Egypt's opposition targets reforms

Muslim Brotherhood members, Parliament's largest opposition bloc, are being closely watched.

During heated parliamentary debates last week on the government's annual policy statement, Hussein Ibrahim, a parliamentarian for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood party, lashed out with an impassioned plea for reform.

"It does not bode well for political life, especially when it comes to advancing freedom of expression, of movement, and freedom to join parties," he said.

He continued to castigate the government's human rights record, pointing to international reports that detail "horror stories about torture in police stations, cases in which prisoners have disappeared from jails and innocent citizens have been forced to admit to crimes they didn't commit."

Mr. Ibrahim is deputy head of an 88-person bloc of Muslim Brotherhood members elected to parliament in elections last November. The largest opposition bloc in this 454-seat parliament since the monarchy's 1952 overthrow, the Brotherhood has put political reform and fighting government corruption on the top of their agenda.

With fundamentalist Islamic movements across the Middle East gaining political influence, including the Iraqi Shiites, Lebanese Hizbullah, and Palestinian Hamas, the spotlight is on the Muslim Brotherhood to see how this group adapts religion to their democratic ambitions.

As an outlawed group, the Brotherhood ran as independents in last fall's elections, campaigning under the slogan "Islam is the Solution." But the Brotherhood's parliamentary activities seem to have gotten under the government's skin in recent weeks. Police have arrested about two dozen members in what the Brotherhood and analysts say is an effort to remind this group who is boss, despite its large parliamentary bloc.

The arrests are also part of a general government backtracking on political reforms. Last year's parliamentary elections were marred by widespread violence, largely instigated by police and government supporters. The government also recently postponed local council elections for two years, to avoid another Muslim Brotherhood election victory, many believe.

Although the Brotherhood is still a minority in a parliament with overwhelming state party control, they are proving to be a strong, outspoken, and unified force, analysts say.

"Already they are making a difference in parliament," says Diaa Rashwan, senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "For the first time in years, the [ruling] National Democratic Party is feeling that it is not alone and that there's this dedicated, unified 20-percent bloc in the opposition."

Since the Brotherhood's surprise victory, many have questioned what role this group would play and what difference it could make in a parliament with an overwhelming ruling party majority. Observers also wondered to what extent the Brotherhood's Islamic agenda, which calls for strict application of Islamic law, would take a back seat to more recent calls for political reform.

So far, the speeches and activities of Brotherhood parliamentarians emphasize political reform. Their agenda includes demands widely backed by democratic activists: changing legislation that allows journalists to face prison sentences for libel, granting independence to Egypt's judges, and canceling a 25-year-old emergency law that forbids gatherings of more than five people.

"We need economic reform and development, in education and health, but we can't realize this until we have political reform," says Mohamed el-Katatny, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc. The government, meanwhile, emphasizes economic reform with slower-paced political reform.

Not everyone, however, is convinced of the Brotherhood's commitment to democratic change.

"There is a problem of trust when they speak about democracy," says Mahmoud Abaza, chairman of the opposition Wafd's parliamentary bloc. "For 15 years their credo was application of Islamic law. Just in the last two to three years they joined the demand for democracy."

Muslim Brotherhood members, however, argue that Islam encompasses political change. "There is no contradiction between political reform and Islam," says Brotherhood MP Ibrahim. "Human rights come from Islam. Fighting corruption comes from Islam. All these issues stem from Islam."

Some government officials and analysts also complain that the Brotherhood lacks a concrete political program. "The Muslim Brotherhood did not come up with a position on privatization or subsidies or education or health, on any of the major challenges facing this country, compared to this government, which is committed to a program," said Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, speaking to a group of businesspeople in Cairo last Monday.

The Muslim Brotherhood may have its critics, but still the group has come a long way since its beginnings in 1928, eventually giving rise to dozens of extremist Islamic groups, including Hamas and Al Qaeda. In 1954, the Brotherhood was banned after a string of violent attacks,

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), however, still maintains a two-thirds majority, giving it alone the right to pass legislation and change the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood, together with the also outspoken secular opposition with 12 seats, can still use the parliament as a forum for their opinions.

In any case the Brotherhood says these arrests merely empower them. "We are used to being arrested," says MP Hassan Hamdy Aly. "This won't stop us. It just makes us stronger."

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