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Muslim Brotherhood finds voice at the ballot box despite
Muslim Brotherhood finds voice at the ballot box despite Mubarak crackdown The Guardian,
Friday, November 25,2005 00:00
by (Guardian Newspapers )

Muslim Brotherhood finds voice at the ballot box despite Mubarak crackdown

The Guardian, London


Muslim Brotherhood finds voice at the ballot box despite Mubarak  
crackdown


Arrests, attacks and evidence of vote-rigging as government feels  
heat of opposition


Rory McCarthy in
Cairo
Thursday November 24, 2005
The Guardian


When Nihal Abdul-Hamid was a student at
Cairo’s Al-Azhar university  
she told few friends she had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the  
influential Islamist group outlawed by
Egypt’s government. It was a  
time of crackdowns, and arrests of Islamic sympathisers were  
widespread. "It was very dangerous, it was completely secret," she  
said. "The government wanted people to think Islam was dangerous,  
when, on the contrary, we saw it as a message of peace, something  
positive and helpful."


She had one teacher whom she particularly admired, a professor in  
Arabic literature, who was often taken off to jail. The professor’s  
husband had been a senior figure in the movement and had spent nine  
years in jail before he died. The authorities worried that the  
professor herself had political ambitions.


Now Ms Abdul-Hamid, well-educated, in her late 20s, covers her hair  
with a hijab and talks openly of her involvement in the Brotherhood.  
One evening this month she walked down a street in
Heliopolis, an  
eastern suburb of
Cairo, at the head of a big campaign rally. Behind  
her was a long line of party supporters, the men apart from the  
women. Between them were cars with loudspeakers blaring out the  
group’s slogans: "Islam is the solution. Islam is light. Islam is the  
constitution. Who are we? We are the Muslim Brotherhood."


Ahead of her was her former professor, Makarem al-Deri, 55, the  
Brotherhood’s only female candidate in
Egypt’s month-long  
parliamentary elections.


The Islamist group is popular and has long espoused non-violence, but  
is still banned and its members still subjected to frequent arrest.  
Yet they are allowed to run in the election as independents and for  
the first time in many years are being allowed campaign rallies.


Halfway through the elections, the Brotherhood has already done  
surprisingly well. In the previous election the movement won 17 seats  
in the 454-seat parliament. This time they already have 47 seats and  
are likely to gain a dozen or two more, underlining their position as  
Egypt’s largest opposition group and dwarfing the small, secular  
opposition.


This week, when the success of the movement became clear, the  
government cracked down. About 490 members of the group were  
arrested, while others were attacked by pro-government thugs and  
there was evidence of ballot rigging.


In Ms Deri’s constituency the movement complained of serious  
electoral irregularities after she lost in an extremely close count  
to the local ruling party candidate. But the results suggest  
political Islam is, for now, a force to be acknowledged in
Egypt.  
While there are still violent attacks by extreme Islamic groups, like  
that in Sharm el-Sheikh in July, other groups, like the Brotherhood,  
have become more political and pragmatic. And as the regime faces  
pressure to democratise, they are likely to play a central role in  
the country’s future.


Ms Deri, like all the Brotherhood candidates, offered a programme of  
what many see as much-needed reforms. "Education is bad, there is  
oppression, there is no freedom of expression," she said. "We need  
real reforms - of education, of the economy, of the media."


There are many who are wary of the group’s deeply conservative  
programme which, though vague, includes Islamic law and headscarves  
for women. "When you have a party that says Islam is the solution  
then you are going to get conflict between religions," said Hossam,  
39, a shopkeeper, who watched the rally. "We have seen nothing from  
politics. The first thing we need is a change to help young people  
find jobs."


Others are more open in backing the Brotherhood. "Islam is God’s law  
so this is a direct way to what God says," said Hanan Mohammad, a  
woman clothed in conservative black dress.


Although the Brotherhood is an opposition force, it has an ambiguous  
relationship with the regime, and this is also part of its strength.  
While many opposition groups took to
Cairo’s streets this year to  
protest against
Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood  
resisted confrontation.


"It is too early for that," said Essam al-Erian, a haematologist,  
former MP and former political prisoner, who is a senior leader in  
the movement. "Our ideology and programme is a gradual one. It does  
not call for abrupt change. We must have safe, peaceful change." The  
movement takes a long view. "When the people of
Egypt change then  
they can change their circumstances," said Dr Essam.


For many years the regime has suppressed all liberal, secular  
political parties, whose lack of seats has aided the Brotherhood, now  
riding a tide of Islamist support that has grown since the wars in  
Afghanistan and Iraq.


Yet the true gauge of the movement’s strength may not be the number  
of seats won in parliament but its support on the ground: winning  
over the individual comes before winning the big political  
institutions. "They are patience itself and they are really convinced  
that time is with them," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political  
Islam at the Al-Ahram centre for political and strategic studies, in  
Cairo. "They believe that if they succeed in building support among  
individuals then they will win the battle."


There are more moderate Islamic groups in
Egypt but restrictive  
policies have stifled them. In 1996, one of the Brotherhood’s leading  
thinkers, Abul-Ela Madi, set up his own movement, the Centre party,  
an Islamic group that lacks the organisational skills of the  
Brotherhood but is purely political, rejecting the missionary element  
that is a mainstay of the Brotherhood. He emphasises his commitment  
to democracy, does not endorse a theocratic state and says his  
party’s doors are open to non Muslims.


"The problem is not with Islam but the interpretation of Islam," said  
Mr Madi.
America’s reaction to the September 11 attacks had  
encouraged more young people in the Arab world to turn to extremist  
Islam, he said. "We need to change this atmosphere." Rather than  
arguing that Islam should be "the solution", Islam should be seen as  
the Egyptians’ shared civilisation, as a reference, not as a  
political programme, he said.


But three times in the past decade Mr Madi has been refused  
permission for his group to get the status of a legal political party  
- his latest appeal hearing, which could finally go in his favour,  
was delayed until December so there can be no decision on it before  
the current parliamentary elections.


"How to resolve the problem of Islam and democracy in the Muslim  
world is the real question," said Mr Rashwan. "The answer is not to  
exclude religion. The key is to reconcile Islam with modernity."


Backstory


The Society of Muslim Brothers was founded in
Egypt in 1928 by Hassan  
al-Banna, a primary school teacher. He proposed gradual reform for an  
Islamic society, in reaction against the perceived secularisation of  
British imperial rule. The Brotherhood started with social and health  
work and soon become a significant political force. In 1954 it was  
banned and thousands of its members were jailed after an  
assassination attempt on the president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Later,  
the movement distanced itself from the revolutionary activism  
proposed by a prominent member, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in  
1966. Its members can now stand in elections as independents and are  
Egypt’s largest opposition force.


 


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