Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Muslim Brotherhood In the Dock Again

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jan 23 2007 (IPS) - For the first time, President Hosni Mubarak has declared publicly that the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood group represented a “danger to Egypt’s security”. The President’s statements came amid an ongoing government crackdown on the group, triggered by the appearance last month of what the official press has called an Islamist “militia”.

In an interview published in the Jan. 15 edition of popular independent weekly al-Esboua, Mubarak said that the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes a danger to national security “because it adopts a religious orientation.”

The President went on to warn of the potentially injurious effects that the rise of political Islam could have on the national economy, saying that foreign investors in Egypt would “take their money and flee the country.” He added that “investments would stop and unemployment rates would increase, leading ultimately to Egypt’s isolation from the rest of the world.”

Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has for years pursued a relatively liberal economic strategy, opening Egypt up to foreign investment and pushing for privatisation of state assets. This policy was accelerated after a major cabinet reshuffle in 2004, when a government of ‘technocrats’ was appointed under the leadership of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

Spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood – which captured roughly one-fifth of the National Assembly in 2005 despite widespread electoral fraud – were quick to respond to the President’s contentious declaration. A day after publication of the interview, a statement on the group’s website protested that “those who made this judgment don’t know the truth about the Brotherhood, which has always appealed for dialogue.”

The statement went on to allege that the real reason for capital flight from Egypt was the “tyranny” of the ruling regime, a 26-year-old emergency law and government corruption. These factors, the group stated, have served to put Egypt “at the bottom of the list of countries in terms of development, transparency, respect for human rights and attractiveness to investors.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in the mid-1950s when some of its members were accused of trying to assassinate then president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the 1970s the group officially renounced violence and its tactics have been confined to the political arena ever since.

But while the Brotherhood remains officially banned, its members can run as nominal independents in parliamentary elections. Like Islamist parties in other majority Muslim countries in the region, the group has built up considerable grassroots support by providing much needed social services in impoverished areas, which has done much to bolster its popular standing.

The President’s statements came amid a wave of arrests of Brotherhood members over the course of the last month. Scores of the group’s members were detained.

The crackdown was triggered by what authorities described as a “military parade” organised by Brotherhood-affiliated students inside Cairo’s al-Azhar University Dec 10. According to witnesses, some 50 students wearing black ski masks and performing synchronized martial-arts moves participated in the event inside the precincts of the university.

The incident provoked a wave of official condemnation, spearheaded by the state press which hastened to depict it as a “military” exercise staged by an Islamic “militia”.

Government mouthpiece al-Ahram reported the next day that participants “wore the sort of dress commonly associated with (militant) groups like Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (in the Palestinian Territories) and the Mehdi Brigades (in Iraq). The prosecutor-general’s office declared that the parade was a part of the Brotherhood’s attempt to revive its “old military wing” in advance of establishing “a new Islamic Caliphate”.

In an emergency session of parliament held shortly afterwards, a decision was taken to launch an investigation into whether the Brotherhood was “forming armed militias on university campuses.” A statement issued by the ruling NDP denounced “the formation of a student militia” as “a breach of moderate Islam and an act of terrorism.”

Local human rights organisations also weighed in against the demonstration. “Civil society can’t allow for the substitution of the current political despotism with religious despotism,” Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights Secretary-General Hafez Abu Saeda told IPS. “If the Brotherhood entertains notions of subjugation and exclusion, I prefer the current despotism.”

Senior al-Azhar officials also condemned the display. According to the state press, university president Ahmed el-Tayeb warned parliamentarians of the rising number and influence of Brotherhood-affiliated students at al-Azhar over the last two years. “They now control the university mosques, using them as forums to attack al-Azhar’s moderate Islam and discredit its clerics,” he was quoted as saying.

While al-Azhar is seen throughout the Sunni Muslim world as one of the oldest and most venerable seats of Islamic learning, it remains firmly in the hands of the state, which appoints all of the university’s uppermost positions.

In the immediate wake of the incident, police arrested 120 students involved in the parade and almost 20 high-ranking Brotherhood members, including a deputy to the group’s supreme guide. “Security intelligence indicated that leaders of the banned group had recruited large numbers of students…and tasked them with leading demonstration and causing unrest,” al-Ahram reported.

Brotherhood spokesmen, however, insist the display was “athletic” rather than “military”. “Our methods are peaceful and we are striving for change and reform through peaceful means,” Mohamed Habib, first deputy to the group’s supreme guide was quoted as saying. He went on to strongly refute the idea that the group was “training militias”.

In statements published on the group’s website, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mehdi Akef said: “The media is trying to give a false impression (of the incident) in an effort to promote popular fear and anxiety about the Brotherhood.”

According to Akef, and to students who participated in the event, the parade had been part of a sit-in demonstration held to protest the earlier expulsion of several Brotherhood-affiliated al-Azhar students for taking part in unofficial student union elections in mid-November.

Mohamed al-Baltagi, spokesman of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc in the national assembly, called the attacks against the group by the media an example of “Islamaphobia”. “The Brotherhood completely rejects a state of chaos, because it knows that no one will benefit from such a state except the adherents of ‘creative chaos’ and those who collude with them,” he told IPS.

Even prominent members of secular political parties – which were trounced by the Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections – say the government is exaggerating the issue for its own ends.

Gameela Abu Ismael, secretary-general of the liberal al-Ghad party and wife of the party’s jailed leader Ayman Nour, told the independent press that Mubarak was using the threat of militant Islam as “a coat-hanger on which to hang its own failures, inabilities and maladministration of the country for the past quarter century.”

Sayyed al-Badawi, a high-ranking member of the liberal Wafd Party, also agreed that the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent a danger to the nation’s security. “Religious extremism – not the Muslim Brotherhood – represents the lurking danger which could strike Egypt from inside,” he was quoted as saying, “because it is born of escalation and persecution at the hands of the authorities.”

Nevertheless, the wave of arrests has continued unabated. (END/IPS/MM/PI/IP/CR/HD/AM/SS/07)

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