The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Brothers in parliament

Samer Shehata, a very smart professor at Georgetown whom I've had the pleasure to spend some time with earlier this year, and our very own soon-to-be-professor Josh Stacher have a jointly written article on the Muslim Brotherhood in the new issue of Middle East Report. Thankfully, unlike most of the magazine, it's online. It's a thoughtful and timely piece about how, in the nine months or so since they've entered parliament with a record 88 members, the Brotherhood has influenced the parliamentary process and has worked effectively as a reformist political force in Egypt, most notably lending its support to the judges' cause earlier this year.

There's some fascinating information in there about the organization of the Brotherhood's parliamentary delegation, notably how it has not only turned out to be a professional and well-organized group in the People's Assembly but also how it has impact the parliamentary process:

The Brotherhood’s small parliamentary office in Cairo’s al-Manyal neighborhood no longer affords enough space for the deputies to meet collectively, given the fivefold increase in their numbers. So all of the Brotherhood MPs stay in the Ma‘adi Hotel when Parliament is in session. “When Parliament meets, we forget our houses,” says ‘Ali Fath al-Bab, the only one of the deputies elected three times. “We take our suitcases—even those who live in Cairo—and stay in the hotel.” The MPs room and eat together, and discuss the following day’s agenda in the hotel’s conference halls. They also chat informally and attend plenary lectures by speakers from outside the Brotherhood on topics related to those they are tackling in the People’s Assembly.

Yet the Ma‘adi Hotel also performs a more basic function: giving the MPs a place to stay so they can attend parliamentary sessions regularly. Fath al-Bab notes the difference from the 1995–2000 term, his first, when he was the only Brotherhood MP. Nominally, half of the MPs, or 228, must be present to constitute a quorum. Should the number fall below 228, however, the session is still considered lawful, as only a simple majority of those present are needed to pass legislation. Recalling his first term, Fath al-Bab explains, “By the end of the night, there might be 30 NDP MPs left and they would still be passing legislation.” But the Brothers’ regular attendance is changing that: “The NDP now has to have 100 people in Parliament at all times to maintain their majority.” Other Brotherhood MPs say the size of the Brotherhood’s bloc changes the dynamics of the legislature in other ways as well. As Husayn Muhammad Ibrahim, vice chairman of the bloc and a twice-elected MP, notes, “Our presence has had an effect. The NDP MPs are forced to be more critical toward the government and better prepared. It has changed how they act, but not how they vote.” The quasi-official daily al-Ahram concurs that the “Islamic trend” is playing a “noticeable and distinguished role that cannot be denied” in legislative sessions. Because of the Brothers, these sessions are more serious than previously in Mubarak’s tenure.
The MB's parliamentary competence is nothing new -- they like to boast of this and have even produced a handbook to MB parliamentary activity in the 2000-2005 parliament -- but the article explains very well how the scale of the MB's presence has changed. For a frame of reference, I recommend reading Mona el-Ghobashy's 2005 paper.

There's also some discussion of how well-informed the Brothers' interventions in parliament have been, and how they make a real effort to inform themselves seriously about topical issues -- even inviting experts from other political trends, including the NDP, to speak to them.

This “parliamentary kitchen,” as the Brothers call it, is divided into specialized teams that gather information about issues the MPs deal with in the Assembly. “In Parliament, you have access to a library and a central information office,” explains Ibrahim. “Neither is useful. A kitchen is a necessity and all the blocs need one. The kitchen consists of people with knowledge and experience…. Its job is to use civil society and consult experts to organize information we use in Parliament.” The parliamentary kitchen has been around since 2000, when 17 Muslim Brothers were elected to the People’s Assembly. But as the size of the bloc has increased, the kitchen has been forced to expand the scope of its activities. The result is that Brotherhood MPs are better prepared and informed about the issues. As Mansour argues, “The parliamentary kitchen gives us better tools to do our jobs.”

