Friday, November 19, 2010

What's So Scary About Egypt's Islamists?

By Aryn Baker and Abigail Hauslohner / Kafr Shibin
Time
Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

Night settles over Egypt, and the women of Kafr Shibin, a small town in the Nile River Delta, are attending the election rally of a local candidate running for a women's seat in Egypt's parliament. As the women take their seats, candidate Dr. Hoda Ghania fumbles with a tiny microphone taken from a battered karaoke set. Finally, with the speaker's special-effects option locked on "stadium reverb," a setting that belies the clandestine nature of the meeting, Ghania launches into her stump speech. "The situation in the country is bad," she warns. "Is it justice for our youth to graduate and find no job? For teachers to make 110 [Egyptian] pounds ($22) a month?" It's a familiar diagnosis for an audience well versed in Egypt's many problems. But for these women, each draped in the voluminous headscarf worn by those who are extremely conservative, Ghania's prescriptions are nothing short of revolutionary. "The change," she says, "should come through us, because God does not change anything except through us."

A dermatologist, Ghania, 42, promises to increase military funding so the army can tackle the land mines that have robbed farmers of their fields. She wants education reform, higher teacher salaries, better health care and literacy programs. She wants maternity leave for working mothers and stresses that Christians and Muslims should work together to fix the country. The audience nods vigorously. Some of the younger girls jump up to take photos on their mobile phones. (See pictures of why Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood still thrives.)

If Ghania were campaigning for one of Egypt's mainstream secular parties, her progressive platform would hardly merit notice. But she is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but widely popular group that Egypt's ruling party insists is too religious and too conservative to be allowed to exist as a fully legal party in a fledgling democratic system. For that reason, Ghania, whose father is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, must run as an independent.

When Egyptians go to the polls Nov. 28, they won't find the country's largest opposition group on the ballot. All of the Brotherhood's candidates will, like Ghania, be standing as "independents," a transparent subterfuge that allowed the group to win one-fifth of parliamentary seats five years ago. To make things harder for the Brotherhood this time around, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is largely perceived as corrupt and nepotistic, has rolled back some of the reforms that had made the 2005 election the most unhindered of President Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule. The independent judiciary no longer has oversight of the election, and a recent government crackdown on several media outlets has been interpreted as an attempt to stem criticism of the ruling party. (See pictures of Islam's soft revolution.)

With presidential elections slated for next year, there is a great deal at stake. Mubarak, 82, is expected to run for a sixth term in office. Challengers must be the head of an officially recognized political party or have the approval of 250 members of parliament and municipal councils. The government justifies the ban on the Brotherhood by arguing that religion has no role in Egyptian politics. Increasingly, however, Egyptians are starting to wonder if the Brotherhood's popularity is less a threat to Egyptian society than it is to the ruling party's grip on power. "They are good guys, not terrorists," says travel agent Ahmed Barakat. "But the government won't let them campaign, not even in student elections, [because] they will win."

Convenient Scapegoats
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown into a worldwide movement that promotes Islam through charity work, grass-roots activism and electoral politics. Though formally banned in Egypt in 1954 following decades of tension with the government, the group has been tolerated to varying degrees over the years by Egyptian regimes that have found it both threatening and useful. In the 1970s, the group formally renounced violence, though its Islamist teachings have inspired violent groups like Hamas. Both Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri were influenced by the movement's embrace of political Islam. Since the 1980s, it has become the most active opposition force in Egyptian politics.

The regime has responded to the group's rising popularity with periodic crackdowns: thousands of members have been detained over the past decade, usually on charges of belonging to a banned organization, and many Brotherhood-linked charities and businesses have been shut down. This has hardly stemmed its popularity. Rather, perseverance through imprisonment is a source of pride for its members.

The Brotherhood's dogged survival presents the question: What would happen if it were allowed to compete in a free democracy? Its opponents have no doubt about its nature. General Fouad Allam, a former chief of Egypt's internal security services who spent decades monitoring the Brotherhood, says it is similar in scope to the international communist movement but "more organized and more engaged." He hints at international funding of the group and raises the specter of an Islamist takeover of a key U.S. ally. "Egypt would regress 100 years if the Brotherhood came to power," he says, describing a scenario in which women could be forced indoors and Egypt's current peace treaty with Israel "would change 100%."

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The Brotherhood rejects such claims as politically motivated fearmongering, while Egypt's secular opposition argues that the government stokes fear of the Brotherhood to quash real democratic change. "This is the myth that Mubarak has been selling for 30 years," says Ibrahim Issa, the former editor of the influential newspaper al-Dustour, who was recently dismissed because, he says, of his overt criticism of the regime. (The newspaper's owners say the dismissal was due to an internal dispute.) "He is using the Muslim Brotherhood as a scarecrow. Mubarak says, 'It's either me or the jihadists.' [It's] his only guarantee for staying in power."

Mubarak isn't alone in making a bogeyman of the Brotherhood: governments across the Arab world regard it with varying degrees of suspicion. In Syria, for instance, the group has clashed with the secular Baathist regime and now operates almost entirely underground. Western governments aren't always sure how to view it. Since the Brotherhood gave up violence 40 years ago, says Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "there are no grounds for calling them a terrorist organization. But they do strongly support Hamas financially and politically."

