A country in crisis as fearful government cracks down on Islamist opposition
Mubarak's obsession with Muslim Brotherhood deals blow to multiparty politics
Ian Black in Cairo
Thursday July 19, 2007
A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood holds a banner that reads 'Islam is the solution' at a rally in Cairo
It was 3am when armed security agents hammered on the door of Khairat al-Shater's flat in Nasser City; his daughter Zahra could only watch and comfort her distraught children while her father and husband, Ayman, were detained as Hosni Mubarak's latest crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood got under way.
"The Brotherhood are good people," insisted Zahra, in a hijab of the kind increasingly seen on the streets of Cairo. "We believe in peaceful change and the regime is crushing us. Ordinary criminals are freed quickly and are treated better than political prisoners in Egypt." Seven months on, the two men were up before a military court again this week on charges of money-laundering and membership of a proscribed organisation. Mr Shater, a wealthy businessman, is No 3 in the Brotherhood hierarchy. Some 450 activists remain locked up under emergency laws.
In one sense, November's "dawn visitors" to Nasser City were rounding up the usual suspects in a decades-long cat-and-mouse game between the Egyptian state and the world's oldest Islamist organisation. But the confrontation is deepening - alarming for the 79 million people of the most populous Arab country and for anyone who hopes for democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa.
Egyptians laugh wryly when they recall the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's bold talk two years ago of a post-Saddam "forward strategy of freedom" for promoting democracy instead of bolstering the authoritarian status quo. In the blowback from Iraq, America's watchword today is "stability". Reform, especially anything involving Islamists, is off the agenda.
None of this seems to have affected morale at the Brotherhood's HQ, a shabby flat decorated with posters saying: "Allah is our goal, the Messenger is our leader, the Qur'an is our constitution, Jihad is our path and death in the service of Allah our highest hope."
"The Americans are allowing Mubarak to oppress us in return for him doing what they want over Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon," said Dr Mohammed Habib, the deputy leader, a geologist. "The government is using security to further suppress the people. It is getting dangerous."
Mr Mubarak is said to be obsessed by the Brotherhood. It is easy to see why: without vote-rigging it would have won even more than the 88 seats (20% of the total) it took in the 2005 parliamentary elections - its candidates running as independents to evade the constitutional ban on religion-based parties. The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections shortly afterwards confirmed that Islamists were on a winning streak.
That was the trigger for the current wave of repression, including constitutional amendments billed as reforms but largely intended to stop the Brotherhood advancing any further.
But its popularity is based on a reputation for not being corrupt and extensive charity work in clinics, nurseries and after-school tutoring. Its volunteers fill the gaps left by a state system that has seen illiteracy rise and services fail as liberal economic reforms enrich businesses close to the regime.
Protests over water supplies and industrial strikes have sharpened the sense of a country in crisis. "Egypt is on the edge of a volcano," said the editor of al-Usbua, an opposition magazine.
Even government loyalists agree with much of the criticism. "It is true there is corruption in this country, and that there is a link between wealth and power," said Mustafa al-Feki, of the ruling National Democratic party. "But the link between politics and religion is more dangerous."
The government plays on long-standing suspicions that the Brotherhood gets financial support from abroad. It is troubled too by its hardline views on Israel, and Egypt's 10 million Coptic Christians worry about safeguarding their minority status under Islamist rule.
Nor, charge critics, does the Brotherhood have a political programme beyond its simplistic slogan that "Islam is the solution". "They talk about the hijab, and not wanting women judges, but not about the economy or privatisation and issues that matter to millions of ordinary people," said George Ishaq of the grassroots Kifaya movement, which came from nowhere in 2004 to campaign against another presidential term for Mr Mubarak. "I think they have a hidden agenda. They don't say what they want exactly."
Members of Kifaya and other opposition secularists, such as Gassar Abdel-Razzak from the Egyptian Association of Human Rights, worry about the Brotherhood's views but insist it must have the right to take part in a viable democratic system. Yet the only way to do it would be by becoming a normal party - the subject of scepticism within the Brotherhood. "Even if we did decide to become a party they wouldn't let us," said Zahra al-Shater. "It's not a matter of being religious - it's being against Hosni Mubarak."
And genuine multiparty politics is exactly what the 79-year-old president is resisting. "In theory they do want a stronger party system," said a senior western diplomat. "But in practice the knee-jerk reaction is to diminish anyone who looks strong."
"I wonder if the regime wants to give the impression that the choice is between the status quo or the unacceptable alternative - the Islamists," said Munir Abdel-Nour, deputy leader of the Wafd party.
"The secular parties are prevented from doing any real political work - they are groups of demagogues besieged in their headquarters by thuggery and harassment," is the brutal summary of Hisham Qassem, a former newspaper editor. "The Brotherhood can function because they operate out of mosques and the government can't close the mosques. If this continues into the next elections - unless there is a massacre - the Brotherhood will win a majority. At the moment there is no other alternative to it."
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna is the world's largest Islamist organisation, with branches in many Arab countries. It now eschews violence but was banned in Egypt and thousands of its members were detained and tortured in 1954 after an attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sayyid Qutb, hanged in 1966, was a radical Brotherhood thinker who greatly influenced later fundamentalist theory. Despite repression, the Brotherhood is still by far Egypt's most popular opposition group, advocating reform, a multiparty system, free elections - and strengthened sharia law. But the Egyptian government rejects calls for dialogue with it from western experts who see it as a moderate group which should be supported in order to weaken violent extremists. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's No 2, castigated it for urging young Muslims to vote in elections instead of taking up jihad. The Brotherhood failed to win any seats in June's elections for the upper house of the Egyptian parliament amid widespread charges of vote-rigging and harassment.