Muslim Brotherhood finds voice at the ballot box despite Mubarak crackdown
The Guardian, London
Muslim Brotherhood finds voice at the ballot box despite Mubarak
Arrests, attacks and evidence of vote-rigging as government feels
heat of opposition
Rory McCarthy in Cairo
Thursday November 24, 2005
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
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
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
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
"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."
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.