Just how scared should we be of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? In numerical terms, it doesn't present much of a threat. Membership is in the low hundreds of thousands, and in a fair election, the Islamists would not be expected to win — in 2005, only 3% of the population voted for the Brotherhood. And some of those votes were in protest of an inept regime rather than wholehearted endorsements of the Islamist cause. "Many of the people who vote for the Muslim Brothers are doing it in order to vote against the National Democratic Party," says Sayed al-Badawi, the head of the Wafd, Egypt's oldest legal opposition party. (See TIME's photo-essay "Cast in Mud: Child Laborers of Cairo.")

Since the Brotherhood's bloc in parliament has achieved little over the past five years, it may now receive some of the popular skepticism previously reserved for the official parties. Legal recognition could diminish the Brothers' appeal, says human-rights activist Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: "Once you allow them into the political race, they become politicians, and they are judged as politicians." Legal status would also undermine the Brotherhood's claim to victimhood.

Members of the Brotherhood point out that this year, as in 2005, they are contesting less than a third of the parliamentary seats — not nearly enough to capture the majority needed to amend the constitution. Members say their immediate goals are grass-roots organization and political participation, not regime change. "We are not out to win and form a government," says Brotherhood member and parliamentarian Mohsen Radi. "Participation, not victory, is our new slogan."

Still, despite its limited effectiveness, the Brotherhood has appeal. Egypt has more than 20 legal opposition parties, but they're widely viewed as regime puppets, timid political bodies that exist more on paper than on the Egyptian streets. Such a limited choice serves the regime well — the few parties that manage to upset the balance are quickly quashed. Ayman Nour, head of the liberal Ghad Party, for example, challenged Mubarak in the first multicandidate presidential race, in 2005. He clinched second place with 7% of the vote — and was then jailed on fraud charges his supporters say were trumped up. Released in 2009, he has returned to the fray. "Our role is to show that there is a third option for the Egyptian voter. It doesn't always have to be a dictatorship or an Islamist regime," explains Shadi Taha, his campaign manager. "We believe that the majority of Egyptians [are] looking for that other option." (See more on Egypt's plans for Luxor: Vegas on the Nile?)

But these parties have a lot of catching up to do before they can challenge the Brotherhood. The Islamists have been building a grass-roots organization for decades, using university campuses, charities and close-knit family networks for recruitment. The Brotherhood's charity operations have been especially effective in earning admiration. After the 1992 Cairo earthquake, the group distributed tents and aid materials to 2,000 people who lost their homes and livelihoods. Many Brotherhood members are doctors and pharmacists who help fill the health care void left by Egypt's woefully ill-equipped government hospitals. The Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood-linked charity, operates 29 hospitals throughout the country, providing inexpensive but comprehensive services for poor Egyptians. In one such hospital in Cairo, visitors pay about $2 for a checkup. The facilities are sparse, but doctors say the practice is clean and the staff doesn't solicit bribes, unlike in the government hospitals.

It's a powerful strategy for winning loyalty, one other political groups are trying to copy. After business mogul al-Sayyid al-Badawi took over the liberal Wafd Party in May, part of his efforts to revive it revolved around a personally funded charity to provide medical services and community-development projects in the name of the Wafd. "We put a large amount of money towards human services, medical services and to share with people during disasters," he says. "So we have come to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood using the same methods that they do."

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Who Tolerates Whom
The same ambivalence about the Brotherhood's aims can be seen in the U.S. Egyptian intellectuals credit the Bush Administration with pushing for the democratic reforms that allowed multiparty elections. But U.S. support for regional democracy waned after the Brotherhood made significant gains and Hamas won the Palestinian elections of 2006. To the dismay of many Egyptians, that wariness seems to have continued. Instead of aggressively pushing for democratic freedoms, President Obama's State Department has sought to strengthen ties with the Mubarak regime, with an eye toward an Egyptian role in peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But Egypt's opposition says U.S. tacit support for Mubarak does far more damage to the moderate, secular parties that Washington would most like to see in power. "We are not asking you to impose democracy," says newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem. "We are asking you to stop imposing dictatorship."

Even among those who criticize the U.S. and the Mubarak administration, however, there are doubts about the Brotherhood. Some fear that if it rose to power, it would curtail the rights of liberals, women and minorities. "If fanatics were to run Egypt, there would be no room for Copts [Egyptian Christians] or people like myself," says novelist Alaa al-Aswany. Brotherhood members insist that such fears are baseless, pointing out that Christians receive the same care as Muslims in Brotherhood-operated clinics. When al-Qaeda threatened Egyptian Christians in early November, the Brotherhood condemned the threat. (See if Germany is Europe's next terrorism target.)

The group has long been a vociferous critic of Israel — which in turn regards the Brotherhood as a source of inspiration for and longtime sponsor of Hamas. The Brotherhood's prescription for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is total abandonment of peace talks, coupled with international support for Palestinian armed resistance. Not surprisingly, Israel views the Brothers warily. "It's not like the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted a more lenient or moderate line," says one Israeli official, when asked about the potential impact of a Brotherhood-led Egyptian government.

That said, the Brotherhood routinely dismisses fears of its ambitions beyond the country of its birth as overblown. Spokesman Mohammed Morsy insists that the Islamists' main goals are purely domestic: "We want to have a Muslim state in Egypt — not in Ireland." At the moment, both possibilities seem equally remote.
— with reporting by Karl Vick / Jerusalem

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