.
While President Barack Obama’s administration has reached out to a range of Egyptian contacts since the uprising began, it isn’t talking to the Brotherhood, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Jan. 31 when asked at a press briefing how America would view its involvement in a future government. Any group that wants to play a role must be “committed to nonviolence” and “respect a democratic process,” he said.
U.S. foreign-policy experts and former diplomats are evaluating America’s position as they gauge how the strife in Egypt might spread across the Arab world. Protests continued early this morning in Cairo, as demonstrators who demand Mubarak’s ouster clashed with supporters of the president’s regime, hurling rocks at each other in Tahrir Square.
Anti-government turmoil already has spilled over into neighboring Jordan, where King Abdullahon Feb. 1 sacked his prime minister. Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh said yesterday he’ll step down when his term ends in 2013, and protesters in Algeria have been killed in clashes with security forces.
Photo by Vivian Salama
‘Calamitous’ for Security
The Brotherhood “would be calamitous for U.S. security,” Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, wrote Jan. 29 on the Daily Beast website. The group opposes the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and “would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide,” he said. “That is a very big deal.”
It “supports Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers,” and would be “uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal,” he added.
The canal carries about 8 percent of global maritime trade. Crude-oil prices have risen more than 5 percent since the protests began Jan. 25 on concern that the turmoil in Egypt may disrupt supply.
The Brotherhood is “committed to all international agreements and treaties at this phase,” Mohamed al-Beltagy, a senior leader of the group, said in a phone interview. “Later, it should be left to the people to decide.”
The idea that the Brotherhood could hijack the anti-Mubarak rebellion has been dismissed byMohamed ElBaradei, the former United Nations atomic agency chief and one of the opposition movement’s leaders. Mubarak stoked such fears to perpetuate U.S. support, ElBaradei told ABC News on Jan. 31.
“This is what the regime sold to the U.S. and the West: It’s either us and repression, or al-Qaeda type extremist groups,” ElBaradei said of the Brotherhood, describing the group as religiously conservative and nonviolent. “You have to include them.”
International companies including Amsterdam-based brewer Heineken NV, which bought Egypt’s Al Ahram Beverages Co. for $287 million in 2002, have halted operations in the country or pulled expatriate staff since the protests began. As the turmoil continued yesterday, businesses were trying to forecast the future and the likelihood of a government with Islamist influence.
Such a government may pursue “economic policies which cater more to social welfare but are less friendly to foreign investment from the West and business in general,” London-based risk consultant Maplecroft said in report this week.
The Brotherhood’s history fuels the concern. While its radical wing was accused of trying to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser, a former president, in 1954, the group has been a persistent critic of the Mubarak regime for decades without pursuing violence.
It has survived widespread jailings of its leadership over the years to emerge as the main opposition in parliament after 2005, when it won about one-fifth of parliamentary seats by running candidates as independents. It lost ground last year when the government disqualified a quarter of its candidates from the November elections.
The Brotherhood has sought to avoid being identified as a religious movement and to broaden its appeal. Its former Supreme Guide, Mahdi Akef, instructed members in 2005 not to brandish the Koran at anti-government protests, saying that would undermine their politicking. Still the Brotherhood raised objections from other opposition groups, and dissent within its own ranks, when it proposed in 2007 that women and non-Muslims shouldn’t be eligible for the presidency.
It has fostered social and health programs for Egypt’s poor that, in turn, have helped its political prospects. The social- service model has been followed by other Islamist groups in the region with varying success.
“One could quite easily see the Muslim Brotherhood picking up 20 to 25 percent of the vote” in a free election, said Paul Rogers, a specialist in international security at Bradford University inEngland.
While the group is conservative, its brand of Islam isn’t “puritanical,” and “the idea that we are going to get an Islamic revolution in Egypt like in Iran is very unlikely, just nuts,” Rogers said.
Michele Dunne, who tracks the evolving political situation in Egypt for the Carnegie Endowmentin Washington, said differences between Hamas and the Brotherhood, and their political impulses, have to be explored.
“They founded Hamas. There is a relationship,” she said of the Brotherhood. “The big difference is Hamas has used violence and arms to pursue its goals. And the Brotherhood hasn’t used violence in 40 years.”
Dunne said the U.S. likely will have to reconcile itself with whatever transpires.
“At this point, it’s irrelevant what we think about the Brotherhood. Things are moving very fast in Egypt,” she said. “If the political leadership opens up, the Brotherhood will be there.”
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