The New Legitimacy of the Muslim brotherhoods in Egypt | Issandr Elamrani
The New Legitimacy of the Muslim brotherhoods in Egypt Print
Issandr Elamrani   
The New Legitimacy of the Muslim brotherhoods in Egypt | Issandr Elamrani
Issandr Elamrani
The Egyptian case
There is a real need to understand better who these Islamist parties are, since they are very different one from another. Hamas is not the Muslim brotherhood even if they are closely related ideologically. The Muslim brotherhood is not Al Qaida, Al Qaida is not the Gamaa al Islamyia, a group that used to exist in Egypt twenty years ago and was also a terrorist group.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist organisation in the world, it was founded in the late twenties by Hassan Al Banna. It not only started as an Islamist group but also as a group anti British occupation. And it has, indeed, a quite nationalist, anti-colonial and anti western trait. It is the second oldest political party in Egypt -even if it is still illegal- but operated as a political group since its founding. It has not perpetuated any violent acts since the late forties, beginning of fifties and officially renounced to violence in 1966. It is not related at all to the latest tragic violence in Dahab last week.

I get the impression while talking to people in Europe or the United States that there is a blur line between Al Qaida, the Muslim brotherhood, Hamas…Studying the Muslim groups is quite a complicated task. There are a lot of nuances and subtlety. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood it was both surprising and unsurprising that during the parliamentary elections that took place in November that they did so well. People thought even that they could have done better. The elections had three rounds and they did very well at the first two rounds. The security services then intervened, in a lot of places the brothers have been arrested and harassed. They might have had more then 100 seats, but 88 seats is an unprecedented political presence in Egyptian politics.
To grasp this phenomenon you need to understand what happened this last year. Indeed, it has been quite an incredible one in Egyptian history. For the first time a movement, mostly leftist and secular went out in the streets to protest and say they did not want anymore Hosni Mubarak (in power for more than 25 years), and did not want his son inheriting power. There is a vast movement of discontent in Egypt and it is about politics, about police brutal repression, about the fact that the country has been under emergency law -a type of Marshall law- since 1981. This law makes it illegal, for instance, to gather in more than 5 persons for a meeting.

There is a lot of economic discontent, the rate of unemployment has been very high, officially 10 percent but it is probably twice as high. There is a lot of partial employment, a lot of people have very low paid jobs and have to take multiple jobs in order to survive. Egypt is not in a good state and it is important to underline it. It is an important Arab country, not only because it is the more populated but because it has a very strategic role in the region. It’s really a case to watch.

As I left Egypt last Wednesday it was president Mubarak 78th birthday. And while the state press was sending telegrams of congratulations you had an incredibly vibrant opposition press that was announcing his political death. It is the extent of the crisis that Egypt is facing at. It is not a crisis that is going to be resolved easily, it’s not like he is going to be easily removed, it’s not like the Muslim brotherhood itself is even trying to remove him. In this general context of frustration, both political and economical, the main beneficiary has been the Muslim brotherhood.

Now Why?
The people who were out in the streets and campaigning were not part of the Muslim brotherhood. They were secular, leftists, human rights activists. Why is it, then, that the Muslim brotherhood retroactively ripped all the benefits? Why the opposition had the worst performance since parliamentary elections were introduced? The reason is about this legitimacy. Even if it is banned in Egypt, the Muslim brotherhood is a movement that has a lot of charities, that does a lot of social work. It has among its members some of the most prominent figures of Egyptian society, bankers, doctors, lawyers, thinkers and writers, university professors, businessmen. It has legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians.

Egypt has 19 political parties, but most of them are irrelevant. They is the ruling national democratic party and next to it, three or four small secular opposition political parties. The Muslim brotherhood is illegal but is, certainly, in reality, the most important opposition party in Egypt. The ruling party is mainly an association of opportunists, people who join the party to gain access to the state and its resources. In the last elections, members of the ruling party run as independent candidates against the official candidates who won. It shows you the lack of discipline and the state of the ruling party. The secular opposition has been repressed and depoliticised and infiltrated for such a long time that is not yet able to mount concrete political campaign. And that leaves the Muslim brotherhood which carried out an excellent and effective political campaign if you look at it as a politician point of view: it started it months before, it did a lot of conversing in the country side and the city, it helped people in the hospitals, at mosques, it distributed medicines. It did what a political party is supposed to do. And that’s where a large part of legitimacy and electoral success is derived from. Now, the aftermath of the elections? Everyone was taking it back. The rise of an Islamist party in a country like Egypt raises a lot of questions. Egypt has 10 per cent Coptic Christian minority. What does that means for them? A fairly secular legal system and generally social morals. Does this mean that at the next elections they are going to double their seats again? Does this mean that in 15 years there will be a Islamist majority in Parliament? Assuming that democracy and free elections do come to Egypt, eventually.

The reactions of the Muslim brotherhood to all these questions was very interesting. It is essentially went on a Public relations offensive, a PR blitz. Not only in Egypt but also internationally. A few days after the elections a Senior member of the Muslim brotherhood published an editorial in the British paper “The Guardian” headlined “Don’t be afraid of us”. You had other members in the Arabic English press declaring “We are moderates, for democracy, we want to reach power through democratic means”. There is been a lot of reassuring lines such as “Christians and Muslims should be treated equally”. The most moderate wing of the Muslim brotherhood also developed an idea of citizenship whereby Christian and Muslim are treated equally. I need to underline that it is not the case today. So it is quite a step. Essentially the Muslim brotherhood was bending over backwards to appear moderate. Now we don’t have to believe it. We have examples of other Islamists groups elsewhere that reached power, was not positive and has not been reassuring. In a way, the Muslim brotherhood had it easy. I am saying this but it has not always been the case, a lot of his members been arrested and tortured in the past, and just recently 18 of them have been arrested again. But it had it easy because it had no other chance but to be in the opposition, and it is very easy to be in the opposition. You can always just criticize who is in power…Egypt has serious social, political, economic and cultural problems. A lot of poverty and unemployment and also in the midst of an existential crisis about what it wants to be. And it requires governance, The next step for the Muslim brotherhood if it wants to solidify its legitimacy is a lot of top questions that it has to answer. They produced a programme that explains in very vague terms what it stems for. The Coptic question. What their government do with them? Allow senior positions? Run for presidency charge? Since yet today it is not allowed. The role of Sharia, education, relationship with Israel.

It is important for Europeans especially to pay attention to the debates going on internally in the Arab World. In Italy you have a big debate about immigration and Muslim immigration in general. This immigration is not going to stop. Egypt is not going to get better a provide jobs for people. It is especially important to pay attention, if you want to have control on this cross relations in the Mediterranean.
May 5, 2006
Issandr Elamrani