After being officially banned from politics for decades, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is charging into the political fray under its official banner, looking to become a major player in the post-revolution government.
Egypt’s interim government this week officially recognized the group’s new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, clearing it to participate in September parliamentary elections. The party has pledged to contest about half the seats, leading to predictions that the Brotherhood will be a dominant force in the new political landscape.
But it may be less formidable than it appears. The organization’s response to the new freedom in Egypt is exposing cracks in its facade. In particular, it has alienated some young members who participated in the uprising to overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak, only to turn around and discover their own leaders wielding heavy-handed tactics.
While Brotherhood leaders say the Freedom and Justice Party is independent of the Brotherhood, they have appointed prominent members of their organization to lead the party and forbidden Brotherhood members from joining any other parties. They have also opposed the presidential run of a popular Brotherhood reformist, questioning members who have publicly supported him.
“We have a different vision for political reform in Egypt [than the Brotherhood does],” says Ali Abdel Hafiz, a young Brotherhood member who is particularly unhappy about the ban on joining other parties. “It's not a wise decision to just collect all these political ideologies in one party. Why don't you make everyone free to make their own parties?”
Rigid organization could lead to group's collapse
Mr. Abdel Hafiz, a cheerful graduate student in engineering, and hundreds of other young members considered leaving the Brotherhood and forming their own party. They have deferred that decision until later, but Abdel Hafiz is half expecting to be kicked out of the organization for his public support for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a Brotherhood member running for president against the wishes of the leadership.
Dr. Aboul Fotouh is a reformist who is well-liked by many of the Brotherhood youth. Brotherhood leaders have approached some of his young supporters and questioned them or asked them to choose between the organization and Fotouh, says Abdel Hafiz.
Such tactics might have worked when the group was suppressed by an authoritarian regime, but they will not help the Brotherhood succeed in the new, freer Egypt, says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a former member of the Brotherhood who is now an independent analyst.
“The Brotherhood has two options. The first is to be a rigid organization that insists on having only one legal political manifestation, and in that case the Brotherhood would eventually collapse,” he says. “The other is to be a more flexible organization, allowing different political manifestations and retreating from the political domain to the civil domain and operating in the background of society to shape ... social roles and so forth. In this case, it would grow more powerful. It would be able to capitalize as an organization on the social capital.”
Abdel Hafiz has a vision for the Brotherhood along the lines of that second option, where the Brotherhood would remain a social force, but leave members to participate in politics independently and not obligate them to join a certain party. The Brotherhood has long poured its energy into social welfare projects and proselytizing as well as political participation.
But with leaders proceeding along the first path, Houdaiby predicts a slow exodus from the group as members react to the rigidness from the top and discover they have new options in the new Egypt. While they may all come from the same foundation of wanting Islam to govern social and political life, the group’s members differ in specific political and economic, policies, he says.
Brotherhood leaders defend the organization’s actions in setting up the Freedom and Justice Party, saying that the party is independent of the Brotherhood and members will elect leaders as soon as party elections are feasible.
Essam El Erian, a longtime member of the Guidance Bureau and newly appointed deputy leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, says it is not restrictive to prevent Brotherhood members from joining other parties. “It is of course, a very natural decision,” he says. “It is nonsense to create many parties from one organization. How can anyone imagine that one organization should create two or three parties?”
But Aboul Fotouh, the Brotherhood member who last month announced he would run as an independent presidential candidate, disagrees.
“This is against the way of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says. “The Muslim Brotherhood cannot obligate any of its members to take a certain view in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) or economics or politics.” He also criticizes the Brotherhood for appointing party members, rather than electing them.
The former pediatrician’s decision to run for president as an independent has revealed another vein of dissent in the Brotherhood. As a long-time reformer in the Brotherhood, whose views are more moderate than the leadership, he is more popular among reform-minded youth than among the group’s leaders.
Brotherhood leaders said they would not run a presidential candidate, and the fall race for the top seat could turn into a situation where the Muslim Brotherhood is telling its members to vote against one of their own.
The numbers of young Brotherhood members publicly supporting Aboul Fotouh and criticizing the leadership are still small. But that could change. “We've a very small number but our voices are loud,” says Abdel Hafiz. “I think they are afraid that if we go away, other people will follow us.”