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Banned since 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood’s `independent’ candidates won 88 seats in EgyptMinorities and women fear Islamist lawmakers will restrict personal rights, Hamas’s stunning landslide victory in last month’s Palestinian election was yet another mani
Sunday, February 5,2006 00:00
by Michael McAteer, Toronto Star

Banned since 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood’s `independent’ candidates won 88 seats in Egypt

Minorities and women fear Islamist lawmakers will restrict personal rights,
Hamas’s stunning landslide victory in last month’s Palestinian election was yet another manifestation of the growing political clout of Islamism in the Arab world and elsewhere.

The Islamist party’s dramatic breakthrough came less than two months after the Muslim Brotherhood, out of which Hamas was born, emerged as by far the largest opposition group in Egypt’s parliament. Although less dramatic than Hamas’s victory, the Islamist political surge in the Arab world’s most populous country left liberal, secular and leftist parties in disarray and prompted widespread speculation on what the future holds.

 

 

Founded by a schoolteacher in 1928 to link tradition with modernity, to promote social reform based on an Islamic ethos, and to oppose political and social injustice and British imperialism, the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved into what is considered to be the world’s largest and most influential Islamist movement with one of the most formidable grassroots organizations in the Middle East.

 

Officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood, campaigning on the slogan "Islam is the Solution," ran 150 candidates as independents and managed to garner 88 seats in the 454-seat People’s Assembly in an election marred by violence, wide-scale arrests of Brotherhood supporters and allegations of vote-buying, intimidation. The turnout was less than 25 per cent of eligible voters.

 

 

The parliamentary election followed Egypt’s first contested presidential election in September when voters gave Hosni Mubarak, leader of the ruling National Democratic Party, a fifth six-year term in office. Earlier last year, nudged by the U.S., Mubarak gingerly eased the door open to allow multi-candidate presidential elections as part of a reform package.

 

Although militant Islamist groups in Egypt have perpetrated bloody terrorist attacks over the years, including the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in 1970. It now presents itself as the moderate face of Islam, denies any links with militant groups and says it aims to create an Islamic state through peaceful means.

 

The establishment of what Islamists call a true Islamic society would be one in which all institutions, including the government, would follow strict Islamic principals based on Islamic (Sharia) law primarily rooted in the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text, and the Hadith, the narrative account of the prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions.

 

While Egypt’s current constitution cites Islamic law as the main source of legislation, many devout Muslims complain that the government often ignores or bypasses that provision and that Egypt’s governments have been secularist and even anti-religious since the early 1920s.

Egypt’s population is more than 70 million. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims — estimates range from 90 to 94 per cent — with a small Shia Muslim population. Coptic Christians, most of whom are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, form the largest Christian minority; estimates range from 6 to 10 per cent.

 

Other Christian groups include Greek Orthodox, Eastern and Latin Rite Catholics, Protestant denominations and other smaller Christian communities. The number of Jews is estimated to be less than 1,000. Most left Egypt after the Suez crisis of 1956 when the combined forces of Israel, France and Britain attacked Egypt.

 

How would women, Christians and other minorities fare under an Islamist government dedicated to a strict interpretation of Sharia law?

Even before last year’s month-long election ended, prophets of doom were predicting an Iranian-style or Taliban-style regime should the Muslim Brotherhood ever form the government.

 

A prominent Copt writer and thinker was widely quoted after suggesting that if the Muslim Brotherhood ever assumed power, most Copts would leave Egypt because they would not want to live under Sharia law.

 

Some Copts have complained that they have been neglected by the government to appease Islamists. A major complaint is that Copts are forced to get government permission to build new churches or to repair existing ones.

 

Copt-Muslim tensions have led to violent sectarian clashes. The most recent incident of sectarian violence took place in Alexandria shortly before the parliamentary elections following the distribution of a DVD of a two-year-old play that Muslims say is insulting to Islam. Accusations of forced or solicited conversions from Christianity to Islam, or vice versa, have often been a flashpoint for sectarian clashes

In an attempt to allay fears, several Muslim Brotherhood leaders took to the international media with conciliatory messages.

 

"The success of the Muslim Brotherhood should not frighten anyone," the Brotherhood’s vice-president said in a Guardian newspaper article. "We respect the rights of all religious and political groups. Free and democratic elections are the first stage along the path of reform towards a better future for Egypt and the entire region. We simply have no choice today but to reform.

 

"The provocation of a corrupt, oppressive government — backed by the most powerful countries in the world — will not intimidate either our organization, which has survived for 77 years, or the Egyptian people, who have increasingly come to trust us.

 

"We aim to trigger a renaissance in Egypt rooted in the religious values upon which Egyptian culture and society is built: for we believe these values can effectively deal with obstacles that have hindered reform."

John Walsh, senior editor at the Harvard International Review, says Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood provides an example of the goals and methods of centrist Islamism with a long-term goal of implementing Sharia law as the basis of national law. It has committed itself to working with the current Egyptian system to achieve this objective, he says, and renounces, at least in official statements, the violent tactics of militant splinter groups.

 

The Brotherhood’s experiences in the past 20 years, says Walsh, have suggested "that it may be more capable of providing social services to the Egyptian population, more reliable in keeping promises it has made, and even more democratic than the secular regime that has enjoyed consistent U.S. support."

 

Paul Kingston, a University of Toronto professor of political science and international development studies, calls it a "positive sign" that Islamist parties want to enter the political arena.

 

He sees the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization with a significant degree of integrity, interested in participating in the political process and maybe even accommodating itself to the process with all the various compromises it might entail. And this, he adds, is to be encouraged rather than to be seen as a danger.

 

The Brotherhood would probably be an effective political party, Kingston says, but he doubts whether its norms and all its platforms would correspond to what the West would think would be appropriate liberal-democratic policies.

 

As a political scientist, what he’s interested seeing emerge in much of the Middle East is a "more powerful institutionalized system of government where rules are obeyed." He believes the Brotherhood would be a positive source in that respect.

As for Sharia law, Kingston says its proposed application would open debate within the Brotherhood on what Sharia is.

"It’s a very flexible thing," he says. "You have both very conservative Sharia interpretation and very liberal interpretation. Egypt has one of the most liberal Sharia court judges who openly talks about the rights of women and such things."

 

Some analysts argue that the assumption of power by an Islamist party would mean it would be forced to be more pragmatic and more open to compromise. Kingston suggests it’s too early to reach that conclusion — or any conclusion — on how things would play out.

What he does say is that it’s necessary to get away from the notion that there is a "clear religious ideological norm at play" in the Muslim world about what an Islamist party wants.

 

"It is clearly something that is subject to enormous debate religiously, let alone politically."


Michael McAteer was in Egypt during the earlier stages of the parliamentary election.

 


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