Over the past few weeks secular political groups have been looking sceptically at the Muslim Brotherhood, not only because of their increasing coordination with more radical Islamist groups, but, most importantly, for their possible domination of the coming parliament. Such dominance, according to many, would play a major role in shaping the new Egypt.
A civil state with an Islamic identity is the Muslim Brotherhood's vision for Egypt’s future, and while this sounds moderate enough, it still has raised concern and criticism, especially after a local newspaper quoted Mahmoud Ezzat, the Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide: Al Masry Al Youm referred to Ezzat's speech in Imbaba, one of the most crowded areas in Cairo and dominated by Salafis, saying that the group wants to apply sharia (Islamic law) and quoted Ezzat as saying "the enforcement of sharia punishments will need time, and will only come after Islam is planted in every heart and masters the life of people, and then Islamic punishments can be applied."
Ezzat's speech stirred a wave of outrage, since such allegedly "Islamic punishments" include cutting the hands of those convicted of theft, stoning women for adultry, and similar Middle Ages punishments. Later, the deputy supreme guide denied that he meant what the daily paper tried to insinuate and filed a complaint against it.
Ezzat tried to clarify: "No one can deny that Islamic punishment is part of the religion, but this is not the issue now and we should not discuss such ideas because they will only lead to splitting the national front the Muslim Brotherhood is keen to be part of."
Considering there have been very few opportunities for any party outside of the NDP to take the lead, which ruled Egypt’s political scene with a closed, iron fist for 30 years, Egypt’s political landscape finds itself void of any party organised enough and with enough of a tangible platform to carry votes. Currently, a plethora of groups united by ideological interests are dialoguing to coordinate an electoral coalition among them. The Brotherhood, for its own part, has declared its willingness to join with liberal and leftist political parties in a single national electoral coalition, saying they would be satisfied with a third of parliamentary seats.
Defending the groups, Ezzat insisted that the MB is democratic in nature and will abide by the rule of the majority. Furthermore, he tried to distance himself from the quotes attributed to him in the Imbaba speech, by saying that it was too early to speak of the appliacation of Islamic penal laws, since those would only be applied if the majority of the people agreed to it.
The response among the secular political forces of the revolution has been varied. Khaled Abdel-Hamid of the Revolution Youth Coalition is not worried about the Brotherhood, but feels the group should be criticised. "The Muslim Brotherhood has been a part of the movement for change and democracy, and even though what Ezzat said may have been exaggerated by the media, we don't see any reason why the political groups that work with the coalition should feel cautious when it comes to criticising them," says Khaled Abdel Hameed for the Revolution Youth Coalition.
However, Abdel-Hamid and other members in the coalition’s organising committee who, likewise, belong to secular political groups consider the MB to be a partner in the movement for change, at least for the moment. However, as Hameed puts it, "later the Egyptian people will be able to judge the group not only according to how near or far they are from religion, but how seriously they tackle economic and social problems that the majority of the people face."
The MB suffered oppression by the old regime, yet is still the most organised political group in Egypt at the moment.
"Ezzat only represents the more conservative religious faction of the group," says Abdel-Halim Kandeel, political analyst and one of the founders of the Kefaya (Enough) movement. Kandeel believes that Ezzat's views, although alarming to many, will present a real problem for the MB more than any other political faction.
"The MB wants to have a political party that will be obligated to practice politics according to the rules we all agree upon, which includes the banning of religious rhetoric and adopting, instead, a political agenda."
The presence of a more religiously conservative voice (Ezzat), according to Kandeel, is very challenging when it comes to defining the role of the political party when you have a generally more moderate membership.
"Those involved in the party will be the ones affected most by any conservative statements enunciated by the leaders of the MB," says Kandeel. The party will not be able to tolerate the multi-faced discourse that the MB adopts, both Kandeel and Abdel-Hamid agree.