The parliamentary kitchen also has a second, and in many ways more important, function. Whether researching public health, judicial matters or environmental problems, the kitchen reaches out to society at large when gathering information. “We think that anyone who has knowledge is approachable,” Fath al-Bab states. “We don’t just rely on Brotherhood sources.” The kitchen is responsible for organizing the MPs’ seminar series, which has featured non-Brotherhood speakers such as Diaa Rashwan of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, NDP Higher Policy Council member Hala Mustafa and the chairman of Cairo University’s Political Science Department, Hasan Nafa‘a. While this outreach benefits Brotherhood MPs first and foremost, it also encourages civil society activists, who the regime and ruling party ignore at best and smother at worst, simply by providing an attentive audience.
Of course the Brotherhood MPs are still unable to stop bills, but they are having an impact on the atmosphere in which bills are discussed and in the media coverage of parliamentary debate -- since there actually can be a real debate now. Samer and Josh document very well the public outreach that MB did during this year's avian flu crisis. The paradox about the hysteria about the bird flu in Egypt was that trust in the authorities is so low that people did not believe government statements (who can blame them considering the long track record of lies?) The MB's effort at calming a nearly hysterical population seems to have had more success:
Health experts, the media and the opposition roundly criticized the Egyptian government for underestimating the threat of avian flu, being insufficiently prepared and mishandling the crisis.[5] The Brotherhood MPs, meanwhile, applied immediate pressure on the government to devote greater attention to avian flu in order to lessen the impact on the nation’s economy. Drawing on the group’s organizational resources, the Islamist parliamentarians spearheaded a nationwide campaign to inform Egyptians about bird flu, calming nerves and dispelling rumors about the disease. Days after the first Egyptian bird flu case was announced, dozens of Brotherhood MPs stood outside Parliament eating grilled chicken while photographers snapped pictures.
I think you could probably find more occasions (the ferry and train disasters, the Lebanon war, the judges' crisis etc.) where the Brotherhood (cynically or not) jumped on the opportunity to a public service that would make themselves look good, appear responsible and make the regime look bad. Some call this opportunism, I like to call it politics. The fact remains that the MB is the only political force that pulls off these kinds of stunts. They mention some of this, notably the judges' crisis at length. In this case I think it was not only opportunism, but a genuine realization of the importance of judicial independence to meaningful political reform in Egypt.

One thing I regret about the piece is that while it does a a great job of showing how competent and reform-oriented the MB has been in parliament, it insufficiently looks at the areas in which they have failed to deliver. There are two things -- unkept MB promises -- I have in mind, specifically.

Firstly, around January of this year Brotherhood spokesman Essam al-Erian announced that, in light of the sectarian tensions of the preceding months, the MB would prevent a definitive position paper on its stance on the Coptic question -- one that would revise their historic position or at least reconcile the sometimes contradictory statements that Supreme Guides have made about Copts over the year. This was particularly important at the time as a new informal dialogue between senior Brothers and independent (i.e. non-Church) Coptic intellectuals, led by Al Watani editor Youssef Sidhoum, had just been started. The Brotherhood never produced anything, and later a spokesman even said it the Brotherhood had nothing new to say and stood by its previous statements. I find this extremely disappointing and interpret it as a sign that the MB was not able to form a consensus on the Coptic question, which only feeds the suspicions of Copts and Muslim secularists that, no matter how reasonable some Brothers might seem, many of them are bigots (an intuition that I personally think is correct.)

The second broken promise was made by Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, who around February of this year pledged the Brotherhood would "soon" revise its internal charter to provide for more internal democracy. He spoke of several changes, but most notable was his mention of more open elections of the Supreme Guide and having their terms limited to four or five years, renewable once. In my mind this was explosive: one of the oldest political groups in Egypt, where party presidents tend to stay for life, was willing not only to break with its own long-established tradition for the appointment of Supreme Guide (which, in real terms, is a lot more than a part president) and impose the very limitations that the opposition is united in demanding from the Egyptian presidency. I have no idea what happened to that proposal, but we haven't heard about it since. It's as if after making a big fuss about how moderate they are during and shortly after the parliamentary elections, now they've forgotten all about it.

Of course, there's been a massive crackdown in the meantime, so maybe they've just been distracted. Still, this does not inspire confidence. One could also add their bizarre performance during the Lebanon war, which seemed to have been pretty badly thought out.

My own thinking on the Brotherhood is that it is in a crisis, and not only because key members are in jail. As the biggest political group in the country, it is a "big tent" that gathers a lot of people with different views, even if they are all nominally Islamists. The internal debate taking place among the Brotherhood -- which we don't know much about -- seems to be at a stalemate. At a time during which they face a massive police and propaganda campaign (just read Al Fagr or Rose Al Youssef these days) they still do not show a clear indication of what they are about beyond vague ideas about Islam and more competence than the NDP. It is as if they have many well-meaning (and probably not-so-well-meaning) middle managers running about, getting to know their constituents and generally doing a pretty good job but no CEO steering the ship. Or several of them going in different directions. Their intellectual production (policy papers etc.) also, to my knowledge (and this isn't my forte, so please tell me if I'm wrong), seems to be pretty weak. Even Kifaya, with all its disorganization, seems to be more intellectually coherent, or more to the point, intellectually productive. Now some people might say it's unfair to expect so much of the Brotherhood. Maybe. But the pressure is on them to prove to Egyptians, and the world, that they are not what their enemies say they are. As Samer and Josh show, they've done that in part by sterling parliamentary work. But it's still not enough.