The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged muslimbrothers
The life of a Muslim sister
A woman looks at a graffiti of a quote from the Quran, Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photo by Issandr El Amrani.

A woman looks at a graffiti of a quote from the Quran, Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photo by Issandr El Amrani.

Nadia is a former Muslim Sister with a gummy smile. She has run out of reasons to show it after the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, which took the lives of 63 of her friends and acquaintances and a part of her that she can only describe by grabbing the air, her head or her chest.

Although she often finds herself in a depressive trance – remembering the overly-friendly girl she befriended during the sit-in who gave her a necklace as she had requested a few days before the dispersal, and how Asmaa el-Beltagy had promised to tell her an exciting secret upon her return to Rabaa – Nadia tries and likes to think that she derives strength from the bloodshed. “The sound of gunshots doesn’t frighten me,” she said, more to herself. This enables her to join the regular student protesters clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, something many of her friends and relatives can’t do. “They would freak out at the sound of fireworks or any loud noise... and drive around all of Nasr City just to avoid Rabaa,” she added, before admitting that she too has only been there twice since the dispersal and had failed not to sob in front of the Central Security Forces (CSF, the riot-control police) leaning against their black vans outside the mosque on both occasions. But, to be fair, one of the outbursts was aided by a CSF van that followed her home (which is right down the street), matching her pace and discussing her mother on the way, to the great amusement of onlookers.  

Although she frequently gets labelled a Muslim Sister (and suffers for it), Nadia was among those mostly young men and women who left/were kicked out of the Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 uprising for objecting to what they saw as the leadership's deafness to criticism, political opportunism and betrayal of revolutionary goals in alliance with the SCAF.

That batch, she says, is now divided into two camps. The first camp, to which she belongs, that has seemingly and temporarily returned to the MB out of solidarity and sense of obligation. Others remain resolutely separate. Those who have returned are not always fully accepted and often face accusations of betrayal and abuse, especially if they voice any old or new criticism of the leadership’s actions and how they lead to the state the Brotherhood is currently in.

However, inside the MB itself, resentment is mainly directed at the Anti-Coup Alliance (ACA), which is frequently criticized for lacking organization and the clear hierarchy the MB once had, which allowed one to identify the source of a decision and set blame. A prime example of the ACA’s incompetence, Nadia said, was changing the anti-constitutional referendum protest venues last minute on FB, after many protesters had left their homes and internet connection behind, resulting in confusion and the arrest of over 400 Brothers; or trying to stage a sit-in at  Suk al-Sayarat (the car market), an unfriendly neighborhood that probably wouldn’t leave much protesters for the police to shoot.  “No one really knows who is making these decisions,” interjected Hoda, another young Sister, who was just lost in monologue trying to decide whether she should flash the four-finger Rabaa sign or put on a poker face when suspecting classmates inquire about her political views. “Everybody just ends up doing whatever they feel like, there is no cohesion; no vision,” she added, shaking her head before returning to her monologue and deciding to be safe rather than hungry like her brother, Hamza, who now resides in a 2x2 cell with an unspecified number of people and cockroaches that fly, unable to sit or sleep comfortably. She sees him for exactly one minute a day with an officer present. Some of his teeth are broken and so is his right wrist, she suspects. Hamza, she paused to beam, had tried to convince the police officers, who arrested him, that he was a non-religious, playboy who drinks, smokes and copulates before they did. They gave him a cigarette and asked him to prove it, he let out a telling cough and was summarily given for 15 days pending investigation. "Ah, Hamza," she sighed.

