By Aidan Clay
Washington, D.C. March 12 (ICC) – The Muslim Brotherhood further solidified its power last week by securing the position of speaker in Egypt’s upper house of parliament. The appointment consolidates the Brotherhood’s control over the country’s legislature leading up to presidential elections in May. Already the dominant player in Egypt’s political landscape, the Brotherhood, liberals fear, may now be emboldened to field a contender for the presidency despite its previous assurances not even to back a candidate.
Until now, the Brotherhood has carefully campaigned as a pragmatic political party by concentrating on economic and political reform, and by vowing to protect the freedoms of all Egyptians, including minorities. Amr Darrag, the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Giza, told The Media Line, “Christians were part of the revolution and they deserve equal status under the law and the future Egyptian democratic process… We do not differentiate between Christians and Muslims, we are all Egyptians.” By directing public attention to issues such as land ownership reform and free elections, the Brotherhood has striven to portray itself as an entity with primarily political, rather than theocratic, goals.
During the chamber’s inaugural session on February 28, Ahmed Fahmy, of the FJP, was elected speaker by members of the Shura Council. The appointment followed the selection of FJP Secretary General Mohamed Saad al-Katatni as the speaker of the lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly, on January 23, thereby securing the Brotherhood’s control over both houses of the legislature. The Brotherhood holds 47% of the 508-seat People’s Assembly and 59% of the Shura Council’s 180 elected seats. An additional 90 lawmakers are expected to be appointed to the Shura Council by either the ruling generals or the next president.
The Brotherhood again announced that it would not contend in the next round of elections on May 23 — this time for the presidency. “The Muslim Brotherhood will not support Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh or any candidate,” said Muhammed al-Badi, the leader of the Brotherhood, in reference to former Brotherhood member Abul Fotouh who is now running as an independent. However, Badi was clear that the Brotherhood wants a president with an “Islamic background.”
Although the Brotherhood is not officially backing Abul Fotouh, Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, believes that the candidate will have the Brotherhood’s support nonetheless: “This is misdirection. The Brotherhood’s influential spiritual advisor Yusuf al-Qaradawi is supporting Abul-Fotouh. And guess what? The Brotherhood is going to support Abul-Fotouh ‘unofficially.’ How? Simple: through the ‘independent’ Justice and Development Party supporting an ‘independent’ presidential candidate.”
“It’s clear now the Brotherhood are willing to throw their weight into the ring… to support someone who is in line with Islamic values and is sympathetic to Islamic law,” Shadi Hamid, a research director at the Brookings Doha Center, told Reuters. “That will have major implications for the race.”
Widespread support for the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections indicates that voters will also likely support the campaign of a former member of the Brotherhood, whether or not he has the Brotherhood’s official endorsement.
“[Abul Fotouh] is one of the great people that the Brotherhood youth look up to and consider as a role model,” Mohammed Qassas, a Brotherhood youth leader, told The Wall Street Journal. “He’s a distinguished person, he represents moderate Islamism and he’s got a good chance to compete.”
Meanwhile, Salafis – who follow the strict Saudi Wahhabi doctrine of Islam – will probably have their own candidate, raising the probability that Egypt will elect an Islamist president.
In parliamentary elections, the Salafist al-Nour Party gained widespread support, winning 23 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and 25% of the elected seats in the Shura Council, making it the second largest party in the legislature. Between the Salafis, the Brotherhood, and other Islamist parties, Islamists hold more than 70% of the seats in the People’s Assembly and 80% of the seats in the Shura Council.
The Salafis’ success was the election’s greatest surprise and raises concerns among secularists that the group’s radical interpretation of Islam will be imposed over the whole of Egyptian society. Following Egypt’s uprising in January 2011, Salafis called the appointment of a Christian governor in Upper Egypt “anti-Islamic;” successfully had him removed from the post; protested the killing of Osama bin Laden, and attacked liquor stores, churches, Sufi shrines and mosques, and other institutions or businesses they deemed contrary to Wahhabi doctrine.
On March 3, the two houses of parliament began preparations for a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution. The constitution, which will be put to a referendum before the presidential election, could drastically alter Egypt’s government and determine the role of Islam in policymaking. The constitutional assembly will be selected by parliament on March 24.
Many secularists and Christians fear that an Islamist majority parliament will use its power to base the constitution on Islamic Sharia law. While liberals prefer a panel of outside experts and activists to draft the constitution, the Islamist-controlled parliament wants a dominant voice in the process.
“We should not come under pressure and waste the right of the majority by falling in the trap of giving the minority the right to write the constitution,” warned Salafist al-Nour party representative, Mustafa Khalifa, who advocates that Islamist parliamentarians should have the greatest voice in writing the constitution.
