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Muslim Brotherhood Falters as Egypt Outflanks Islamists
Muslim Brotherhood Falters as Egypt Outflanks Islamists
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is on the defensive, its struggles reverberating throughout Islamist movements that the secretive organization has spawned world-wide.
Friday, May 15,2009 05:26
by YAROSLAV TROFIMOV The Wall Street Journal

Egypt"s Muslim Brotherhood is on the defensive, its struggles reverberating throughout Islamist movements that the secretive organization has spawned world-wide.


Just recently, the Brothers" political rise seemed unstoppable. Candidates linked with the group won most races they contested in Egypt"s 2005 parliamentary elections, gaining a record 20% of seats. Across the border in Gaza, another election the following year propelled the Brotherhood"s Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, into power.


Since then, Egypt"s government jailed key Brotherhood members, crimped its financing and changed the constitution to clip religious parties" wings. The Brotherhood made missteps, too, alienating many Egyptians with saber rattling and proposed restrictions on women and Christians. These setbacks have undermined the group"s ability to impose its Islamic agenda on this country of 81 million people, the Arab world"s largest.


"When we"re not advancing, we are retreating. And right now we are not spreading, we are not achieving our goals," the Brotherhood"s second-in-command, Mohamed Habib, said in an interview.


Across the Muslim world, authoritarian governments, Islamist revivalists and liberals often fight for influence. Egypt is a crucial battleground. A decline of the Brotherhood here, with its shrill anti-Israeli rhetoric and intricate ties to Hamas, strengthens President Hosni Mubarak"s policy of engagement with the Jewish state. It could also give him more room to work with President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit Egypt next month, on reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process.


Brotherhood leaders caution against reading too much into the current troubles, saying the 81-year-old group has bounced back from past challenges. Others say the government"s suppression of the Brotherhood, Egypt"s main nonviolent opposition movement -- paired with arrests of Mr. Mubarak"s secular foes -- can unleash more radical forces.


"If it continues this way, it"s very dangerous and could lead to the return of extremism and terrorism in Egypt," says Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who ran for president against Mr. Mubarak in 2005 and was later imprisoned on campaign-fraud charges that the U.S. government condemned as politically motivated.


Formed in 1928 amid a backlash against European colonialism, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a deeply entrenched force, with hundreds of thousands of members and affiliates across the Middle East. Operating under the slogan "Islam Is the Solution," it aims to establish an Islamic state governed by religious law.


The Brotherhood engaged in assassinations and bombings in the past, and one of its ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, developed a radical theology that still motivates jihadi groups such as al Qaeda. Since the 1970s, however, the Egyptian Brotherhood renounced violence and rejected Mr. Qutb"s more fiery theories. It has focused instead on building an Islamic society from the bottom up, through proselytizing, social work and political activism.


Biggest Opposition Bloc

Though it is outlawed by the Egyptian state, the Brotherhood operates here more or less in the open. It maintains hundreds of offices and fields electoral candidates. In part thanks to American pressure to liberalize Egypt"s authoritarian political system, these candidates -- running as independents -- were allowed to contest 145 seats, almost one-third of the total, in parliamentary elections in November and December 2005.


By winning 88 races, the Brotherhood cemented its role as Egypt"s dominant opposition force. The next-biggest opposition faction, the liberal Wafd party, garnered just seven seats.


The poll results, and the subsequent Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, provoked a government counterattack. In 2007, Egypt amended its constitution, skewing future representation in favor of registered parties and against independents, the only candidates the outlawed Brotherhood can field. When local council elections, initially due for 2006, were finally held last year, the state disqualified most Brotherhood candidates. The group boycotted.


Mr. Habib, the Brotherhood"s white-haired deputy chief, says its candidates are unlikely to win more than five to 10 seats in parliamentary elections slated for next year.


The regime launched a wave of arrests and military trials against the group, as well, the harshest such security clampdown on the Brotherhood in decades. This dragnet ensnared thousands of rank-and-file members.


It also netted some Brotherhood leaders who ran the financial apparatus that funnels millions of dollars in donations and investment proceeds into campaigning and social outreach. The group"s third-in-command, businessman Khairat al Shater, was arrested in December 2006 and sentenced last year to seven years in prison for financing a banned group.


Government officials are unapologetic about the crackdown, which disrupted the Brothers" social services. "We"re dealing with a clandestine organization," says Ali Eddin Helal, information secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party.


The regime pressed its public-relations campaign against the Brotherhood last month, when it said it had cracked a cell of Lebanon"s Hezbollah militia that was spying in Egypt and smuggling weapons to Hamas. State media painted the Brotherhood as an unpatriotic hireling of Iran, which sponsors Hamas and Hezbollah.


The Brotherhood has put up little resistance, and its only attempt at showing its muscle backfired. A 2006 militia-style march by masked Brotherhood students at Cairo"s Al Azhar University provoked public outcry, reminding many Egyptians of the group"s violent past. More arrests followed.


"Their [nonviolent] strategy doesn"t allow them to react -- it doesn"t allow an escalation," says Issandr el Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.


Brotherhood leaders say its base remains dedicated. "If they say we are weakened, why are they still afraid of us?" asks Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, one of two dozen members in the Brotherhood"s topmost body, the Guidance Council. "Let"s have a free election, and we shall see who wins!"


Alexandria Duo

The government"s strategy against the Brotherhood is playing out in Alexandria"s Bab Sharq parliamentary district, set inland from this sprawling city"s colonial-style beachfront mansions and boulevards. Once a freewheeling, cosmopolitan port, conservative Alexandria is now a Brotherhood stronghold.


