The Brotherhood's media offensive

The pan-Arab, Saudi-owned newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat has published an op-ed by the Muslim Brotherhood's number two, Mohammed Habib, outlining what a MB government would pursue in eight points. It is reproduced in full after the jump below. I don't particularly want to dwell on the content of the points: they are all relatively vague beyond calls for reforms that have long been demanded by all opposition groups and human rights activists. They do include some interest touches involving Islamist ideals, such as encouraging the arts within the boundaries of public decency (however you choose to define that) and encouraging technological research (I think they emphasize this point because many people rather stupidly think Islamism is a Luddite ideology.) It also basically defines its program as a rather rosy, soft-focus, social-democrat-meets-identity-politics hodgepodge of principles while leaving out the details.

I would rather analyze what the publication of the article means. A thought has been forming in my head over the past few weeks, slowly taking shape into this basic and perhaps obvious realization: the MB is carrying out a long-planned, highly orchestrated and well-organized media offensive in parallel with its political offensive during the elections. This op-ed, and the one a few days ago in the Guardian are part of a string of evidence that it is making a real effort at communication to Egyptian, Arab and international media. From the top of my head:

  • The MB's representatives have made themselves highly accessible to all of the media present in Egypt, with a series of multilingual personalities being available.
  • Its communiques on election fraud are being widely spread and reported.
  • There is a media blitz of interviews with Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef and other MB leaders in the independent Egyptian press. It is also responding to attacks: I was recently told that the MB is currently considering take Adel Hammouda, the editor of the weekly tabloid Al Fagr to court for
  • It is making campaigners available to journalists and researchers, quite a few of which have embedded themselves with them in several locations around Egypt.
  • In addition to its well-established Arabic website www.ikhwanonline.com, it has recently launched two highly professional, frequently updated English ones: www.ikhwanweb.com and www.ikhwanmonitor.com. These put anything else by any other political forces in Egypt to shame, including anything produced by the government. Moreover, they are trying to spread the word about them to sites like this one: about a week ago, the webmaster of www.ikhwanweb.com left a comment on this site telling me about them.
The bottom line: the Brotherhood is telling Egyptians and the rest of the world not to be afraid. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Habib op-ed is that it begins with "I would like to stress at the beginning that it is unlikely that the Brotherhood would hold power, at least in the foreseeable future." He is gently introducing the possibility, not so long ago absolutely unthinkable, and reassuring everyone that they are not Khomeinists. Perhaps he believes this foreseeable future could be within the next decade, or maybe this is only meant to be a way to move the MB's place in the public mind a little bit more to the mainstream. I don't know. The MB is still an extremely secretive organization and little is known of its internal workings and politics. But it now has a pro-active policy of maintaining and controlling its public image, and it is doing a much, much better job of it than the NDP.

One more thing: perhaps it's the conspiracy theorist or finicky editor in me, but isn't it strange that Al Sharq Al Awsat miscaptioned the picture of Habib it ran with it "The writer is the Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood"? It immediately reminded me of the widely spread rumor, at the beginning of the year, of a coup in the MB in which Habib had taken control of the organization while leaving Akef as its figurehead. The reasoning was that many Brothers had been upset by Akef's statement that it would back a Mubarak candidacy for the presidency--a statement that irked younger Brothers especially and caused many to call for a more aggressive policy in opposing the government. Prominent middle-generation Brothers Essam Al Erian and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh were especially furious, with the former telling the press against Akef's will that he would run for president and the latter penning as acerbic letter in Al Hayat about it. Perhaps the MB's new confrontational style is the result of a change of balance of power inside the organization.

The Brotherhood are Unlikely to Form Government, However, this is How We Envisage It

28/11/2005

I would like to stress at the beginning that it is unlikely that the Brotherhood would hold power, at least in the foreseeable future. However, let us presume for the sake of argument that they have formed a government. How do we view this government and what are its concerns and mechanisms of work?

I assume that we want a government to come to power only through strong public opinion that would elect such a government by its free will and through ballot boxes. In our opinion, only the people should have a genuine right to choose their rulers and representatives and the program that expresses their ambitions.

The people should also be enabled to practice their right in bringing to account and even forcing the government to resign, in case it failed to fulfill its duties or deviated from the program, which it promised to implement. This should happen through a peaceful transfer of power and through the well-known tools of democracy.

The first thing such a government will have to implement is to allow public freedoms such as the freedom to form political parties of various affiliations. It should allow freedom of press, thought and creativity (within the context of the major considerations of society, and the boundaries of law and order and public ethics). In addition, all extraordinary courts and laws should be abolished, with the Emergency Law coming at the forefront. A new law should be promulgated to guarantee the independence of the judiciary. All prisoners of conscience and political detainees should be released.

Second, the government should commit itself to realizing a real and genuine segregation between the three authorities, the legislative, the judicial, and the executive authorities. The legislative authority should choose a group of people with high qualifications in jurisprudence, law and politics in order to write a new constitution which determines the type of government (a parliamentary democratic republic).

The constitution should also define the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, together to determine the period of presidency, the authorities of the president and the right to question him. The constitution should also define the rights and duties of the citizens in the state. It should specify in details the terms of reference of each of the three authorities and it should be guided in this by the rulings of the Islamic Shari'a. It should also benefit from the lessons of history and the reality on the ground. The supreme constitutional court should be the final arbiter in determining whether the laws issued by the legislative assembly comply with or differ from the basic rules and principles of the constitution.

Third, appointments to public offices and to all areas and fields and at each and every level should be decided on the basis of ability and qualification perform and not on the basis of trust.

Fourth, our approach to our Coptic brothers is based on the belief that they are citizens and enjoy full rights of citizenship. We consider them part of the fiber of this society, and partners in homeland, in decision making and in destiny. This entails that they have full right in assuming public offices including that of the head of the state.

Fifth, in its economic policies, the government would try to combine between the free market economies - but far from monopoly - and the principle of state ownership, especially in the major and strategic areas. In this respect, the state should fight poverty and starvation and should work to create solidarity and fair distribution of wealth and public benefits among all the citizens.

Sixth, the government should pay special attention to education, scientific research and establishing technology. This is considered the beginning of renaissance and progress. There is no harm in borrowing all the sciences and the basics of modern techniques from other sources, so that we can occupy a strong position. In fact, such borrowing is a duty that the government should take up.

Seventh, the burden of encouraging arts and literature in all fields and types falls on the shoulder of the government. Of course, it is imperative that such literature and arts should be serious and committed to the values and principles of the nation. They should stay away from superficiality, belittling minds and thoughts.

Eighth, the government should open up to other Arab and Muslim governments. There should be cooperation and solidarity in various areas of economy, culture, media and defense. We shall work to cooperate in realizing peace between the countries and peoples of the world on the basis of justice, equality, and respect of rights. We shall try to lift injustice and suffering from those who have been the victim of such injustice and suffering.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.