Salafis have further stated that Islam should be the sole source of legislation and that Christians and women should not be allowed to run for president. Other recent indicators, including charges filed against minorities and secularists for “defaming Islam”, have evidenced this commitment of the Salafis.
On January 9, Christian telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris, who founded the Free Egyptians political party, was charged with “blasphemy and insulting Islam” when he reposted a cartoon of a bearded Mickey Mouse and a veiled Minnie Mouse on Twitter. Among the group of Islamist lawyers who filed the lawsuit against Sawiris was Mamdouh Ismail, a former member of Islamic Jihad who has been known to represent accused terrorists and was himself arrested for complicity with al-Qaeda in 2007.
The Brotherhood quickly backed Ismail’s lawsuit while Salafis led a nationwide campaign to boycott products and services offered by Sawiris’ companies. Many secularists believed Islamists rallied the nationwide outcry to discredit Sawiris and his secular Free Egyptians Party.
Although an Egyptian court dismissed on March 3 the second of two cases filed against Sawiris, other cases remain pending; these include charges filed in early February against Adel Imam, Egypt’s leading comic actor. Imam appealed a sentence by an Egyptian court of three months in jail for “defaming Islam” for a role he played in a 2007 film. The cases represent only a few of many charges that were filed by Islamist lawyers in recent months to punish individuals for offending Islam and demonstrate that Islamists are using newly gained political powers to stifle freedom of expression.
“In both cases, [Sawiris and Imam] didn’t do anything against ‘Islam’ but merely made fun of Islamists,” commented Barry Rubin. “The battle, of course, is being waged by Islamists who want their interpretation of the religion to be declared as the only acceptable version. Westerners don’t understand that when that happens anything more moderate or flexibly traditional hence becomes illegal and punishable. The Islamist counter-Bill of Rights proclaims that the country’s people have no freedom of speech or freedom of religion, no right to free assembly or of the press.”
The blasphemy trials and other acts of discrimination against minorities have led secularists and Coptic Christians to denounce the Brotherhood’s success in the parliamentary elections which, many claim, did not adequately represent the voice of the Egyptian people. In the latest significant gathering of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early February, to mark the one year anniversary of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from power, demonstrators condemned both the military’s rule and the Brotherhood’s significant political gains.
“Protestors were shouting, ‘No military council and no Brotherhood. This is our revolution, the youth’s revolution,'” Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub told International Christian Concern. “The Brotherhood is more concerned with their movement than the benefit of the country.”
“I dream that one day all the Egyptian people will demonstrate against the Brotherhood,” said activist Mary Ibrahim Daniel, whose brother Mina Daniel was killed during protests on October 9. “I was surprised to see so many people, including Muslims, protesting against them outside the House of Parliament… The Brotherhood is hijacking the ideals and motives behind the revolution.”
It is unlikely, however, that secular activists can muster enough strength to gain widespread support when two-thirds of Egyptian Muslims voted for Islamist parties in parliamentary elections. Whether liberals like it or not, the leading candidates for the presidency are Islamists. Moreover, to run for president requires the endorsement of 30 parliamentarians. Only four parties have that many – the Brotherhood, the Salafis, the Wafd, and the liberal Egyptian Bloc (Free Egyptians Party). Undoubtedly, there will be few, if any, changes in the slate of presidential candidates before the registration to run for president ends on April 8.
The question now is: Behind which candidate, if any, will the Brotherhood put its weight? The Brotherhood could “unofficially” endorse Abul Fotouh or choose to back another frontrunner without a party, such as the nationalist Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and head of the Arab League. It appears that the Brotherhood’s support will dictate the election’s outcome.
The Brotherhood’s consolidation of power over Egypt’s two houses of parliament and its potential influence in the presidential elections has become a frightening reality for the country’s liberals and minorities. While the Brotherhood shares many of the Salafis’ fundamental beliefs, it does not wish to alarm moderates or Western allies and so has directed its public activities toward economic and political reform. Yet, many Egyptians worried about personal freedoms remain unconvinced. The Muslim Brotherhood’s official slogan has long been “Islam is the Solution” and few liberals are persuaded that the group’s sudden rise to political stardom will alter its fundamental Islamic agenda.
“There are genuine fears because the heads of the Brotherhood now and the Salafis who got into parliament, none of them – neither their organizations nor their ideas – reflect that they are people who live in this day and age and understand how a nation can progress,” Gamal al-Banna, the more moderate brother of the Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna, told Reuters.
“Any nation founded on religion must fail… [Egypt’s revolution] was a popular uprising that succeeded in destroying a system, but not in building a new one,” al-Banna concluded. We shall soon see whether the rule of Mubarak will be replaced by the tyranny of Sharia law.
By Aidan Clay