“Many of (those arrested) have wrist fractures and things of that nature, it’s the handcuffs,” guessed another Sister, Gehad, rubbing hers instinctively. She has been recently released after being detained for nearly  three weeks on the charge of “piercing a car roof,” carrying a camera and belonging to a terrorist organization trying to destabilize the country. “[Prisoner treatment] depends wholly on the officers and the jail or department you’re in,” she explained. She, for instance, was lucky enough to fall into the hands of a kind prosecutor, who gave her Nescafe. And she managed to charm the prostitutes and convicted murderers  they routinely detain Sisters with, "as a scare tactic," with her religious knowledge. “They thought that God wouldn’t forgive them, so I recited Quran to them and we prayed together,” she recalled with pride. More importantly, the pregnancy test they forced on her (virginity tests for female protesters -- i.e. sluts -- caused an uproar, but pregnancy tests have reportedly taken their place) didn’t break her as well because she knew it was meant to, Gehad said, speaking at a considerably higher volume intended to prove she was unaffected by the memory. Others, however, she said, had cigarettes put out in them, and if the corporal she bribed is to be believed, they were also whipped with belts, electrocuted, stripped and made to stand in a room with holes in the walls known as the Tellaga (refrigerator). Other reports of abuse include being forced to clean the police department, sexual harassment, spoiled food and denial of family visits (and harassment of family members and friends who came for them). 

It is worth noting that Gehad later managed to flee to Turkey, where a small Egyptian MB community has already formed, thanks to the failure of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to update the no-fly lists. She was then given a five-year sentence in absentia. Also grateful for the poor coordination and communication between state institutions is the Kamal Youssef, a father who waits in line to get into Tora for an average of four hours, gets his bag x-rayed, his body aggressively searched and waits in the cafeteria in plain view for the minibus that will take him to el-’Akrab prison, where he will provide all of his personal information to visit his son, although there is a warrant out for his arrest. “They only let first degree family members in, but I sometimes visit about seven non-related people in the same prison and pretend to be their cousin and no one says anything,” Nadia said, grinning for the first time, before reassuming her inscrutable countenance. 

She then begins to systematically list the problems of getting her jailed friends their exams (if they have not already failed the academic year). Normally the prosecution only requires a registration certificate and the exam schedule from the detainee’s university to issue a permit for said detainee to take the exam, but since sending a bruised student handcuffed to a police corporal to take a test among their classmates might win them some sympathy, Nadia has to get a copy of the police report to prove to the university that the student is in jail and get permission from the student to take the test in jail. Only problem is books and papers are generally not allowed in, making the hassle of getting them their exams almost pointless since they can’t study and will probably fail anyway. This process of selecting what is and is not allowed in, like treatment, seems to be governed by whim. For instance, she once managed smuggle in a cell phone with Internet, but failed to smuggle in a pillow to the same person.

When the contempt Nadia receives from law enforcement wears her or her friends down, she comforts herself and them with the knowledge that they are not one of the leaders or the wives, whom the police targets for particular abuse, according to a number of unverified reports by MB activists.The abuse, they say, includes “threatening (the detainee) with his wife’s honor"  to flush him out or to force a confession out of him. The leaders have had to forgo family visits because theirs require them to sit behind a glass partition and talk over a phone that’s monitored. MB leader and former MP Mohamed el-Beltagy  was allowed to keep the poster of his dead daughter, Asmaa, that his wife, Sanaa Abdel Gawad, gave him -- but they wouldn’t give him the tape to hang it on the wall with, Nadia said. Instead of meeting, Beltagy and Abdel Gawad now exchange letters that a bribed officer delivers – and censors. 

“One time [Abdel Gawad] wrote 'I am proud of you and I love you' and the officer insisted that she crossed it out...They don’t allow anything uplifting through,” Nadia explained. “She just lost it and started praying for retribution so hard, one of the officers cried and asked her to stop because he has nothing to do with this. He is just following orders.” However, most officers were not as affected. They started clapping for a visitor who began singing the pro-Sisi song Teslam el-Ayadi, and bellydancing. What salted the wound, Nadia said, was that the visitor was the mother of a horribly treated prisoner. “The same thing happened with Om Hassan, she hadn’t seen or heard of her son in weeks and [police officers and other visitors] sang her Teslam el-Ayadi,” an offended Hoda said, thrusting a hand in my face like I was Mustafa Kamil (the song's writer and composer).

Although the desire for revenge is palpable within the MB, it is almost always accompanied by equally palpable helplessness and frustration. Regardless of the presumed-to-be-MB attacks on police and army officers, Nadia maintains that so far most of the MB’s retaliation has been limited to mean prayers, reciting Quranic verses like “Pharaoh and Haman and their soldiers were deliberate sinners. [28:9]” to necessitate the punishment of every soldier as well as the commanders. Sure, there is a list, whose accuracy and origin are a matter for consideration, of the officers who dispersed the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins but no one has done anything with it – yet. Every Brother and Sister I’ve spoken to recently thinks someone is going to lose it soon and that whoever that person is; no one can blame him/her.