Under Egyptian law, every district elects two lawmakers -- one a worker or farmer, the second a professional. The Brotherhood"s Saber Abul-Foutouh, a 45-year-old petroleum-industry union organizer who wears dapper suits and a jet-black moustache, won in the worker category in 2005. The professional seat went to local shipping magnate Mohamed Mouselhy, a member of the ruling NDP. Both are freshmen legislators.


Because of his parliamentary status, Mr. Abul-Foutouh has enjoyed immunity from arrest. Not so the staff at his three Alexandria offices: They have been in and out of jail since the elections.


Mr. Abul-Foutouh complains that government representatives have attempted to sabotage his activity on behalf of constituents. "They tell everyone in government offices not to deal with us -- and even those government officials who know us very well fear to help us because they can be punished," he says.


In such an environment, the Brotherhood"s strategy has long been to run heavily publicized parallel social services, from job placement to child care to health. "We collect our own money to help the poor -- we serve the people and have a feeling for people"s needs," boasts the lawmaker"s top aide, Mahmoud Fathallah, who spent February through April behind bars. Two free Brotherhood clinics operate in the area, he added, serving dozens of patients every night.


But the Brotherhood"s social-services pitch doesn"t always match reality, in part because of the campaign against its financing.


On a recent evening visit to the two Brotherhood clinics, no doctor or patients could be seen. The clinics themselves turned out to be tiny rooms tucked into corners of Brotherhood offices. Behind the flimsy curtains, they contained little more than a cupboard full of pills, rickety furniture and a blood-pressure gauge.


Meanwhile, Mr. Mouselhy, the ruling-party lawmaker, has opened a clinic of his own in the area.


His renovated two-story building, attached to a mosque, is a grander affair. Inside, a framed photo shows the grinning parliamentarian side-by-side with Gamal Mubarak, President Mubarak"s son and rumored successor. On a recent evening, pink-clad nurses primed dental, gynecological and pediatric equipment as the clinic"s manager, urologist Ahmed Abdul-Aty, received patients.


Dr. Abdul-Aty says the clinic charges patients a symbolic thee Egyptian pounds per visit, or about 50 U.S. cents. For the poorest, it waives even this fee.


Sitting on the pavement in front of their small used-goods store in Bab Sharq, enjoying the evening breeze, several members of the Abdelghani family discussed the relative merits of their two representatives. "Mouselhy wants to be popular, and so he helps out. He gives 20 pounds to anyone who is poor," said 66-year-old Mohamed Abdelghani. "As for the other guy, the only time we saw him here was when the Brothers were collecting money for Gaza."


"Like Everyone Else"

Mr. Abdelghani"s 22-year-old daughter Karima, a newly minted lawyer, interrupted to voice her disappointment. "In the beginning, the Brotherhood had a lot of popularity -- people thought they"d achieve something," she said, cradling her year-old son. "But once they got into parliament, they"ve become just like everyone else."


The nature of parliamentary politics has forced the secretive Brotherhood to take a stand on issues it often preferred to keep vague, chief among them the role of Islam in running the state. "Before, they could just use their big slogan -- "Islam Is the Solution." But now in parliament, they"ve had show their true colors," says Mohamed Kamal, a professor at Cairo University and a senior NDP lawmaker.


When constitutional changes came to a parliamentary vote in 2007, an NDP-sponsored amendment to Article 1 defined Egypt as a state "based on citizenship" -- overshadowing a later clause about Islam being "the religion of the state." The new text was meant to enshrine equal rights between Muslims and the Christian Copts, who make up an estimated one-tenth of Egypt"s population.


The Brotherhood has long insisted it holds no prejudice against Christians. Yet an Islamic state -- based on faith, not citizenship rights -- remains the group"s core belief. So the Brotherhood lawmakers, unwilling to vote for or against the amendment, ended up walking out of the parliament floor.


Later in 2007, the Brotherhood attempted to clarify its vision by distributing a draft program for a political party it aims to establish. The document stated that a woman or a Christian cannot become Egypt"s president, and called for the creation of a special council of Islamic clerics to vet legislation.


The draft appalled the government media, the secular opposition and even some relatively liberal members of the Egyptian Brotherhood itself.


Essam el Erian, the head of the Brotherhood"s political bureau, says he has worked on a draft party program for years. The version that ended up being distributed by the group, he quipped, is so wrong that it probably "has been exposed to a virus."


Stung by the criticism, the Brotherhood"s senior leadership eventually said the document it had released was not final. The group, whose 80-year-old supreme chief, Mahdi Akef, plans to retire in January 2010, froze the program"s drafting.


The latest controversy surrounding the Brotherhood stemmed from its behavior during Israel"s Gaza war, a campaign initially seen as a boon to the Islamist movement. Harnessing widespread popular feelings of sympathy with the Palestinian cause, the Brotherhood organized two massive street demonstrations in Alexandria and Cairo during the war, attacking President Mubarak"s regime for failing to help Gaza"s Hamas rulers.


But these protests soon fizzled. Calls by some Brotherhood leaders to send fighters to Gaza alienated many Egyptians who have no desire to see their own country, at peace with Israel since 1979, embroiled in war once again.


"They went too far and just frightened the street," says Mahmoud Abaza, the leader of the Wafd party who, because the Brotherhood faction is technically made up of independents, serves as the leader of opposition in parliament. "It was a miscalculation."


The Source

Posted in Activites , Human Rights  
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