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Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?
Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers
Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?

The Society of Muslim Brothers’ success in the November-December 2005 elections for the People’s Assembly sent shockwaves through Egypt’s political system.

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Executive Summary

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.

Cairo/Brussels, 18 June 2008

Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers

To European leaders and policymakers:

We believe it is time for the EU to adopt a position on current developments in Egypt that is more clearly defined and better serves the interests of both Europe and the Egyptian people. For some time, the European Union (EU) has remained largely silent on political, judicial and human rights issues in Egypt, while several member states have acted to normalise relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government. Yet the Egyptian government’s crackdown has reached a point where the existence of an independent human rights community is in question, and there is no accountability for torture, death in custody and enforced disappearances despite overwhelming evidence of the direct involvement of Egyptian security officials and institutions in these practices. The death of Giulio Regeni and the unresolved questions surrounding it, which are naturally a major focus of Italian and EU attention, are also emblematic of a much wider problem affecting large numbers of Egyptian citizens.

The recent reopening of the “foreign funding” case to target the country’s leading human rights organisations threatens to close the principal groups attempting to document rights abuses, and could lead to life prison sentences for human rights workers. Instead of pursuing these groups, the government itself should be taking steps to tackle the problem of abuses committed by the security services, which are provoking increasing discontent within Egypt and widespread concern among the European public. It should also abandon the practice of imprisoning people for their political views or for peaceful protest. The current crackdown has shown itself to be counterproductive even in the narrow terms of Egypt’s stability and has now become an undeniable stumbling block for the EU’s ability to cooperate fully with the country. More generally, the Egyptian regime’s excessive focus on security, defined through repression, and failure to develop an inclusive approach has prevented it from making progress on Egypt’s economic and social challenges.

We therefore suggest that European leaders, starting with President François Hollande of France who visits Egypt next week, should send the following messages to Egyptian authorities:

  • The EU and its member states remain convinced of the importance of the EU’s relationship with Egypt and committed to support the inclusive political, economic and social development of the country. Egypt and the EU are bound together in numerous ways, including significant shared interests in security, regional stability and commercial ties.
  • However the future relationship between the EU and Egypt will necessarily be held back while Egyptian authorities persist with policies that the EU regards as violating fundamental principles, including persecution of human rights groups, impunity for violations by the security services, and imprisonment of political opponents. These policies will not bring the stability that both Egypt and the EU want to achieve.
  • The EU believes that Egypt should therefore: 1) Undertake a reform of the security sector that would in particular get rid of the use of torture and enforced disappearances by state agents, in line with recognised international standards; 2) Repeal laws that allow for the harassment and prosecution of civil society organisations, as well as laws that penalise peaceful protest, and drop the current prosecutions under these laws; and 3) Release those imprisoned for non-violent protest or political expression, ideally through a large-scale amnesty.
  • The EU stands ready to offer any assistance with these reforms that would be helpful, and hopes to be able to deepen its relations with Egypt as they move forward. In their absence, however, the EU’s relations with Egypt cannot help but be affected, and the EU will continue to pay attention to these issues and raise them publicly where appropriate.
  • The EU will extend its solidarity and support to Italy as it seeks to find out the truth about and obtain justice for the torture and killing of Giulio Regeni.


The European Working Group on Egypt* (EWGE)

Anthony Dworkin, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) co-chair

Issandr El Amrani, International Crisis Group (ICG) co-chair

Rasmus Alenius Boserup, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS);

Haizam Amirah Fernández, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE);

Koert Debeuf, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA);

Dina Fakoussa, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP);

Stéphane Lacroix, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po (CERI);

Daniel Levy, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR);

Arnold Luethold, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF);

Charles Powell, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE);

Stephan Roll, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP);

Patrycja Sasnal, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM);

Nathalie Tocci, Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI);

Richard Youngs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

The EWGE has been endorsed by the following prominent Europeans

Emma Bonino, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Italy

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO, International Crisis Group; former Under Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations

Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament

*This letter reflects the views of the individual signatories; institutional affiliations are listed for the purpose of identification only.