Revenge aside, Nadia advocates (and regularly participates) in the burning of police vans and in doing anything that would “upset” the MOI. When asked to explain how that can fall under the title of “peaceful resistance,” she screwed up her face in bored disgust. “They have guns, gas, cars and water. We have Molotov and rocks. It’s not a fair equation... We’re certainly more peaceful.” Nadia’s definition of peacefulness is popular in the MB (and in non-MB revolutionary circles). Ahmad Hijab, a Cairo University Brother, for instance, spent fifteen minutes explaining how not only are the student protesters completely peaceful, but that they must be because military chief, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, would love an excuse to have them all shot, before he casually added that he had never been to a protest without fireworks, Molotov and rocks. “What, am I supposed to stand there and let them kill me or go defenseless when I know they are going to attack me?” 

As far as the MB youth is concerned, it seems, the only viable course of action now is to aggravate the MOI at every opportunity. The future, many believe, will likely hold what the present is already offering: politically ineffective, routine clashes with the police like those of Al-Azhar University and Alf Maskan, deaths, injuries, arrests, broken bones, prison visits, uncomfortable body searches, deliveries of exams and medical supplies, police bribes, etc. “Things have to and will get much, much worse for everyone... everyone has to and will taste humiliation and injustice, it has to become unbearable, so they will revolt again,” Nadia hopes. “Or they will apologize and sing Teslam el-Ayadi,” Hoda told the ceiling, resentfully.

So while things get worse, Nadia is just going to deliver some food to detainees and continue to rearrange the digits of a cellphone number an MB prisoner scribbled on her hand, to reach his parents and tell them he has been in jail for the past month. “Is this a seven or an eight?” she asked no one in particular before deciding to try a six.

The names of the people interviewed for this post have been changed to protect their identity.

Virtual Brotherhood

The National's Matt Bradley has a story on the Muslim Brotherhood's Facebook clone:

IkhwanBook joins a veritable suite of Brotherhood-affiliated (“Ikhwan” is Arabic for “Brotherhood”) websites, such as IkhwanWiki, IkhwanWeb, IkhwanGoogle – a “Cusotmized [sic] search engine specialized in searching muslim botherhood’s [sic] websites” – and IkhwanTube. Many of the sites are published in English and each of their functions is tailored to Brotherhood-related content.

The article then wonders why the Ikhwan bothers: IkhwanBook is after all technologically extremely inferior to the real Facebook, and the other sites are not that sophisticated either. And there are plenty of young Brothers on Facebook — anyone who's ever met them can expect to be friended within 24 hours, after all.

Brian Whitaker, noting the story, writes:

The interesting and slightly puzzling question is what the Brotherhood hopes to achieve by this. It's hard to imagine the Ikhwan sites gaining anything like the popularity of those they replicate, and they look like a move towards exclusivity which is generally uncharacteristic of the Brotherhood.

I think both Matt and Brian miss the point slightly. The first reason for having all these sites — and believe me, there are a LOT of Ikhwan sites out there, practically one for every governorate of Egypt plus many more on specific issues before you reach the Facebook and Wikipedia clones — is that there simply is enthusiasm to build them. Beyond the apparent correlation one notices between tech-savvy and religious inclination (just visit any of the computer malls on Midan Sphinx in Cairo), there are a lot of young talented programmers in Egypt who would love to show their enthusiasm for the gamaa by building websites for it. And there are a lot of young people in the Brotherhood, no matter how elderly the leadership is, for whom these websites may be a way of expressing their views as well as gain practice in the art of political and religious rhetoric.

The second reason is that this resonates with the groupthink and in-group mentality that the Muslim Brotherhood cultivates. These sites won't replace Facebook or Wikipedia, they are a virtual gated community (gated, that is, by strong symbolic references and imagery that are likely to alienate those not already versed in the Ikhwan universe) for like-minded people, where they can create a more orderly version of the sites that they copy and where the membership is self-selecting. The Muslim Brothers tend to socialize together, marry within each others' families, work together (or for each other) and a whole lot more. It's a support group as much as a political organization. It makes sense that, online, they will tend towards a closed ecosystem — alongside the open internet, not instead of it.

