The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Is the Brotherhood going for it?

In the midst of a very busy week in Egypt, opposition forces outside the main established opposition parties seem to be finally uniting around a single platform. This is an issue that Cairo has covered in the past, and readers will have noted the skepticism about whether an alliance was possible considering how the historical opposition parties have been reluctant to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as new parties such as Al Ghad. (See here for instance).

Over the last few days, an important conference has been taking place in Cairo in which the Brotherhood seems to have finally come out of its hesitation to take on the regime along with other political forces that, like the Brotherhood, have been left outside the mainstream opposition. Here's what the AP said about it:

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group, has launched an alliance devoted to the peaceful removal of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981.
Several other opposition groups promptly lent their support Thursday to what the Brotherhood has called the an alliance intended "to exercise peaceful pressure on the regime, through legal and constitutional means, to make it respond to democratic change."
Although not directly called for by the Brotherhood, Magdi Ahmed Hussein of the banned Labor Party said a disobedience campaign is already underway.
"The regime is dying and there should be one goal for this alliance - toppling Mubarak and his family rule," said Hussein.
The deputy leader of Wafd Party, Egypt's oldest liberal party, Mohammed Alwan described Mubarak's regime as "authoritarianism living in the dark."
He said his party had no problem with the Brotherhood's religious foundation and called the alliance "long overdue."

Other coverage (, UPI) generally noted that apart from the Wafd, the establishment parties were against joining in. According to these reports, even Hamdeen Sabahi's post-Nasserist Karama (Dignity) party stayed outside the coalition. However, according to other reports and people who attended the conference, the coalition did get the support of several prominent university professors such as Hassan Nafaa (read this article by him to get a flavor of the man) and some pseudo-parties (Al Wasat and Karama are mentioned, which mudies the picture.) Al Ghad has apparently joined in, and while I'm dubious as to whether the above quote from Wafdist Mohamed Alwan is really representative of what regime crony and Wafd leader Nomaan Gomaa thinks, other parties such as Al Tagammu and the Nasserists are pretty unlikely to join in. The reality that the picture is still very unclear.

First and foremost, how serious is the Brotherhood about this? Apparently Mohammed Habib, the Brotherhood spokesman, attended and spoke at the conference. But why was Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef not there is the Brotherhood is really serious? And are these claims of a million-man march and a campaign of civil disobedience really serious? The feeling I get is that the Brotherhood, like many Egyptian parties and movements, are divided over the issue of establishing a cross-ideological alliance against Mubarak and of taking their activism further. The generally pro-regime independent daily Nahdet Misr published an article a few days ago about splits within the Brotherhood which seems credible. It's also interesting that one of the more outspoken Brothers, Essam Al Erian, is still being held in preventive detention for over a month now without being charged. Al Erian, while not a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Council, is a favorite of journalists and a prominent public figure, and famously declared that he would run for the presidency, which the Brotherhood leadership quickly distanced itself from. Some of the more conspiracy-minded people here are wondering whether the regime might be doing the Brotherhood's old guard a favor by keeping Al Erian in jail.

Another interesting and much-publicized aspect of the recent conference was that the Brotherhood is reaching out to Copts to reassure them about what a stronger role in national politics would mean. Back in the March/April Brotherhood-led demonstrations, I was struck that some Brothers were carrying signs that said "Copts are Egyptians." To my knowledge that was the first time that ever happened--and a far different line than that former Supreme Gudie Mustafa Mashhour held, when he famously told a newspaper (Al Arabi I think) that Copts should not be in the military. Rafiq Habib, a prominent Copt, is now supporting the Brotherhood-led alliance. It does seem rather controversial with other Copts, though, who are much less trusting of any Islamist group. For some discussion of this topic (and also secular attitudes towards the Brothers), I recommend this article by my friend Omayma Abdel Latif in the current issue of Al Ahram Weekly:

The ongoing debate over the role of the outlawed group in the reform process is likely to become more urgent following the Brotherhood's expected announcement today of a new reform initiative allying pro-reform figures and movements under the National Coalition for Reform. The new alliance is likely to be met with dismay by those opposition parties which, say Brotherhood sources, chose to keep their distance.
Arguments about the imminent rise to power of Islamists tend to be viewed by the Brotherhood as an aspect of Islamist phobia.
"This myth about Islamists capitalising on calls for reform to leap to power has long been used, by both the regime and by liberal intellectuals, to hinder any process of change," says Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh, a senior member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau. "It is generally accepted that in a free and fair election we would gain between 20 to 25 per cent of seats in parliament. Any talk about the group monopolising power is utter nonsense."
Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood controls 13 seats in parliament held by members who stood independently, making it the largest opposition bloc.
But what of the group's recent political performance which many believe has been fraught with contradictions?
Recent weeks saw a surprising surge in the group's street activism as demonstrations were held across the country in what many viewed as a show of strength, only to be followed by a period of deafening silence. Brotherhood leaders take an outspoken line with the regime only to follow it up with a more compromising tone. Some Brotherhood members have joined the ranks of pro-reform movements while their leaders refuse to be lumped together with other reform movements and insist they are the strongest group.

To be fair, I think Omayma should have mentioned that since that "surprising surge" over 2000 Brothers and sympathizers have been arrested (and since then mostly released), an event that has been incredibly under-covered as it is probably the biggest crackdown specifically targeting the Brothers since 1965 or perhaps even 1954.

So, to conclude, is the Brotherhood going for it? I'm skeptical. I think we know very little about the inner workings of the Brotherhood and what debates are taking place there now. But it strikes me that like so many other Egyptian political organizations, such as the ruling National Democratic Party, there is a real generational divide inside the Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood is serious, we should be seeing a larger presence in street protests (although it remains unlikely that it will alongside Kifaya) and a plan to present a serious roster of candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections. So far, we have nothing of the sort.

(A little aside: I'd be grateful if readers can point me towards good online resources on the Brotherhood and blogs that are sympathetic to it, in Arabic or other languages.)

Update: I mistakenly omitted the word not above (see in bold) when discussing the Brotherhood's attitude towards Copts. A rather big difference, obviously. Apologies to those who were misled or confused, and thanks to Paul for catching the typo.