Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Persecuted Islamists Pledge Peace

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Mar 16 2007 (IPS) - This month has seen the detention of numerous members of the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood movement, in a continuation of the ongoing arrest campaign targeting the Islamist opposition.

Despite strenuous objections from Brotherhood representatives, Cairo continues to insist that the group constitutes a threat to Egypt’s national security.

In early March, Osama Saraya, editor-in-chief of prominent state daily al-Ahram, compared Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mehdi Akef to al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. “Both of them try to promote a culture of extremism among Muslims,” he was quoted as saying in the Mar. 7 edition of independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm.

Saraya added: “The political resistance now practised by Muslims can be described as ‘terrorism’ because of this extremist philosophy.”

In a Mar. 13 statement, however, Akef refuted government claims that the group espoused – or had plans to espouse – violent methods. The Brotherhood “will remain constant in its principles and methods while striving for peaceful reform through constitutional and legal channels,” Akef stated.

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.

While the Brotherhood remains officially banned, its members can run as nominal independents in parliamentary elections. In late 2005, the group captured roughly one- fifth of the seats in parliament, due largely to the grassroots support it has built by providing social services in impoverished areas.

Nevertheless, despite protestations by the group’s leadership, this month has seen the arrest of more than 60 of its members countrywide. Detainees have been charged with the usual raft of accusations, including “affiliation with a banned group”, “inciting protests” and “attempting to overthrow the political authority”.

The recent arrests bring the total number of detained Brotherhood members to roughly 240 since December.

Akef described the escalations as a “continuation of the dictatorial style” by which the government “aims to marginalise the political and social role of the Brotherhood.”

He went on to note that the latest arrests “come as a direct response to the rejection of proposed constitutional changes by Muslim Brotherhood MPs.”

The national assembly is currently debating proposed amendments to 34 articles of the national charter. But while the changes are expected to be approved by parliament this year, most opposition groups say the planned amendments will only serve to bolster the authority of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

“The NDP hopes to pass these amendments in order to ensure its current monopoly on power,” Hossam Bahgat, chairman of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told IPS. “The ongoing assault on the Brotherhood, meanwhile, comes as a result of the group’s rejection of those proposed amendments.”

Prominent members of the secular opposition are no less critical of government tactics vis-à-vis the Brotherhood.

Abdel-Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama, says the government is using a “pincer movement” with the aim of eliminating Brotherhood influence from the political stage.

“On a constitutional level, the amendment of articles 5 and 88 of the national charter will prevent the Brotherhood – as the most viable opposition group – from winning future elections,” Kandil told IPS. “On a security level, meanwhile, the group’s economic resources are being dried out by the asset freezes.”

Kandil went on to compare attempts by the current regime to stifle the Brotherhood with those of former president Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.

“The Nasser regime was able to contain the Brotherhood because it offered alternative social programmes aimed at serving the poor,” said Kandil. “This stands in stark contrast to the current regime, whose era has been marked by poverty and rising unemployment.”

Many observers doubt government claims that the Brotherhood is reconstituting its military wing.

“The Brotherhood will not resort to violence, as this would cost the group the sympathy of the people,” Diaa Rashwan, expert on Islamist groups at the state-run al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “Those who say the Brotherhood is reconsidering violent methods don’t understand the group’s strategy, of which the renunciation of violence is an integral part.”

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