Egypt's Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?
Middle East/North Africa Report N°76
18 Jun 2008
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The Society of Muslim Brothers’ success in the November-December 2005 elections for the People’s Assembly sent shockwaves through Egypt’s political system. In response, the regime cracked down on the movement, harassed other potential rivals and reversed its fledging reform process. This is dangerously short-sighted. There is reason to be concerned about the Muslim Brothers’ political program, and they owe the people genuine clarifications about several of its aspects. But the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) refusal to loosen its grip risks exacerbating tensions at a time of both political uncertainty surrounding the presidential succession and serious socio-economic unrest. Though this likely will be a prolonged, gradual process, the regime should take preliminary steps to normalise the Muslim Brothers’ participation in political life.
The Muslim Brothers, whose social activities have long been tolerated but whose role in formal politics is strictly limited, won an unprecedented 20 per cent of parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections. They did so despite competing for only a third of available seats and notwithstanding considerable obstacles, including police repression and electoral fraud. This success confirmed their position as an extremely well-organised and deeply rooted political force. At the same time, it underscored the weaknesses of both the legal opposition and ruling party. The regime might well have wagered that a modest increase in the Muslim Brothers’ parliamentary representation could be used to stoke fears of an Islamist takeover and thereby serve as a reason to stall reform. If so, the strategy is at heavy risk of backfiring.
Since the 2005 elections, the regime has deployed a range of legal and security measures to control and constrain the Muslim Brothers. It has restricted their participation in subsequent polls, restricted their ability to function in parliament, arrested thousands of supporters and prosecuted key leaders and financiers in military tribunals. Meanwhile, it amended the constitution to formalise the longstanding ban on the Muslim Brothers’ political participation and facilitate the introduction of repressive legislation if and when the Emergency Law finally is repealed. While the approach hampered the group’s further electoral advances, it did nothing to reduce its legitimacy or deal with its longer-term political role. And it has noticeably degraded the quality of parliamentary and political life, entrenching the NDP’s virtual monopoly and dealing a severe blow to the legal, non-Islamist opposition.
The Society of Muslim Brothers also has altered its approach. It is using its sizeable parliamentary presence to confront the government and present itself as a major force for political reform. In an unprecedented move, and, despite the crackdown, it is seriously contesting elections for the upper house of parliament, municipalities and labour unions. In 2007, it also for the first time formally expressed its desire to form a legal political party. This last move in particular ought to be seen as an opportunity to separate its religious and political wings and begin the process of peacefully integrating a pivotal political actor.
The current situation in which a banned movement can offer candidates as independents gives a little to everyone. The Brotherhood thrives on its socio-cultural activism and retains manoeuvring space; the regime exercises leverage and constrains its formal participation; and the legal opposition faces less competition. But it also comes at real cost: confusion between the Society’s proselytising and political activities – arguably a key to its success; limits on the state’s oversight on the group as a political organisation; and overall damage to democratic life. Far better would be for the regime to formally incorporate the Muslim Brothers or an associated party into the political realm and open the political arena to a genuine democratic contest.
The Muslim Brothers also carry their share of responsibility. Although they have made considerable efforts to clarify their vision and can make a credible case that they embrace the rules of democratic politics, including the principles of citizenship, rotation of power and multiparty political life, serious questions linger. Many of their pronouncements are ambiguous; not a few – including in their most recent political program – retain a distinctly non-democratic, illiberal tone. This is particularly true concerning the role of women and the place of religious minorities, neither of whom, for example, the Muslim Brothers believe should be eligible for the presidency. Clarification is needed. Democratising the Society’s internal practice also would help, particularly if the group’s more pragmatic wing is able to make a credible case for a doctrinal revision as the price to pay for political integration.
The path toward integration will not be easy. The very reasons that make it more urgent – a tense socio-economic environment and a looming political transition – also make it more difficult for the regime to contemplate. At the very least, legalisation of a party associated with the Muslim Brothers is highly unlikely to occur under President Hosni Mubarak’s stewardship and may have to await the completion of a presidential transition. But this need not and should not mean complete immobility. Both the regime and the Muslim Brothers should initiate a dialogue as well as preliminary steps to pave the way toward eventual normalisation. Ultimately, the Muslim Brothers are too powerful and too representative for there to be either stability or genuine democratisation without finding a way to incorporate them. Their integration should be pursued not just for its own sake, but as an essential step to a genuine opening of the political sphere that would also benefit secular opposition forces.
1. Pave the way for the regularisation of the Muslim Brothers’ participation in political life, including by:
(a) ceasing arbitrary arrests of Muslim Brothers on the basis of membership in a banned organisation and releasing all Brothers currently detained on those grounds alone;
(b) clarifying or revising Article 5 of the constitution, as amended in 2007, to set guidelines for the establishment of a political party with religious reference;
(c) revising the laws on political parties and the organs that implement them, such as the Political Parties Committee of the Shura Council, to allow for the creation of new parties, including those with a religious reference, as part of a wider commitment to political pluralism; and
(d) engaging the Muslim Brothers’ leadership in a dialogue on these issues, notably in order to clarify reciprocal steps they need to take for legal integration into the political system.
2. Repeal the Emergency Law and allow full public debate over and parliamentary scrutiny of any proposed anti-terrorism legislation.
3. Frame the regularisation of the Muslim Brothers’ participation in political life as part of a wider process of political reform designed to restore confidence in electoral politics and open political participation to all non-violent political actors.
4. Engage in a dialogue with members of the government, opposition and civil society, notably by:
(a) approaching officials and reform-minded NDP members to discuss conditions necessary for the Society’s peaceful political integration;
(b) engaging with secular opposition parties and movements to form a consensus on how the Society can best be integrated as well as wider issues of political reform;
(c) engaging with representatives of the Christian community in a frank dialogue on sectarian relations and the Society’s stance toward religious minorities;
(d) supporting comprehensive political reform clearly, as opposed to a bilateral arrangement between the Society and the regime; and
(e) ensuring that consensus positions on these issues are formed within the Society in a democratic manner to avoid contradictory approaches by members.
5. Finalise and amend the Society’s political program, in particular by:
(a) altering its position on the role of women and non-Muslims in public life;
(b) continuing to seek input from a wide range of its members as well as non-members; and
(c) clarifying relations between the Society and a future related political party.
18 June 2008