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EGYPT: Political Punch with a Religious Thrust

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, May 26 2011 (IPS) - More than three months since the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement is well on its way to forming its first official political party since its inception in 1928. But while the nascent party is to be based on “the principles of Islamic Law and respect for freedom of belief,” some critics see this as a contradiction.

“The Brotherhood can’t seem to decide if it’s a religious group or a political one,” Gamal Fahmi, political analyst and managing editor of Nasserist weekly Al-Arabi Al-Nassiri told IPS.

Last week, Brotherhood officials formally applied to establish a party with Egypt’s recently-formed Political Parties Affairs Committee. The would-be party, dubbed “Freedom and Justice” is expected to be granted official party status 30 days after its initial application, barring objections by the committee.

“The party will officially begin its activities in one month’s time,” Mohamed Saad al-Kitatni, prominent member of the Brotherhood’s authoritative Guidance Bureau, told reporters last week.

Late last month, the group’s Shura Council – in its first open assembly since 1995 – named the party’s three leading officials (all culled from the Guidance Bureau): Mohamed Mursi as party president; Essam al-Arian as vice-president; and al-Kitatni as secretary-general. The rest of the party’s leading appointments are expected to be announced within the next month.

While the new party will be financially and administratively independent of its parent organisation, the two entities plan to closely coordinate their activities. ‎”The Brotherhood will cooperate with the party on certain occasions, especially during elections,” said group spokesman Walid Shalabi.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was formally outlawed in 1954 and remained so throughout Mubarak’s 30- year rule, during which group members were subject to frequent arrest and harassment. The last open meeting of the group’s Shura Council in 1995, for example, ended with most attendees being hauled before military tribunals.

Nevertheless, the group – which has long espoused a policy of non-violence – maintained its position as Egypt’s largest, most popular and best-organised opposition force. This was due in large part to its extensive social welfare network, which includes hospitals, orphanages and charitable assistance programmes in low-income areas.

Despite the Brotherhood’s outlawed status under the former regime, the group was permitted to field parliamentary candidates so long as they ran as nominal independents. In 2005, the group captured some 20 percent of the national assembly, otherwise dominated by Mubarak’s since-dismantled National Democratic Party (NDP).

Following Mubarak’s February ouster, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed executive authority, allowing the Brotherhood to operate openly. Within days of Mubarak’s departure, the group had announced its intention to establish a legal political party.

Justice and Freedom boasts some 9,000 founding members, almost 1,000 of whom are women and almost 100 Coptic Christians. Coptic philosophy professor Rafiq Habib has been selected as the party’s vice-president for foreign affairs.

“We didn’t appoint Habib simply because he’s a Christian, but because of the intellectual weight he brings to the party,” said al-Kitatni. The appointment, he added, “confirms that the Brotherhood has no objection to Christians assuming ranking positions within the party.”

In line with a newly enacted law that expressly prohibits political parties based on religion, Brotherhood officials are adamant that Freedom and Justice is not a religious party per se. Rather, they say, the party will merely “use the principles of Islamic Law as a chief reference” – not unlike Egypt’s constitution, they note, which declares Islamic jurisprudence to be “the principle source of legislation.”

“All parties have their respective systems and ‎mindsets: some are liberal, socialist or leftist,” party president-to-be Mohamed Mursi said on May 17. “The Freedom and Justice ‎Party is a civic party led by Islamic principles.”

He added: “Any Egyptian ‎can join except those who belonged to the dismantled NDP.”‎

Tellingly, the party plans to scrap the Brotherhood’s traditional motto, “Islam is the solution” in favour of “Freedom is the solution and justice the application (of freedom).”

Some critics, however, accuse the Brotherhood of exploiting its religious aura to score political gains in Egypt’s newly-liberated electoral process, at the possible expense of minority groups such as Egypt’s Christian community (estimated at roughly 10 percent of the country’s population of 85 million).

“The Brotherhood is using religion to promote a political agenda,” said Fahmi. “This contradicts the basic tenets of democracy and could lead to sectarian dissension.”

The presence of a Coptic-Christian in the Freedom and Justice Party’s upper echelons, he added, was “merely cosmetic.”

Abdel Menaam Mounib, prominent Egyptian journalist and expert in Islamist movements, disagreed.

“The application of Islamic principles would provide Egypt’s Christian minority with more rights than they had during the Mubarak era,” Mounib told IPS. “Aggression against churches, for example, or any place of worship, is completely proscribed under Islamic Law.”

In an effort to allay fears that the group aimed at sweeping upcoming elections, Brotherhood officials have said the new party would only field candidates for half of the seats in parliament. The group has also vowed to refrain from fielding a candidate in upcoming presidential elections.

Fahmi, for his part, says such fears are unfounded. He believes both the Brotherhood’s power and popularity have been widely exaggerated, particularly by the media.

“I can’t see the Freedom and Justice Party capturing more than a quarter of the seats in parliament,” he said. “I doubt that all of Egypt’s Islamist parties combined could manage to win an outright majority.”

Mounib, however, again disagreed, predicting that newly established Islamist-oriented parties would register historic gains in Egypt’s first-ever free parliamentary races.

“Six Islamist movements, including the Brotherhood, are currently in the process of establishing parties,” he said. “Given their strong grassroots support and ability to mobilise, they could together capture as much as 70 percent of the seats in parliament.”

Elections for Egypt’s 518-seat parliament are slated for September. Presidential elections are expected to be held four months later at most, according to the ruling SCAF.

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