It's just the way online forums thrive: through community-building. That's true for computer geeks and religious geeks.

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Egypt's Shura Council elections, and its future

No one really cared about them in the middle of the worldwide hubbub over the flotilla murders, but I feel one should note that Egypt just held one of its very flawed elections. I wrote an article about them for Middle East International last week, which I am fully reproducing below.

Basically things happened as expected:

  • There were multiple indications of fraud, including police preventing people from voting in certain areas, pre-filled ballots, faked voting cards and vote-buying.
  • There were violent clashes, a sign of the competition these elections engender.
  • The Muslim Brothers were not allowed to campaign freely.
  • NGOs and monitors have already compiled a long list of grievances.
  • The new Higher Electoral Commission appears to be, for now, completely ineffective (or perhaps that's its purpose.)

Do read Sarah Carr's account of voting day.

The outcome for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were prevented from campaigning in some places and won no seats, as in 2007, is  

CAIRO (Reuters) – The Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it would back a drive by former U.N. atomic watchdog head Mohammed ElBaradei to reform Egyptian politics after the group secured no seats in a vote to parliament's upper house.

Egypt's biggest opposition group, which controls a fifth of the lower house seats but none in the Shura Council upper house, said it would help ElBaradei collect signatures for change, a move bound to boost his efforts to gather a million names.

Tuesday's Shura Council vote for a third of the seats was marred by abuses reported by rights groups and independent monitors, a common feature of Egyptian elections. Officials said the vote went smoothly and complaints were investigated.

"None of the Brotherhood's candidates have won any seats in 2010 Shura Council elections, a blatant proof that vote rigging took place. Many candidates ran in constituencies which they won in the 2005 lower houseparliamentary election," said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, who heads the Brotherhood's lower house bloc.

Of course I wouldn't fall necessarily for that logic — just because the MB didn't win doesn't prove the elections were completely rigged — but the use of force by authorities in certain districts against MB supporters does lend some credence to Katatni's claim. I would also take their backing of ElBaradei with a pinch of salt (they may just back his goals) until they mobilize for him properly. Still, this may help with the National Coalition for Change's petition drive, as the Brothers' flock is being increasingly clear guidance.

Shadi Hamid has a piece in FP talking about the disunity of the Egyptian opposition and touches upon MB-ElBaradei relations:

ElBaradei has made some tentative efforts to reach out to the Brotherhood, suggesting the potential for what would undoubtedly be a powerful alliance. But, if ElBaradei is flirting with Islamists, Islamists feel he is not flirting enough. One Brotherhood leader I spoke to complained that Saad al-Katatni, who represents the Brotherhood in ElBaradei's National Association for Change, has not been included in top-level discussions. "The founders [of NAC] informed [us] about the coalition only after the fact," complained Morsi. "Then they asked us to join without asking for our substantive input."

The Brotherhood, of course, is not blameless. Despite its post-9/11 political maturation, the organization continues to find new ways to make liberals nervous. In April, Ali Abdel Fattah, the Brotherhood's liaison to Egypt's moribund political parties, launched a broadside against the country's liberals, writing: "Liberalism is about absolute freedom for the individual without boundaries and without either a religious or moral reference." He accused liberals of being in bed with the United States - a charge, perhaps not coincidentally, that some liberals have also leveled against the Brotherhood.

The rest of the article is well worth a read in considering the chronic dysfunction of the Egyptian opposition. It's over for them, there's no need to take them into account. The Brothers, ultimately, will negotiate with the emerging regime. The question of Egypt's post-Mubarak future is now almost entirely a question of inner regime politics, and the question of a little bit more democracy will depend on that regime's desire and/or need to reform. It may take a while before it gets there, but there are signs that social pressures are mounting to extent that they will have to. The difficult but important story to tell about Egypt in the last decade are not the travails of Ayman Nour and opposition groups, but the renewal of the labor movement, a call for greater social justice in the midst of neoliberal economic reforms by an autocratic government, and the increasing vibrancy of Egypt's civil society — its increasingly professional NGOs, its once-again-combative professional syndicates, and clever lawyers taking the regime to task on its legal subterfuges.

