Egypt Won't Be Quick to Give Muslim Brotherhood a Chance

Major opposition group has been largely absent from the uprising in Egypt, and it's unlikely to be leading the country anytime soon.

Among the wealth of improvised placards and graffiti scrawled on Egyptian tanks this week, one slogan is missing: "Islam is the solution." This is the Muslim Brotherhood's slogan from 2005, when the movement won a tremendous victory in the parliamentary elections: 88 seats out of 454.

Egypt protest AP

The group's members also used the slogan in the November 2010 elections, where they suffered a resounding defeat when not a single representative of theirs was elected. The movement has also been largely absent from the current uprising. Even President Hosni Mubarak's dramatic announcement that he intends to retire at the end of his current term in September has not brought the Brotherhood out into the limelight.

"We support continuing this intifada until the people's justified demands are met," wrote the movement's chairman, Mohammed Badie, on the Muslim Brotherhood's website. Their demands are the same as those of the other opposition movements: canceling the emergency regime imposed in 1981; dispersing the parliament and its Shura Council, which was elected fraudulently; holding new elections; releasing all political prisoners; establishing a transitional government without the ruling National Democratic Party; and establishing a commission to investigate the use of violence against the demonstrators. Not the establishment of a state based on Islamic law, and not far-reaching religious legislation. There aren't even any verses from the Koran in Badie's statement.

Before the recent demonstrations erupted, organizers from movements including the April 6 group, the Egyptian Movement for Change and the Students' Movement for Change sent out instructions to their activists. They asked them to avoid party slogans and not to wave party banners. The intent was to depict these demonstrations as nonpolitical and spontaneous, with the sole aim of deposing the regime, and not proposing political alternatives in the meantime - only demanding elections. Movement leaders were asked not to appear on the front lines.

The Muslim Brotherhood understood and abided by the request. However, the dilemma concerning the group's involvement in politics began even before the most recent parliamentary elections. A major dispute erupted within the movement's ranks last year, prior to the election of the head (the so-called Supreme Guide ) and the 16 members of the Guidance Office, the movement's leadership body.

The arguments boiled over into the media, a suit was filed against the election outcome, and Dr. Muhammad Habib, the first deputy of retired Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, resigned from the organization's leadership.

The struggle was not only personal. The movement's reformist stream wants to take part in the government alongside members of the regime, hopes to promote the status of women, has no problem with female cabinet ministers, and is even prepared to negotiate with the American administration and to be more flexible regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. Now it has found itself outside the ranks. There has already been talk of establishing a religious movement in Egypt to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Badie, 67, is a veterinarian by profession. He is in the Brotherhood's conservative stream, opposes dialogue with the West, and indeed has stated that "while the movement has no problem with the West, it does have a problem with the countries that planted the Zionist entity in the heart of the Muslim world" - meaning, the United States.

In his inaugural speech as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, he declared: "The Brotherhood has never been the enemies of regimes, but it has never been deterred from exposing corruption or giving advice to regimes as to how they should behave."

In contrast to his predecessor Akef, and like his admired teacher Sayyid Qutb who was executed in 1966, Badie believes there is no point in political activity within the current political system, where the state controls everything. Nevertheless, at the last minute, Badie backed the candidates' participation in the most recent parliamentary elections - apparently so that the rift would not get worse.

Signs of crisis

The signs of crisis in the movement became apparent amid the huge political success in 2005. The movement is banned, yet 88 members managed to get into the Egyptian parliament, nearly five times the number in previous elections. They ran as independent candidates and only after their election did they form a faction.

Mubarak made it his aim to fight this movement, damaged its financial backing by arresting important businessmen who had contributed to it, jailed a string of activists who were convicted of incitement and damaging the foundations of the state, and waged a campaign in the state-owned media that attacked the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood's name was always accompanied in those newspapers with the adjective "forbidden," which has in itself become the movement's nickname in Arabic.

One thing that shook up the movement was the arrest of Khairat al-Shater, now the leader's second deputy and the business partner of Hassan Malek, another member. Shater, who was considered to be the group's chief financial officer, is thought to have a personal worth of about 240 million Egyptian pounds (about $44 million ), but his main contribution is the deals he makes for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf and in foreign stock markets.

Shater, a software engineer who studied in England, also obtained a lot of money for the movement from building material fairs in partnership with an engineers and doctors union, which has more than a million members. These fairs offered building materials at reduced prices and in installments, and enabled credit for hundreds of thousands of young people who were unable to obtain it from banks.

In the 1990s Shater founded a computer company called Salsabeel, offering purchasing, sales and service systems. At that time the Egyptian authorities confiscated scores of discs and documents that they claimed contained a great deal of information about the Brotherhood's activities. Shater was tried and sentenced to five years in prison. Upon his release he was appointed second deputy to the leader of the organization.

After 2005 Egypt's parliament became the most active sparring arena thanks to the movement's representatives, who bombarded government ministers with hundreds of parliamentary questions concerning corruption, education and help for the needy. Their opponents and the other opposition parties had to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood in criticizing the regime. However, it seems this sparring with the regime posed a new ideological challenge to the Brotherhood.

In a website established by secessionists from the movement, Muhammad Habib published an article a year ago explaining why the group should not aspire to establish a party: "In the current political environment, creating a new party will neither help nor hinder. The day the situation changes there will be nothing to prevent us from establishing a party." However, this day has not yet come - even though the streets are tumultuous and people are calling for Mubarak to be brought down.

About a year ago Mohamed ElBaradei appeared on Egypt's political stage and distributed a document with his demands, which are very similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders. However, the group has refused to give ElBaradei their backing.

"We have not given ElBaradei our power of attorney to represent the opposition," it said this week. "Why is there this perplexing position with respect to support for ElBaradei?" asked Habib.

Could the Muslim Brotherhood take control of the regime? Not given Egypt's current political structure, or given the fact that the movement has yet to formulate its principles for participation. Judging by the results of the most recent parliamentary elections, the public is not prepared to give it too much credit either. In order to prevent even one candidate from getting into the legislature, apparently, you need a lot more than an effective campaign of threats and fraudulent activities on the part of the regime.