Saturday, November 27, 2010

Trouble ahead for Egypt's Islamist opposition

-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - November 2010

Times are tough for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s leading organised opposition movement and progenitor of several powerful Islamist groups across the Arab World.

With Egyptians heading to the polls tomorrow to theoretically elect a new parliament, the Brotherhood have faced a brutal crackdown on their activities by the state that has seen over a thousand activists arrested, scores of candidates being denied a place on the ballot paper, and violent clashes on the streets of major cities like Alexandria where police have fired tear gas and live ammunition at the group’s supporters.

It’s little wonder that independent NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are queuing up to condemn the poll as a stage-managed farce, in which the chances of citizens being able to exercise a free and fair vote stand at virtually zero. “Through their brutal attacks on us, the [ruling] NDP party have revealed their utter contempt for the rule of law,” says Medhat El Haddad, a Brotherhood parliamentarian in Egypt’s Upper House. “What’s happening on Sunday is not an election. It’s a mockery.”

But the Brotherhood’s problems go far deeper than tomorrow’s blatantly-rigged ballot. Long misrepresented in the western press as a monolithic and fundamentalist force, the Ikhwan – as the Brothers are called in Arabic – are actually a Janus-faced beast, blending together a series of ideological strands and devoting as much of their time to social welfare programmes as they do to campaigning in the political arena.

As pressure on the group is ratcheted up by the regime of ailing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, internal divisions are now bubbling up to the surface – especially over the decision to participate in these elections at all. The Brotherhood ignored calls by prominent secular dissidents to boycott the poll, but an ‘opposition front’ within the movement is now challenging the leadership over that move and urging Ikhwan candidates – who have to technically stand as independents to circumvent a ban on religious parties – to withdraw from the race.

Part of the problem lies in the Brotherhood’s uncertainty over what it actually stands for. Battle-lines are drawn between ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformers’ over issues like female circumcision, tolerance of Egypt’s Christian minority, and the thorny matter of how strongly the group should be challenging the government. Mubarak’s international legitimacy rests largely on his symbiotic relationship with the Muslim Brothers; without the Ikhwan as an ever-present ‘threat’ to the region’s stability which only he can contain, the 82 year old dictator – born in the same year the Brotherhood was founded – would lose much of his western support.

Ultimately, the Brotherhood is torn between political participation and religious evangelism; some members believe that spreading the message of Islam should be merely a tool for gaining power, whilst others insist that political power is merely a steppingstone to the ultimate goal of spiritually transforming the country.

As one Ikhwan election campaign manager told me last week, “When people ask me whether the Brotherhood is going through a crisis, my answer is that I don’t really know what the Brotherhood is. Is it us, here, shouting slogans in the street? Or is it a group of students quietly reading their Qurans in a mosque? To be honest, I think none of us are sure.”

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