The past fortnight has witnessed political duelling between Cairo and Washington, with Egypt hitting back at Washington for issuing an apparent warning in favour of the banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Washington was “concerned by a continuing campaign of arrests in Egypt of individuals who are opponents of the current governing party and are involved in the upcoming local elections”. Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Hussam Zaki reiterated that “these comments reflect a lack of understanding of Egypt’s political reality”.
Traditional impotence; new importance
The Egyptian government recently intensified its crackdown against the MB—the largest and most organised opposition group in the country, albeit legally banned—ahead of the municipal elections scheduled for 8 April.
The group’s deputy supreme guide Mohammed Habib said that at least 90 per cent of the Islamist candidates were prevented from registering for the elections due to a clampdown by the regime and a campaign of obstruction. At least 900 members have been arrested since mid-February, he said.
Municipal councils, which were traditionally controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), have always been seen by Egyptians as politically impotent and ineffective. Since 2005, however, they gained particular importance since a constitutional amendment required independent presidential candidates to have the backing of local councillors.
The upcoming elections should have been held in 2006 following the Parliamentary elections of 2005 but, when the MB managed to secure 88 seats in Parliament, the administration postponed the municipality elections for fear the MB would dominate them.
All the players on the Egyptian political field are in the race to win membership in the municipalities. For its part, the NDP is sparing no effort to block or at least obstruct the participation of other parties. In retaliation, it was rumoured that some political parties would boycott the elections, but several were said to have formed a coalition and intend to contest the elections.
Head of the leftist Tagammu party Rifaat al-Saïd told Watani that, despite the glaring obstacles Tagammu candidates faced in the nomination process, the party was actively participating in the upcoming elections, since its utmost priority was to enable the masses to exercise their authority and to attain a strong presence on the political scene. Tagammu was coordinating efforts with the Nasserist party, the Wafd and the Democratic Front, Mr Saïd said. “We will represent the masses, no matter what,” he stressed.
The MB in the meantime has been trying to form its own coalition with some of the minor political parties so that MB candidates may run on their lists. But the most controversial move to date has been the hint by MB leaders that they intend to include Copts on their candidate lists. Watani contacted Mr Habib who confirmed the rumour, and said Copts were welcome to run under the MB’s famous motto “Islam is the answer”. “In fact, Mr Habib stressed, this is not only the MB’s motto but the State’s as well. The second article of Egypt’s Constitution says that much. As such, this motto should dominate all aspects of life in Egypt, whether political, economic, social, or cultural.” He said, however, that the MB will also run under mottos calling for reform and condemning corruption and tyranny.
The MB, Mr Habib said, wished to lure Copts into the political field. How can that be, Watani asked, while the MB has repeatedly announced that Copts are not eligible to leading posts in the country and are required to pay jizya which is a tax imposed upon non-Muslims under Muslim rule. Mr Habib replied that Copts were an authentic part of the Egyptian community, were first class citizens, and that jizya was history.
Mr Saïd’s comment to Mr Habib’s words was that Copts who agreed to run with or elect MB candidates were nothing short of ‘politically blind’. The MB, he said, rejects citizenship concepts in the first place, and refuses to even consider that Copts are equal to Muslims, and has been very outspoken about that. That some MB members today pronounce declarations to the contrary does not mean they have changed their thought; merely that they are trying to garner cotes in every way possible. “Copts who cannot see this have definitely no political vision,” Mr Saïd stressed.
“Even if we are to believe the MB, Salah Eissa, chief editor of the State-owned weekly al-Qahira—one of the most liberal Cairo papers—told Watani, the fact remains that the raison d’être of the MB is the establishment of a religious State. It is true that at some point in their history, he said, a Copt or two was within their ranks, but this does not annul the fact that they call for a religious State. And, Mr Eissa insisted, a civil State cannot possibly accommodate a religious party based upon religion. The MB, he said, is a group whose desires to establish a religious State goes against the Egyptian Constitution. As to Copts joining the MB, Mr Eissa remarked, that was a mere political tactic which does not waive the concept of the religious State. “And religion, he said, should be absolutely separated from the State, and should remain a strictly personal domain.”
We must face the facts. The Muslim Brothers do not win elections because they offer an unparalleled political platform; in fact their political programme is in no way different than any other. Neither do they win because they field appealing candidates. They win because the Egyptian political arena is void of any force save the ruling, dominating National Democratic Party, and a number of opposition parties that are too weak and internally split to compete with the NDP.
If Egypt is to be a modern State, this state of affairs cannot possibly persist. There should exist a serious, dynamic political arena able to spawn various political forces that would represent the needs of Egyptian voters.
Confronting the MB through a ‘security’ perspective, by detaining its members and thus keeping them away from the political field, has never worked. This ‘security solution’ was employed by every Egyptian ruling regime since the time of the monarchy in the 1940s and throughout the republican regimes since 1952, and the MB are still there and going strong.
Egyptians cannot be left out there in a political wilderness, then we wonder why the MB wins.