Unfortunately, unless he changes course, ElBaradei does not seem ready to put in the work to create the platform he needs. The man has talent and ideas, but he has no grassroots or vanguard organization to work with. He should be focusing on building this for now — recruiting proper political cadres to do the hard lifting of his campaign, which intellectuals like Hassan Nafaa or Alaa al-Aswani simply can't do. This is not an attack on the activists who launched this movement, far from it — it's a recognition that politics is for professionals, not dilettantes, whereas prominent intellectuals serve best to drive certain messages. Somehow else needs to run campaigns.

I had flagged this as a problem in my piece in The National before ElBaradei returned last February, when I wrote:

ElBaradei fever is now in full swing. The Facebook group backing him is growing by 13 new members per minute, reaching over 100,000 this week. There is talk of virtually nothing else in the op-ed pages of the independent press, on satellite television and the internet. But there is also growing doubt about how serious ElBaradei is about running for president, and how much he is willing to work for it.

There is little doubt that ElBaradei’s courageous decision to speak his mind on the state of the country will have a positive impact in spreading awareness of potential alternatives to the present sorry state of affairs. He has perhaps made the realistic assessment that competing directly against Hosni Mubarak is a losing battle, and that what must be prepared now is the transition to a more democratic system that might occur in a post-Mubarak Egypt. His return has advanced the cause of those who hope for a more just country, but their hearts may be broken by his reticence to enter the rough arena of political conflict.

Even those who admire his stance are critical of his refusal to run unless the constitution is changed, a quixotic demand to which Mubarak has little incentive to acquiesce. Some would have preferred that he hadn’t ruled out joining an existing party and running as its candidate; others point out that he does not seem inclined to campaign – whether for the presidency or constitutional change – beyond his current 10-day visit to Egypt, and that has no serious or experienced staff, just enthusiastic fans. When this week’s fever dies down, as it inevitably will, can the campaign behind ElBaradei maintain any momentum?

His admirers fret about this. ElBaradei has been ambiguous about his presidential ambition, as if he reluctantly accepted the public’s call for his candidacy and is hesitating to let go of his retirement plans in Southern France. Upon his arrival at Cairo’s airport, where his supporters waited for hours on a hot day, his only interaction with the crowd was a quick drive-by. Many were expecting a speech and left disappointed. He does not appear be willing to go on the campaign trail, bringing his message across the country. Nor does he have the politician’s instinct for showmanship, as if the populist antics of someone like Ayman Nour – the young opposition leader who was Mubarak’s main challenger in the 2005 presidential election – were somehow beneath him. Having boosted the public enthusiasm for politics in a deliberately depoliticised system, he remains an unpolitician – almost as if he regards himself as a spiritual leader rather than potentially a political one.

There is little doubt that ElBaradei’s courageous decision to speak his mind on the state of the country will have a positive impact in spreading awareness of potential alternatives to the present sorry state of affairs. He has perhaps made the realistic assessment that competing directly against Hosni Mubarak is a losing battle, and that what must be prepared now is the transition to a more democratic system that might occur in a post-Mubarak Egypt. His return has advanced the cause of those who hope for a more just country, but their hearts may be broken by his reticence to enter the rough arena of political conflict.

Time is running out for a change of tactic, Dr. ElBaradei.

Update: Do read this account of NDP disgruntlement and you'll understand better what I am writing below:

Candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) who lost Shura Council elections to opposition candidates yesterday say they might take legal actions to uncover vote rigging.

The disgruntled NDP candidates accused their party of "treason and corruption," claiming that their seats were given to the opposition to maintain a facade of democracy.

Abdel Ilah Abdel Hamid, a former NDP Shura member from Azbakiya, alleged that his loss in yesterday's election was premeditated by NDP officials. "That will not pass easily," Abdel Hamid said.

Another NDP member, Ahmed Salem, a former People's Assembly representative, said that his opposition rival obtained only 45 votes and had lost three previous local elections. "After this scandal, i will burn my NDP membership card in public," Salem said. "The state, the government, and the party are all corrupt."

