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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gears towards elections

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There are 22 players certain agreed upon rules and a referee. Players can play all they want but they cannot score goals. If someone does score a goal, he will be shown a red card, immediately, and sent off the pitch.    
These are not new FIFA rules but the way in which Egyptian opposition politics are allowed to play out.

One of the teams has by far the strongest following (with the consequent penalties): the Muslim Brotherhood. As the November parliamentary elections draw closer, all eyes will be focused on this illegal but tolerated Islamist group. Will it try to renew its surprising electoral gains of 2005 when it amassed 88 seats? Or has the regime crackdown left the group in internal disarray?

In January, the Brotherhood elected Muhammad Badi’, 66, as the new General Guide after Mahdi Akif stepped down having served two terms. The little-known veterinarian is expected to focus more on social and religious spheres – traditionally the group’s pillars – rather than national politics. Analysts say that Badi’s nomination marks the victory of the more conservative, secretive elements, within the organisation.  

Over the past few years the younger generation of Brothers has made their voices heard, with the endorsement of the former General Guide. One of the young bloggers I interviewed for my book is thirty-year-old ‘Abd al-Munaym Mahmud, who blogs under the name, Ana Ikhwan (I’m a Brother). He is also a journalist at the opposition paper al-Dustur (The Constitution).  

Particularly, the young Brotherhood bloggers criticised the organisation’s decision to seek party licence in 2007 and complained that the proposed party platform didn’t reflect their worldview.

The platform was first presented for internal debate, to select journalists and analysts but was soon enough causing uproar not only from outside critics, but also inside the Brotherhood. The most controversial issues were the notions that women or Copts wouldn’t be allowed to be the President of Egypt, and the formation of an ‘Ulama Council (religious scholars council). The Council would advise the legislative and executive branches in matters touching upon Shari’a, and its rulings would be binding.  

These ideas reveal that not much of substance has changed in the Brotherhood’s thinking since the days of its founder Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949). Their claims of emancipation for women come alive only in the run-up to elections, in order to win some brownie points by appointing female candidates. Their high-handed treatment of religious minorities raised further fears among the Copts, who were already experiencing an upsurge in sectarian violence. The Brotherhood has still not issued the final version of the party platform, saying it is dependent on overall political reform in Egypt.    

Mahmud started his blog in 2006. “What differs between us and the older generation are the inventions of our time. The previous generation didn’t have Internet or blogs where you can talk. But there has been criticism inside the Brotherhood before, for example General Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi’s critique of Sayyid Qutb in the 1960s. But our criticism is more visible because anyone can see it on the net whereas before the criticism was inside the organisation", he explained to me.    

He says that the differences of opinion are not based on age, on the contrary. “There are some young Brothers who are very radical and the same can be said about some older members. So it doesn’t depend on age, it depends on upbringing and openness to the society. We joined the Brothers in order to work with the rest of the society, not so that we can stay in a room and read the Qur’an and listen to speeches – no, we want to go out. This is the main difference.”  

Mahmud says he enjoyed a good relationship with Akif, but it is, yet, uncertain how the new General Guide will accommodate the outspoken youth. Another question mark is the upcoming elections. The Brotherhood hasn’t yet declared how many candidates it will wield. In a recent Carnegie Endowment interview prominent Brother Issam al-Ariyan said the groups is thinking of nominating up to 200 candidates, including 20 - 25 women.  

Last summer, the government approved a new quota for female legislators so that the number of contested seats increased from 444 to 508. The Brotherhood actually opposed the quota, arguing that Egyptian constitution treats all its citizens equally. Their fear is that the Coptic Christian minority will start making similar demands – but their real worry is that the ruling party National Democratic Party (NDP) is likely to grab those extra seats.  

Brotherhood’s previous Sister candidates haven’t exactly proven to be vote-pullers, although, this might have more to do with the extensive electoral fraud than their gender. In the 2000 elections for the first time in its history, the Brotherhood nominated a female candidate, Jihan al-Halafawi from Alexandria. Although she was inexperienced in politics, her husband, Ibrahim Za’farani, is no novice. He had been the Chairman of Alexandria Doctors’ Syndicate, and a three-time candidate on the Brotherhood list. He had, however, been among those arrested in the previous elections, and served a three-year prison term. As a result, in 2000 he wasn’t eligible to stand.  

Al-Halafawi has a Bachelor of Art (BA) in Finance and masters in Theology, but she’s been a homemaker for two decades. We met a bit before the elections and she denied that she was participating in the elections instead of her husband. Like many Muslim feminists, al-Halafawi argues that Islam gave women political rights. “In the time of Prophet Muhammad, women participated in war, issued fatwas…they had an important role. I’d like to see this role expanding,” she added.  

Yet her ideas of women’s role in society follow the line of the Muslim Brotherhood. "Primarily God created women to take care of the family. But now [in the modern age] women’s role has changed,” she acknowledged. She wasn’t elected. In the much-awaited 2005 elections the Brotherhood fielded another female candidate, Makarim al-Dayri, Professor of Arabic literature at al-Azhar University, but she wasn’t successful, either. No names for the 2010 election have yet been presented but the female candidates are likely to be wives of prominent Brothers.  

The elections, only a few months away, the Brotherhood is still trying to decide with whom to ally themselves with or whether run alone as independents. In June, the Shura (Upper House) elections none of the Brotherhood’s 15 candidates was elected.  This is considered to be an indicator on how the parliamentary elections will pan out. Brotherhood is not expected to gain anywhere near the historic 88 seats it won five years ago. It looks like the referee was distracted then - now he is likely to be more vigilant than ever.  


Sanna Negus is the author of And Hold on to Your Veil, Fatima! And Other Snapshots of Life in Contemporary Egypt,Garnet, 2010. She is the Middle East correspondent for YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company and has an MA degree on Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Helsinki. 


Cairo's Rooftops - Picture taken my M.P. in 2008, in Mohandseen, Cairo.

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