Amid continued protest in Egypt and the formation of a new government, the Muslim Brotherhood’s position continues to be a source of debate, argues Joseph Daher.
The Muslim Brotherhood was the largest opposition party during the Mubarak era. Under the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood was formally banned but nevertheless tolerated. The begrudging toleration, however, did not save its members from frequent arrests and trials before exceptional courts.
The group achieved its best election result in 2005 with independent candidates allied to it winning 20 percent of the seats. The government subsequently launched a crackdown on the Brotherhood, detaining hundreds of members, and instituting a number of legal "reforms" to make them illegal. During the fraud-ridden 2010 parliamentary elections, the government found pretexts to invalidate the candidacies of virtually all Muslim Brotherhood-linked independents.
The Brotherhood leadership backed the revolution from 28th January, while the youth of the party were part of the revolution since day one, from the 25th. The position of the Brotherhood towards the revolutionary process since the fall of Mubarak has been ambiguous. Many protesters in Egypt have characterized the Brotherhood’s behavior as counter-revolutionary, while others say that it is nevertheless the largest and most organised party in the country so there is a need to collaborate with it.
SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood
Last week the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie urged Egyptians to back the ruling military council, the Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and praised its role in protecting the revolution and backing the people.
This is not what the Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square (and throughout the country) believe. The main democratic and social justice demands of the revolution remain unfulfilled. There is still no justice for the martyrs of the revolution.
The military regime is accused of being implicated in torture and other human rights violations, while condemning protesters and bloggers who criticise SCAF’s anti-democratic behaviour. SCAF has also implemented a law that criminalises strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins.
SCAF has also put striking workers on trial since it came to power in February 2011. For example, the military council sentenced five workers from the Petrojet Oil Company to a suspended one year sentence in June after they protested against management over full-time status grievances.
The Brotherhood supported the referendum on constitutional amendments which the ruling armed forces put forward. These amendments were marginal constitutional changes supported by Mubarak’s old party, the NDP. The army and the Brotherhood effectively put forward amendments disadvantaging new candidates in forthcoming elections. Those who disagreed with the amendments were most of the left and those in the forefront of the revolutionary movement, plus the youth sections of the Brotherhood.
On 8th April, the army launched a violent attack on the protesters, killing at least two. The Muslim Brotherhood has described those protesting against the military as ‘zealots’, and refused to support their demonstrations: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood condemns any attempt to weaken [the military's relationship with the people], and especially attempts to cause any split between the military and the people or to pit them against each other.’
The Brotherhood’s contradictions were once again exposed on 8th July. It supported hundreds of thousands protesting in Tahrir Square, but made a pointed exit at 6pm, defying calls for a sit-in and leveling criticism at the political parties and groups who remained in the square. The group launched attacks against the ongoing protest via its website, Ikhwan Online, which on 11th July reported that the sit-in had been infiltrated by “remnants of the dissolved National Democratic Party, the state security apparatus and their Zionist allies”.
The Brotherhood had initially refused any participation in the demonstration, but under the pressure of the masses - and for fear of losing even more ground with the protesters - finally decided to join the demonstration. But the leadership’s behavior has only created more tensions among its members and has led to inevitable splits with the youth.
Brotherhood splits and new political parties
The Muslim Brotherhood has created its own political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, which it claims will be independent of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. However, the group’s Shura Council selected the party’s president, vice-president and secretary general - and decided on the maximum number of seats the party would run for in the upcoming parliamentary poll. The Freedom and Justice Party is in reality the Brotherhood’s political arm.
Last June, the youth of the Brotherhood finally decided to create their own political party, Hizb Al-Tayyar Al-Masry (Egyptian Current Party), and plays an important role in the pro-revolution camp. It is participating in demonstrations aimed at upholding the demands of the revolution, including fair trials of corrupt figures and those accused of killing demonstrators, cleansing corruption and enabling a new government free from former regime figures.
The Egyptian Current Party is distinguished by its civil and democratic nature. Unlike most other Islamist parties, its manifesto does not mention Islamic sharia as its frame of reference; it only refers to the Arab Islamic civilization. They state that they cannot refer to the Islamic sharia because it is not an Islamist party, and the party is more diverse than Brotherhood youth.
They have also expressed vehement opposition to the official Brotherhood party, Freedom and Justice, arguing that it failed to ensure a full separation between the Muslim Brotherhood’s proselytizing and political activities.
The announcement of the creation of the Egyptian Current Party came two days after the Brotherhood’s Shura Council expelled prominent reformist leader Moneim Abouel Fotouh for declaring that he would run for president. Although he said that he would run as an independent, the group viewed his announcement as a defiance of its decision not to field any presidential candidates. His expulsion was resented by many young Brothers.
The Egyptian Current Party was in fact the second rebellious party to emanate from the Muslim Brotherhood. In March, Ibrahim al-Zaafarani, a former member of the Shura Council, resigned from the group and announced the formation of the Renaissance Party (Nahda), while senior member Mohamed Habib resigned to join it as well.
Economic policy, Palestine and the US
The Brotherhood’s leadership is continuing to organise for parliamentary elections in November, campaigning on a platform to trim the country’s budget deficit. The Brotherhood is also proposing to cut spending, sell state-run media, link subsidies to job creation and slow inflation. They prioritise investment and free markets in order to encourage industry and innovation.
The Brotherhood's leadership said it supports free-market capitalism, but without manipulation or monopoly. The party’s political programme would include tourism as a main source of national income, but the Brotherhood believes that Egypt should focus on a specific form of tourism. A sort of “clean” tourism, which will attract many tourists and investors who would like to take part in it. They are seeking to enhance trade with Muslim and Arab countries in particular.
Offering an economic and political programme that can hardly be differentiated from past policies in many ways, the Brotherhood has opposed many social and economic demands from workers and public servants.
On international issues, the Brotherhood answered positively to a call made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 30th June that the US was “re-engaging” with the Brotherhood in an effort to promote democracy. The Brotherhood declared that it welcomed formal contacts with the US as a way of clarifying its institutional vision. This shows the readiness of the Brotherhood to collaborate with imperialist states.
In relation to Palestine, the Brotherhood did not participate in the protest for Nakba Day in May in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, when the Egyptian police fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters. Thousands of demonstrators were massed outside of the embassy in the Egyptian capital. The Brotherhood has also failed to criticise SCAF’s decision to restrict Palestinian use of the Rafah crossing to enter Gaza.
The Brotherhood has been an ally of SCAF since the fall of Mubarak, acting as a counter-revolutionary player since then. The division in Egypt is not between secular or religious parties, but between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionary parties determined to curtail the revolutionary process. The Brotherhood leadership’s role has generated increasing tensions in its own ranks, resulting in a realignment of political forces.
The leadership’s determination to be inducted into the Egyptian political and economic elite is at odds with its mass base and the pressure of the revolution (which is the main driver of the Brotherhood's legitimacy). This has made the Brotherhood vacillate between acting against the interests of the revolution and making concessions to mass pressure, producing splits within the party and weakening its legitimacy.