Below is the full article from Middle East International previewing the Shura Council elections. 

 Dress rehearsal

From Issandr el Amrani in Cairo

Elections for the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, are rarely an exciting affair. Its candidates have mostly low visibility, and compared to the lower house, the People’s Assembly, the chamber is generally seen as a notables’ talking shop rather than a political arena. A third of its 264 members, after all, are appointed by President Hosni Mubarak, and most of the rest come from his National Democratic Party (NDP). So it is with some degree of indifference that Egypt approaches elections on 1 June, when 88 seats are up for grabs.

The elections may, however, be telling of dynamics for the year ahead, particularly in the more important poll for People’s Assembly that will take place in autumn.

First of all, they are a litmus test of discipline within the NDP, which has actually never officially passed the 50% mark in major elections in the last decade. This is because about a third of its MPs were elected as independents running against the party’s official candidates. Every election, there are promises that the party will not tolerate disloyalty. Ahmad Ezz, one of the NDP’s strongmen and its chief whip, tried to keep the selection of official candidates for the Shura Council secret until the last day of registration to reduce the number of ‘NDP independents’.

He has failed: 452 candidates are competing for the 88 seats, the vast majority of them affiliated with the NDP. The party itself implicitly acknowledges that it cannot prevent internal competition in some cases, such as the Marsa Matruh district near the Libyan border, where two official candidates will be running against each other. The area is dominated by tribal politics (of the Awlad Ali Bedouin confederation) and NDP bigwigs cannot afford to meddle in the tribe’s affairs. The sheer number of candidates highlights how contested these elections in fact are, and as in previous polls, incidents of vote-buying, fraud and even violence are expected.

For the prospective upper house members, the position is not about prestige alone: being elected is seen as a lucrative investment (despite costly campaign outlays), with prospects of financial return from the access gained to the state apparatus. Having failed to enforce its leadership’s resolve to quell the ‘NDP independent’ phenomenon, the ruling party is now widely expected to welcome back into its fold the successful candidates it did not select.

Brothers in the running 
A second notable trend has to do with the NDP’s biggest rivals, the Muslim Brothers. In 2006, after the electoral success that enabled them to win 20% of seats in the People’s Assembly, the Brothers announced they would henceforth contest every possible election – since their entry into electoral politics in the 1980s, they had limited themselves to the lower house of parliament only. This policy was one of the changes introduced by the former general guide, Mahdi Akef, and signalled the ascendancy of a generation of politically savvy Brothers committed to contesting elections for professional unions and public office. In the last Shura Council polls in 2007, the Brothers fielded 18 candidates. But none was successful, as they faced a string of arrests as part of the regime’s ongoing campaign to put the Brothers back in their place. 

The election of Muhammad Badie as general guide in January led many to wonder whether the Brothers would maintain their ‘confrontational’ electoral policy. They had taken a battering since 2006, and some publicly questioned the wisdom (and cost) of political participation. Yet the group’s approach to this election suggests that, with political strategists such as Essam al-Erian in its Guidance Bureau, it is still committed to fighting elections. Its innovative solution to avoid some of the hassles faced in 2007 is to field candidates (and, possibly, secretly support more) who are members of the People’s Assembly, and thus benefit from their parliamentary immunity. This should enable them to campaign with fewer restrictions. If they are successful, they can abandon their seats to gain a presence in the Shura Council. If they lose, as is widely expected, they can still run again for the lower house later this year, and they will have made the point that the Muslim Brothers are legitimately entitled to take part in all elections. 

What amounts to putting down a symbolic marker today may prove important tomorrow, especially as the 2005 constitutional amendments require any independent presidential candidates to have support from within the three elected public bodies — the two houses of parliament and municipal councils.

A final point of importance will be the performance of the Higher Electoral Commission (HEC), a new body that will be tested for the first time since it was established — via the 2007 constitutional amendments — to assume the role previously played by judges in election monitoring. It has already come under attack, after the Interior Ministry redrew electoral districts for the People’s Assembly without its involvement, although it is supposed to be in charge of electoral matters. Most opposition forces view the abandonment of judicial supervision as a disaster, particularly as it allows the regime to select members of the HEC indirectly. Its current head, Intissar Nessim, owes his position to being named head of the Cairo Appeals Court in July 2009 — an appointment made by the president.

