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“Suit and tie”
– by Ivesa Lübben
Rally by Christians and Muslims after sectarian riots in March
Is Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood a monolithic force?
No, it is a broad people’s movement with many undercurrents. Its presence is felt in every village and every street. The Muslim Brothers are often business people and members of the educated elite, but they also come from the working class, and there are internal conflicts of interest accordingly.
How do they deal with such tensions?
Their ideology is about some sort of middle way between capitalism and socialism. It glosses over tensions between capital and labour. The Brothers believe that Islamic ethic forbids exploitation and leads to social justice. They managed to reach out to various social strata because, especially outside the major cities, there simply was no other opposition group people might have joined in search of an alternative to Mubarak.
So is the Brotherhood similar to the Protestant church in former East Germany? It served as an umbrella for the opposition during the communist era, but quickly became politically irrelevant after German reunification in 1990.
No, the Brotherhood is too political and too well organised. Egypt, moreover, differs from East Germany in being a very religious country. The share of people who say in surveys that religion matters to them very much is greater than in other predominantly Muslim countries. Most people want the law to be based on the faith and call for democracy at the same time, without seeing any contradiction. In their view, Islam promises freedom and social justice. Many people feel that values and principles must be rooted in religion since otherwise only the threat of punishment would ensure good conduct. This attitude is quite common among the people, including the Coptic Christians, by the way.
How does the Muslim Brotherhood position itself in regard to other religious groups?
Their existence is accepted as a matter of principle. Recently, Saaed Katatni, a prominent Muslim Brother, even said that the new party his organisation is planning will be open to Baha’is. This religious group is normally not accepted by Muslims. His statement was personal, however, so it did not reflect the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as such, does not really exist.
The Muslim Brotherhood was underground for a long time. Is it possible to identify different currents?
That is quite a challenge. There are traditional conservatives as well as young reformers. Some want to focus on the faith, others on politics. The working-class wing has recently been gaining influence. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood is in many ways comparable to West Germany’s Christian Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s. Its members are guided by religious values, but they don’t intend to implement them literally as government policy. Many members are pharmacists and doctors, or owners of small and medium-sized businesses, in the construction industry, for example. Many belong to the provincial elite. Typically, Muslim Brothers wear suits and ties.
That sounds more like Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan than Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The German media tend to depict Muslim fundamentalists as men with full beards, but not suits.
There are full-bearded fundamentalists in Egypt too, but they are not Muslim Brothers. They are Salafis, who are inspired by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism. They enjoyed some kind of jester’s licence under Mubarak because they served his regime’s interests in two ways. First, they were a devout competition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, they intimidated all who did not belong to them. For this reason, the religious minorities tended to feel that Mubarak was their only protection from Islamisation.
In the referendum in March, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians voted for the constitutional amendments which the military had proposed and which were supported by the former ruling National Democrat Party as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Was that an early decision in favour of the Brotherhood dominating the country’s future?
I don’t think so. I know that some Egyptians argue that 77 % had voted for Sharia law, which, in turn, would show how much awareness raising the democratic forces still need to do. For several reasons, I do not agree. The NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing in common. Their motivation was totally different. The NDP has splintered into many different factions. Many of its leaders are behind bars. The Brotherhood is in favour of holding elections soon and only wants to deal with constitutional issues once the revolution’s achievements are more firmly established. The many ‘yes’ votes may simply show that most Egyptians want the transition from military rule to a democratically legitimate government fast.
But the referendum certainly strengthened the forces that campaigned for ‘yes’.
I doubt thinking in terms of black and white is helpful, there are shades of grey. The referendum was not a final vote on the constitution. It was about correcting a few undemocratic provisions in the old Constitution: presidential terms were limited, and restrictions on who may run for president were eased. In principle, a Coptic Christian may now become president. The referendum also provides for a constituent assembly to be convened. There was no long-term decision ...
... except that the Muslim Brotherhood gets a head start thanks to its strong organisation.
And even that should not be overstated. The liberal and leftist forces also have organisational structures they can and should use. There were liberal and leftist organisations under Mubarak, some legal, others more or less tolerated like the Muslim Brothers. But both the liberals and the leftists suffer from most of their strong leaders considering to start parties of their own. The Muslim Brothers main advantage is their discipline, including in terms of financial contributions. Among themselves, however, they do not agree on everything. Their internal debate is quite controversial. Nonetheless, they know they want to act together, even though some young Muslim Brothers have begun discussing a party of their own. As in Egyptian society in general, the gulf between the old establishment and those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties is quite evident within the Brotherhood.
You do not seem too worried about the Muslim Brothers gaining political influence.
Personally, I am in favour of secular politics. There are patriarchal traits among the Brotherhood and authoritarian leanings too. Nonetheless, it must not be demonised. It is rooted in society and was part of the opposition against Mubarak. Currently, there is a very broad consensus in Egypt that democracy with free elections is the goal. The Muslim Brothers share this consensus.
Does the Brotherhood have the kind of pluralistic and democratic sense of mission that would serve a democracy?
That is too early to tell at this stage – and not only in regard to the Brotherhood, but to all political forces. For a democracy to work, obviously, not only the conservative religious camp has to be willing to compromise and build alliances. But these are issues Egyptian society will have to learn to handle on its own. A draft for a Muslim Brotherhood platform has embraced democratic principles like free elections, freedom of speech, pluralism of parties, revolving power and separate branches of government. The Brotherhood even suggested that all revolutionary forces campaign with a shared list of candidates in future elections. But others were not in favour of that proposal ...
… because the Brotherhood would obviously exploit such an approach and, in an underhand way, start paving the road towards a theocracy.
You sound like a conspiracy theorist. That kind of a hidden agenda would over-burden the Brotherhood. The Muslim Brothers have been calling for democracy for years, which is how they recruited new members. They cannot simply switch over to a completely different fundamentalist agenda that would go beyond their somewhat self-righteous moralism. Many members would desert them. Some Western observers say that Taqiya, which is about hiding one’s opinion and goals for tactical purposes, is an Islamic principle. But it really is a Shia notion and alien to Sunni Islam. Basically, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organisation of the conservative and educated middle classes, and its youth wing has become restless. It is next to impossible to run such an organisation by top-down directives.
The Palestinian Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. Does the influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers extend beyond the national borders?
The Muslim Brotherhood has branches in many Arab countries, and technically the Egyptians set the agenda. As far as national politics are concerned, however, the various branches act quite independently. The authority of the umbrella organisation is probably stronger than that of the Socialist International, but not much.
Is there a direct link to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)?
There are personal ties and they are made in a systematic manner, but there is no formal organisational link. Erdogan’s mentor Erbakan considered himself the representative of the Brotherhood in Turkey, but Erdogan and his people broke away from him to start the AKP.