Three days after former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, the Muslim Brotherhood announced plans to form a political party.
"When the popular demand for the freedom to form parties is realized, the group will establish a political party," said the statement, posted on the group's website on 14 February.
The announcement did not surprise anyone. The group, founded in 1928 by Hassan El Banna, has been trying to form a party for at least two decades but to no avail. A 2007 constitutional amendment banning the formation of political parties based on religion made this prospect even more distant.
But the revolution changed everything. Mubarak has stepped down, parliament has been dissolved and the constitution suspended. Most significant of all, in terms of the brotherhood’s ambitions, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has formed a committee to amend the constitution, paving the way for it to gain political legitimacy.
“We have wanted to form a political party for decades,” says Mohamed Morsi, a member of the brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau. “But the corruption and injustice that we lived in, the legislation aimed at stifling of political participation, and the fact that the Political Parties Committee was controlled by the NDP made our quest impossible.”
Throughout the 18 days of the Egyptian revolution, the threat of a brotherhood takeover was voiced repeatedly in the media. Rumours that most of the protesters in Tahrir Square were brotherhood members sparked accusations that the group was riding the wave and exploiting a revolution, triggered by the country’s youth, for their own ends. Western media debated the possibility of the brotherhood taking over and what this would mean to Egypt’s ties with the US and regional stability.
Throughout, the brotherhood sought to emphasise that they are not leading the protest, but rather taking part as Egyptians. The group’s official website, Ikhwanonline, released statement after statement congratulating the Egyptian people for their “intifada,” and supporting the demands of the protesters.
On 3 February, the brotherhood released a statement saying that the group “does not have an agenda and their only purpose is to serve the people, which we have been doing for the past eighty years.”
After Mubarak stepped down and the armed forces said they will lead the country until presidential elections are held, the brotherhood made clear that they have no intention of fielding a presidential candidate. Their efforts, they say, will be spent in creating a strong Islamic political party that will be competitive and effective in gaining popularity.
“I believe that we will have a strong party because it has gained momentum from the revolution,” says Essam El-Erian, a senior brotherhood leader. “It will be open for men and women and for Muslims as well as Christians.”
The group plan to use a preliminary draft for a civil party which they created in 2007 and presented to 40 intellectuals, journalists and analysts for feedback to form a program for their planned party. Although the draft included eight sections covering everything from economic reform to solutions to the various problems in the Egyptian society, it was two controversial points that attracted particular attention.
The first was the prohibition against women and Christians from running for president, which meant that at least 51 per cent of the Egyptian population would be ineligible to run, raising questions about how the group’s attitude towards equality of citizenship. The second was the idea of creating a “Supreme Ulama Council” – a body of religious figures who would review executive decisions to ensure they comply with Islamic law. The opinions and approval of the Muslim clerics in the council would be crucial on all matters relating to government, by consulting “proven Islamic texts.”
Despite this criticism, Morsi maintains that the brotherhood intends to base its planned political party on the 2007 draft. People were quick to judge the program, he contends, and refused to enter into an intelligent discussion on the various points it raised.
“These people just wanted to attack for the sake of attacking,” says Morsi. “They preferred a monologue to a dialogue.”
El-Erian points out that the group spent 2008 gaining feedback for the program and, now they are preparing to launch a party, the program might be given a “major overhaul”, which may include a revision of the two controversial points.
Rather than implementing wholesale changes, however, Morsi says the group will focus on “editing” the program to clarify its meaning. In this way, for instance, he hopes it will become apparent that the brotherhood is pushing for a civil state; Islam, Morsi explains, does not recognize the notion of a theocratic state.
“The theocratic state was created in the West in the middle ages when people started diverging from true Christianity,” explains Morsi. “On the other hand, Islam adheres to the notion of a civic state with Sharia as its framework.”
Regarding, the Ulama Council, Morsi again insists that their idea was misunderstood; they never said that the council’s authority would supersede that of the parliament.
“What our program suggests is that if the parliament has an issue of a religious nature that needs the opinion of a committee, they can consult the Ulama Council, but are not obliged to act on that advice,” he says. “The current parliament already has a religious affairs committee, so what we are suggesting is neither controversial nor new so why the backlash?”
The fact that their program stipulates that the president must be Muslim is nothing new either says Morsi, pointing out that seven western constitutions state that the leader must be of a specific faith.
“In Egypt, the president is also the commander of the armed forces, which means that religion may play a role, especially if they fight the Zionists for example,” says Morsi. “But a Christian can be a general or minister of defence, no problem.”
Then there is the big question – Israel. Since the revolution picked up and it became likely that the president will step down, the question of Israeli security in the case of a brotherhood takeover and whether or not they will commit to the Camp David agreement keeps being raised – to Morsi’s apparent chagrin.
“Yesterday we had a French journalist who kept asking me about Israel and I kept telling him: well how come you are not asking me about France? But to answer the question: no we do not recognize Israel, we only recognize Palestine as a land where Muslims, Christians and Jews can live equally.”
Nor does the brotherhood mince its words when it comes to Iran.
In an interview with Egyptian State TV, senior brotherhood official Saad el-Katateny said the group rejects Iran’s political profile because the reference in Egypt is the constitution, the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Legislative Council.
Israel aside, Morsi says that the brotherhood is now more focused on events in Egypt and the upcoming parliamentary elections, which they plan to contest. In 2005, they won 88 seats. Now, they say, if the elections are transparent, they may win more seats.
But Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and an expert on Islamist movements, says it is not yet clear how popular the brotherhood is anymore. In the old Egypt, it was the NDP versus the brotherhood, then considered the largest opposition group. In the new Egypt, however, the ball is up in the air.
Rashwan points out that the usual voter turnout of three million is just one million more than the number of protesters who demonstrated in Tahrir Square during the revolution.
“Now we have this huge number of people and nobody knows who they are and what are their political ideology is,” says Rashwan. “The brotherhood will do their best to reach out and spread their ideology among this new section of the population, but I doubt that they will be able to do it before the next elections and I also doubt that any of these masses are from the brotherhood.”
The brotherhood, adds Rashwan, are not as strong as people think.
“People always talk about pre-revolution and post revolution, but what about the middle period?” asks Rashwan. “If the brotherhood were so strong, how come they couldn’t trigger the revolution themselves? Because they are not strong enough to do so.”
Add to that, he says, the fact that many of the youth who initiated the January 25 revolution have lost faith in all the old political groups.
“They have not only lost trust in the former government and in the NDP, but in all the political groups of the past,” he explains. “That’s why they keep trying to come up with new political parties; they want something fresh, something new.”
But, says Morsi, everything takes time. As long as there is true democracy and transparent elections, he is sure the brotherhood has a chance to become a dominant player in the political arena.
“We are in no rush,’ says Morsi. “Yes we have great popularity, but we are still not experienced in the work of political parties and we need time to get ourselves together, earn experience and learn how to combine our political work with our da’wa (evangelism) message.”