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The Brothers' resourcefulness

I suppose I owe a serious blog post after the previous not so serious one. I intend to return to the succession issue in Egypt shortly, but before that wanted to note that the Muslim Brothers have recently announced they will participate in the upcoming Shura Council elections by fielding 15 candidates.

In the last Shura Council elections, none of their candidates were allowed to run, though many tried. Now, they intend to have current MPs try to run for the upper house, hoping that they will benefit from parliamentary immunity during their campaign. Of course that immunity won't be extended to their campaign staff, but they are used to that. It's interesting to see this sign, however minor, of a willingness to continue the project to broaden the Brothers' electoral participation launched in 2005/06 by the former guide, Mahdi Akef. They almost certainly won't get elected, but they are putting a marker out there saying "we are entitled to contest it, and won't stop trying."

In other words, this suggest that they consider the last few years of intense repression a temporary setback, and still have in mind the post-(Hosni) Mubarak endgame of either formalizing their political role or ensuring their growth on the political scene. Food for thought after months of Brotherhood-regime negotiations about succession and the elections: even if these rumors were true, it does not mean they'll stop hedging their bets. Today's demonstration in Midan Tahrir, which included Brotherhood MPs, also suggests that part of the Brotherhood is still making political calculations — i.e. ones based on continued political participation rather than a retreat for which, in counterpart, the regime would give greater it influence on social and religious affairs.

[For background.]

Mubarak resurfaces, and more

I happened to be dropping by the Jazeera office in Cairo around lunchtime, and while I chatted with the English channel's correspondent Rawya Rageh, we waited for footage of Mubarak to come up on Nile News, the state-owned TV channel. The news agencies had gotten wind that Nile News would finally dispel the rumors of the last few days and feature real news about Mubarak (as opposed to second-hand assurances that he's fine.)

Finally, around 2pm, it came up with top billing: footage of Mubarak chatting with doctors, and excerpts from a press conference by hospital staff. Dressed in a striped black bathrobe, sitting in a modern hospital room, he chatted fairly jovially with the doctors. There was no sound. Cut to the press conference, where the doctors intimidated that the past week had seen some troubles, but that Mubarak was better now and that lab analyses would be discontinued (here I assume they mean monitoring of his blood or the tissue of the area that was operated). So much for all the speculation, although some internet sleuth is already analyzing the footage and suggesting it was somehow faked.

Click pic to read original caption [Ar]

But let's assume that Mubarak is recovering as well as might be expected for an 81-year-old, and there are no missing reflections or other conspiracy theories.

The last week or so has raised some questions about who's running Egypt while Mubarak was incapacitated. Constitutionally, it's Ahmed Nazif, whom I think would be a better president than either Gamal Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, but is said not to have much of a power base, although part of his pre-ministerial career was at the intersection of government and the military. But if something had happened, he would have been constitutionally unable to run anyway. So in the absence of a designated successor or other strongman, who runs Egypt when Mubarak is unable to? For that matter, who runs Egypt alongside the aging Mubarak when he is here?

Nathan Brown tackles some of these questions for FP's Middle East Channel, pointing to an article in al-Shorouk:

As Mubarak has aged, however, his visible involvement in Egyptian politics has decreased, leading Egyptians to swap rumors about who is really running the country. Is it the security apparatus? His son? High members of the National Democratic Party? What is the role of his wife, a visible figure in Egyptian public life? Most important of all, who will follow him? Mubarak's illness has catapulted these questions from the rumor mill to the headlines. But it has not answered them.

Aside from its overenthusiastic punctuation, the al-Shuruq article calmly reported that Husni Mubarak had deputized Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif to take on day-to-day presidential responsibilities. But Nazif is no Alexander Haig asserting that he is in control. If there is an Egyptian Haig, he is not in sight. The article made clear that Nazif's authority is limited and that in important matters (such as those related to security) he consults with named and unnamed responsible authorities. The article offered only brief speculation on how much Mubarak is in contact with Egyptian officials and whom he is speaking with. In short, there was no good answer to the question posed by the headline or even if there is an answer.

