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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 the UK Prime Minister
Open Letter on Egypt to the UK Prime Minister

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 the UK Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister,

Tomorrow you will receive President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt at Downing Street. Few would deny the importance of maintaining contact with Egypt’s leadership, in light of the range of interests that the UK has with Egypt and the significant security threats emanating from the Middle East. But it would be incompatible with British and European interests and values to give President Sisi the endorsement of a Downing Street welcome without also making clear that Egypt’s current direction raises serious concerns. You should take this opportunity to press Mr Sisi to ensure respect for the rule of law and human rights, and call on him to free more prisoners detained illegally or due to unjust laws.

In May of this year, Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said that Britain looked to Egyptian authorities “to apply the rule of law consistently in line with international standards, and to protect the political and legal rights of all Egyptians as the basis for the country’s future stability”. It is hard to deny that Egypt is falling short of these standards. In the last few years, tens of thousands of people have been arrested, often for nothing more than non-violent protest and political dissent; hundreds have been sentenced to death after mass trials that do not meet recognised standards of due process.

There is strong evidence that the closing of space for legitimate political activity and freedom of expression is pushing some moderate opponents of the regime toward radicalisation and violence. The result of political repression is disillusionment with the political process, illustrated by the very low turnout in the current parliamentary elections, with worrying implications for Egypt’s stability.

At a time when President Sisi is seeking to use his interaction with foreign leaders to project an image of political legitimacy, you have an opportunity to show that Britain’s endorsement is not unconditional. You should make clear that Britain believes that an end to the policy of political repression is essential to restore the rule of law in Egypt and reverse the drift toward greater instability. In particular you should press President Sisi to take steps to release or grant amnesties to those people who remain in prison for political offences or for breach of the anti-protest law. In September, Mr Sisi released 100 prisoners ahead of his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York. He should be pressed to do more to correct the authoritarian drift of the last two years.

Such an approach would contribute to encouraging Egypt toward a path that offers the best hope for its future development, as well as being most consistent with the objectives that Britain and the EU more widely seek to fulfil in this important relationship.

uropean Working Group on Egypt (EWGE)

The group is co-chaired by Anthony Dworkin, from European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Issandr El Amrani of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Other members are:

  • 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.
  • Gunilla Carlsson, former Minister for International Development Cooperation, Sweden.
  • Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO, International Crisis Group; former Under Secretary General for UN Peacekeeping Operations.
  • Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament.