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'Brotherhoodisation' of Egypt claims are overstated, say experts

Despite fears of looming Islamist domination of Egypt's political life, competing interest groups and popular expectations are likely to hinder the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power

Ekram Ibrahim , Thursday 30 Aug 2012
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Egyptian protesters chant anti government slogans outside the People's Assembly building during the opening session in Cairo, Egypt Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.(Photo:AP)
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"Down with the regime" chanted millions of Egyptians during the 18-day January uprising last year, while calling for the ouster of then President Hosni Mubarak, which was realised on 11 February, only for the revolutionaries to carry on protesting.

"Down with military rule" was another chant hundreds of thousands of Egyptians shouted while protesting against the interim junta on military trials for civilians, the use of force against demonstrators, and many other policies that seemed to resemble those of Mubarak.

Now, after the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have completely seized power from the once-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), "The revolution continues" seem to be the whisper of some revolutionaries.

While many Egyptians believe that, upon retiring the military generals who served under Mubarak, the old regime's remnants have been kept at bay, others think the “Brotherhoodisation” of the state is likely to be implemented in full.

"'Brotherhoodisation' means a true democracy; its rivals are the rivals of democracy as well. Mohamed Morsi is an elected president and the help of the Brotherhood is indispensible to rule Egypt," said Saad El-Hussieny, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Shura Council, during a television interview on Hayat satellite channel 26 August

Upon close inspection, however, "Brotherhoodisation" does not seem inevitable, at least in the near term.

The Brotherhood's road to power

The Muslim Brotherhood has been one of the most organised political groups in Egypt for decades. “Looking at Egyptian institutions as a pyramid, the Muslim Brotherhood has successfully filled the lower positions of the pyramids across the past 80 years [since their establishment] and have now filled its upper part as well,” Emad Gad, researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online.

Under the despotic Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood’s members steadily increased, despite the anti-Islamist policy in force at that time. They were estimated at around 500,000 members in the latter years of the Mubarak era.

In Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood won 88 seats (20 per cent of the total) in the People’s Assembly to comprise the largest opposition bloc in parliament. The 2011 uprising, however, took the Brotherhood’s ambitions to a whole new level.

To begin with, the Islamic group, which was labeled "banned" under Mubarak, and was denied official political representation, was finally given the right to launch a political party — the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Many figures and members of the Brotherhood group who were imprisoned before the uprising were released as well. Later, the Brotherhood decided to field a candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in the presidential elections, despite an earlier announced decision not to.

The fear of a Brotherhood-dominated country reached a climax after President Morsi cancelled the addendum to the SCAF-introduced Constitutional Declaration, added to sweeping governmental and military reshuffles that saw Field Marshal Mohamed Hussien Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan retired.

But Morsi has a long way to go assert his authority and that of his allies inside the state itself.

Bureaucratic challenge

One of the reasons why "Brotherhoodisation of the state" seems far-fetched is the fact that there are a host of civil bureaucratic interests inside the Egyptian state that have long enjoyed financial and political autonomy, explains political analyst and co-editor of Jadaliyya Hesham Sallam.

Egyptian bureaucracies are padded with a variety of off-budget private funds that generate a significant amount of revenue each year. Accordingly, these bureaucratic interests will resist Morsi’s reforms.

"If Morsi has full presidential and legislative powers on paper at this point, the challenge of Brotherhoodising state institutions will not be as easy as it seems at first glance," Sallam told Ahram Online.

"It is a challenge that will likely take a long time to meet, and demand as much accommodation as conflict in dealing with Egypt’s traditional bureaucratic elites," he added.

For a group to take control of the state it has to take control over its critical institutions, explains Samer Soliman, associate professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo (AUC). They must have control over the media, society, judicial system, economy, army and police,” he added.

During Mubarak's era, Brotherhood members were barred from state positions, for the most part. They were especially prevented from being part of the police, the army or the media. “During Mubarak’s era, the Brotherhood were in prison and not filling any positions,” Ali Abdel Fattah, a prominent Brotherhood member, told Ahram Online.

Media control

Regarding the media, newly appointed Prime Minister Hisham Kandil recently assigned the Ministry of Information to a Brotherhood member, Salah Abdel-Maksoud. Thereafter, the Shura Council reshuffled the chief editors of state-owned newspapers, putting in place “either members of the Muslim Brotherhood or people with a similar line of thought," Gad opined.

Media control has gone as far as having one of the new editors remove an entire opinion section. Al-Akhbar, a prominent state-owned newspaper, published without opinion pages days after the new chief editor was appointed.

It was reported that articles criticising the Muslim Brotherhood were banned from state newspapers, including articles by veteran writers Abla El-Roweini, Youssef El-Qaeed and Ibrahim Abdel Maguid.

During the same week, state security prosecutor referred Tawfiq Okasha, the controversial talk show presenter and head of Faraeen TV channel, and Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour newspaper, to the Cairo Criminal Court on charges that include insulting the president.

El-Hussieny justified the actions saying that it is not appropriate to describe the president as a traitor and claim that he is planning to kill Egyptians. He added that whoever is saying that is taking money in return, and is using the concept of "media freedom" to say it.

However, sending media professionals to criminal court was considered by many activists as a "deterioration in freedom of expression" and was denounced in social media forums.

Also protesting what was seen as a Brotherhood attempt to control state owned media when the new editors-in-chief were appointed, several Egyptian writers and journalists writing for independent newspapers left their columns blank.

Intellectuals, writers, artists and politicians also protested 23 August against some recent moves by the government which they describe as “antagonistic to freedoms.”

Some Al-Azhar scholars joined the protest calling for freedoms and against what they described as the dictatorship of the Muslim Brotherhood. "We reject the current Constituent Assembly that represents only one faction of society. If things don't change we will call on people to reject the constitution in the referendum," Sheikh Mohamed El-Aswany, spokesperson for a movement of Al-Azhar scholars, told Ahram Online.

Al-Azhar is the Sunni world's religious authority, based in Cairo. Having some Al-Azhar scholars on the liberal side counter balances fears regarding the future of freedom of expression.

Islamicising society

In his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? writer Gala Amin explains how Egyptian society changed during the Mubarak era, moving from a cosmopolitan to a more religious society. Amin explains how people display a certain type of religiosity in an exaggerated manner. More females are veiled and more males wear beards. While religion is not about looks, for some reason many Egyptians have embraced this look and ideology.

We are witnessing the Islamicisation of Egyptian society, clear in the dress code, the praying areas, and the use of Islamic language,” Soliman told Ahram Online. The Islamicisation of society serves the Brotherhood's interests and increases its power.

The Islamic network is favoured among many poor sectors of society as it functions in the way of welfare institutions, where richer members provide poorer ones with food, medicine, and clothing through financial donations, or zakat (the religious duty to give alms). Millions of Egyptians benefited from the Brotherhood’s social networks under the old regime, at a time when not other support was forthcoming, particularly from the state.

However, there is a secular or a non-religious current in society that was clear during the 18 days of the January uprising, where flashpoints like Tahrir Square were free of religious symbols and speech. This current is also crystalised in political forces such as the supporters of Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, Wafd Party members, Mohamed ElBaradei’s Constitution Party, and other non-religious parties and social movements.

The law

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood group have taken roles in the judicial system since the 1930s, around the time the group was established.  “Many judges now are members of the Brotherhood group, or at least are in favour of their ideas,” Soliman told Ahram Online.

Now that President  Morsi canceled SCAF's addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, he has formally the authority to form a new Constituent Assembly if the current one fails to draft a new constitution on time.

The current assembly has already witnessed a mass walkout by liberals, leftists and nationalists who complained of Islamist domination and unequal representation.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how Morsi is planning to use his powers. Additional to concerns around the religious bearing of the Egyptian state is "whether the constitution will uphold meaningful civilian oversight over military institutions, and whether the constitution will guarantee the state’s commitment to social and economic rights," Sallam told Ahram Online.

The Brotherhood economy

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood embrace a liberal position when it comes to economy. In Morsi’s first speech following the ejection of Tantawi and Anan, many references affirmed his commitment to developing the private sector and encouraging greater private investment.

Moreover, Khairat El-Shater, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, proposed three ways to deal with the current financial and economic crisis: taking loans, opening the market for foreign and Arab investment, and better use of the country's resources. This came during his meeting with some political forces known as "We are the Egyptians" on 14 August. These prescriptions are all consistent with a liberal position on economy.

"The platform that Morsi ran on in the presidential elections does not seem to provide any striking signs that the Brotherhood is planning on shifting the country’s economic orientation as inherited from the Mubarak era," argues Sallam.

Roughly one million Egyptians lost their jobs since the start of the uprising as political uncertainty deterred both investors and tourists. The fall in income from investment and tourism has also bitten into the country’s foreign reserves, which have more than halved since the fall of Mubarak. This will make things even worse for the Brotherhood.

Power to the people

In speech, Brotherhood members assure that Islamicisation of Egypt has never been their intention.

Egypt is for all Egyptians; we don’t want a Brotherhood state. This is the state of the Egyptian revolution,” Abdel Fattah told Ahram Online.

Abdel Fattah adds that the Cabinet is technocratic and the prime minister was first assigned a government position by former premier Essam Sharaf and was kept in place by former Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri. Accordingly his choice as prime minister now has some justification.

Many activists and analysts think that the civil and secular current has an important role to play in the future, if individual groups agree to cooperate. "The future depends on the positions of the popular/civil groups, if they collaborate to win the largest bloc in Egypt's coming parliament," Gad told Ahram Online.

Morsi and his regime face not only economic problems, but also the expectations of the people. These challenges will make the coming phase a real test to the Brotherhoods. If they fail to meet public expectations, and while other political forces are taking shape, "the people would choose the popular current over the Brotherhood," Soliman said.

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