While it is not clear who wields power -- or who will run things if Mubarak's absence becomes permanent -- it is clearer how that power is being wielded. There are, to be sure, some signs of disarray, of different institutions and power centers pulling in different directions. But that disarray only goes so far. The overall direction is clear: Egypt is now in the midst of an uneven political clampdown. 

Like Brown, I wouldn't venture much further without more solid information or thinking things through. What is certain is that Egypt's power centers is fragmented, awaiting the shift of tectonic plates that Hosni Mubarak's disappearance will cause, and in the meantime political space is rapidly shrinking. 

Now on to the second part of this post, which is about something related but distinct. The rest of Brown's article is about his (and Amr Hamzawy's) latest Carnegie Endowment report, which I had been meaning to blog about. It's titled "The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment" and overall presents an apt assessment of the challenges facing the Brothers after three years of the biggest clampdown they've faced since the 1960s.

I disagree with some of it, though. I think it's an exaggeration to say that the Muslim Brothers "focused on political reforms and socioeconomic legislation, largely at the expense of its moral and religious agenda." There was a brief period when that was true, in 2006, but thereafter the moral-religious agenda came back. The difference was that it was now alongside a political and socioeconomic agenda. I also think here the Brothers were responding to the upheaval of 2005, moving into a position of leadership after trailing behind civil society and groups like Kifaya. Indeed, let's remember that by June 2008 they were blocking a new law on children's rights because they thought parents should have the right to beat their kids, and also tried to block attempts to toughen rules against female circumcision. There are some admirable people among the Muslim Brothers, and some great ideas for political reform, but make no mistake: many of them remain socially deeply retrograde, and it's not just a question of being against beauty pageants.

That being said, there is something to be said for Brown's argument (in the MEC piece) that:

Without such Islamist participation, the Egyptian regime will be facing an opposition of inchoate protests and armchair intellectuals. This makes any positive political change unlikely. In fact, the more bashful Brotherhood will actually be useful to the regime -- it does not threaten but it does serve as a bogeyman to scare liberals and Western governments.

The recent debacle over reports that the legal opposition parties are cutting deals with the NDP (denied on the front page of every state newspaper today) are one bad sign, although perhaps that story was planted to disrupt the conference these parties held over the last few days. Another one is their inability to come to terms with Muhammad ElBaradei's movement for constitutional change, not because they disagree with the man (in fact they pretty much entirely agree), but because either they don't like him or don't want to anger the regime by allying with him. Likewise, despite that the forthcoming parliamentary elections show no sign of being free or fair, they yet have to seriously consider an opposition-wide boycott.

The potential that Brown and Hamzawy ascribe to the Muslim Brothers — that they are the only credible opposition and therefore the only potential vector for change — is one way to look at things. Another would be a reconfiguration of the political spectrum that would take liberal and leftist support away from the failed legal opposition and redirected to a new political project. That might be ElBaradei's movement, or it might be a coalition to wrest away or influence like-minded people from apathy and/or the NDP. That would mean creating a coalition for change targeting the regime's traditional quietist support base: elite liberals and Copts afraid of Islamists, and a large number of ordinary people afraid of chaos. I would argue that there does exist a vast center in Egyptian politics, and that today it is chiefly addressed by the NDP. The question is how to get those people into politics. The traditional opposition parties have largely failed, and it would be better for all if they let new ones take over. 

Brown does have a good point in his final line in the Middle East Channel piece, though, when he addresses the near-impossibility of the ElBaradei campaign's aims:

The al-Baradei phenomenon is still significant and should be alarming to the regime. This is not because he is a viable presidential candidate under Egypt's closed system. Instead it is because only a regime without much credibility or legitimacy could be spooked by an international civil servant long absent from the country.

To say that Egypt is adrift is not to say its regime is unstable. Its current system does not inspire respect or affection, but it does quite effectively present itself as inevitable. It is as legitimate as gravity. In Egypt, the leadership's sense of raison d'état remains robust indeed, the problem is that its raison d'être is evaporating.

What ElBaradei represents, in other words, is a leadership opportunity to grab the attention of that hidden center that, out of a lack of inspiring alternatives, has remained dormant or sided with the NDP.