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Analysis: Egypt’s cat and mouse game
As part of a months-long crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government has arrested a number of members, including the Deputy Supreme Guide Khayrat Al Shater, and several businessmen affiliated with the group. Some observers argue that the demonstrations, which took place in Al Azhar Islamic University last December, raised alarm and urged the government to
Sunday, January 28,2007 00:00
by Dina Abdel Mageed, MIDDLE EAST TIMES
As part of a months-long crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government has arrested a number of members, including the Deputy Supreme Guide Khayrat Al Shater, and several businessmen affiliated with the group.

Some observers argue that the demonstrations, which took place in Al Azhar Islamic University last December, raised alarm and urged the government to take action against the Brotherhood.

In the demonstrations, carried out by the Free Student Union, students gave a martial arts performance wearing black uniforms, masks, and balaclavas. The Free Student Union was formed in November 2005 in response to pressure exercised by the government to keep the students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood out of student union elections.

The government reacted to the demonstrations by arresting around 180 students. Sweeping Al Safa dormitories, which are annexed to Al Azhar University, state security detained the students before dawn. Prominent figures in the Brotherhood, including the Supreme Guide, denounced the military-style march and stressed the fact that the Brotherhood rejects violence.

The demonstrations were described as "an irresponsible and isolated move by a handful of Al Azhar students affiliated with the Brotherhood" by Ibrahim Al Houdeibi, the grandson of the group’s former supreme guide Mamoun Al Houdeibi, in an article he wrote for Daily Star Egypt.

Al Hodeibi added, "What Al Azhar students did only damaged their case by presenting them in the worst possible light, and giving the tyrannical regime the pretext it needed to crack down on the [Muslim Brotherhood]..."

According to Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam and extremist groups at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, "Al Azhar demonstrations constitute an exception. They were the result of the misbehavior of a number of the Brotherhood’s members and they do not reflect a tendency towards violence. If the Brotherhood posed a security rather than a political threat, the government would not have confined its reaction to press statements; it would have acted differently."

Nevertheless, many people argue that the government used the Al Azhar incident as a pretext for a crackdown that had begun several months previously. During a raid on various governorates in August 2005, the government arrested around 17 Muslim Brotherhood members, including Mahmoud Ezzat, the secretary-general of the group. Several other key figures, including Essam Al Aryan and Mohammed Morsi, have also been arrested over the course of the last few months.

"Arresting members of the Brotherhood is not a new thing. The government uses a strategy that I call ’early abortion:’ the government strikes blows against the group at short intervals in order to put them in a state of panic," Rashwan told the Middle East Times.

"There are two new elements this time. The first is attacking the economic cornerstones of the Brotherhood [by arresting businessmen]. The second is accusing it of advocating violence. Thus, there is a change in the tools, but not in the strategy," Rashwan added.

It is important to note that a state of emergency has been in effect in Egypt for 25 years. Under emergency law, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited and people can be arrested at any time without being charged with specific crimes. Article 86 of the Egyptian penal code, which makes it a criminal offence to establish any group that seeks to distort national unity and social harmony, is often used against members of the Brotherhood.

In an interview conducted January 11, 2006 with the Egyptian weekly Al Osboa, President Hosni Mubarak harshly attacked the Brotherhood, accusing it of threatening Egypt’s national security. He argued that the ascent of the group to power would isolate Egypt from the world and cause investors to leave the country.

"President Mubarak’s statements have to do with the imminent constitutional amendments. The amendments will be put to the vote soon in the People’s Assembly, and it is expected that the Brotherhood members, as the parliament’s largest opposition bloc, will vote against them. Thus the statements aimed at taming the Brotherhood," Rashwan said.

The Brotherhood, however, responded by emphasizing its rejection of violence. "We were deeply hurt by what President Mubarak said. The brotherhood has never been and never will be anything but an advocate of good deeds. It seeks the well-being, security, and stability of the country...," said Mohammed Mahdy Akef, the group’s supreme guide, in a press statement.

A few days after Mubarak’s interview, Akef released a press statement declaring the group’s intention to form a political party.

"The Brotherhood is fully aware that the new rules of the game are now being drawn up. All the major issues are being discussed, so it has decided to present its case too," Rashwan said.

Interestingly, a group of former members of the Brotherhood has been attempting to form a party under the name Al Wasat since 1996. The group, which describes itself as a civil party with an Islamic frame of reference, includes a number of Christians. Al Wasat is regarded with suspicion by both the Brotherhood and the government.

Al Wasat stresses the importance of respecting civil liberties. According to the party’s program, "[c]ivil liberties are the starting point for a cultural renaissance and the essential precondition for putting into practice Sharia’s [Islamic law] general principles..."

According to Egyptian law, forming a political party requires the approval of the Parties Committee, which consists mainly of members of the ruling party, making it a difficult - if not impossible - task for the government’s opponents to form political parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition group in Egypt. In the last parliamentary elections, the group, whose candidates ran as independents, won 88 of the 454 seats, becoming the largest opposition bloc.

The group’s stance on violence has been a controversial issue for a long time. It was originally founded as a religious reform movement in 1928 by Hassan Al Banna. Expanding rapidly, the group formed an armed wing with the purpose of resisting the British occupation of Egypt. The increasing popularity of the Brotherhood led to clashes with the government. The violence culminated in the assassination of the then prime minister Al Noqrashi by the armed wing of the group in 1948, followed by the assassination of Al Banna at the hands of the state security.

Under prime minister Nasser, Muslim Brotherhood members were subjected to torture and repression. Some of the literature produced during that era, especially that written by Sayyid Qutb, is still used out of context for demonizing the group.

By the time prime minister Sadat came to power, the Brotherhood was entering a new era. The 1970s were the heyday of the Brotherhood in particular and the Islamic groups in general. In an attempt to eliminate the power of the leftists, Sadat allowed Islamists to act freely.

Shifting to grassroots activism during the 1980s and 1990s, the Brotherhood managed to win control of most professional syndicates and student associations, causing the government great alarm. The Brotherhood has also succeeded in building a strong social network by establishing grassroots organizations and providing people with social services.

"The Muslim Brotherhood’s experiences in the past 20 years have suggested that it may be more capable of providing social services to the Egyptian population, more reliable in keeping the promises it has made, and even more democratic than the secular regime that has enjoyed consistent US support," wrote John Walsh in Perspectives on the United States.

Critics of the Brotherhood, however, argue that the behavior of high-ranking members of the group is characterized by tyranny, the very same thing for which they criticize the government. Criticism is also often directed at the way in which the supreme guide and members of the Guidance Office are chosen.

In light of the analyses of many experts, it seems that the recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is merely a phase in the clash between the government and the officially banned but popularly supported group. It is probable that the detained members will be freed in a couple of weeks or maybe a couple of months. But the cat and mouse game between the two sides will continue, raising questions on the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and reform in Egypt.

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