I spent seven hours listening to the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and I did not regret it. In fact, among them I found what has revived hope in a new Egypt after the revolution of 25 January. For now, I am no longer worried or depressed about the outcome of the referendum on 19 March, which divided people between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps and the political apostasy which followed including bizarre religious edicts. Also weighing on me was the slow pace of change and questions about the law banning strikes and protests as well as the assault by the military police on the Mass Communication Department at Cairo University.
I attended the youth of the MB conference at Safir Hotel in Dokki, Cairo, on 26 March, held under the banner “A New Vision from Inside.” It was a significant event which was ignored by the leaders of the MB itself who refused to attend; the official MB website also chose not to report on it. Nonetheless, and to be clear, the young members who organised the conference against the wishes of the Guidance Office are “reformers” within the group, not “rebels” or “revolutionaries” against it.
Everything I heard from the youth was exercising their right of freedom of expression since it seems that contrary opinions are unwelcome within the MB – which is similar to leftist and liberal movements in Egypt. Despite this, they expressed high esteem and deference for the leaders or old guard of the MB group.
They concluded the conference with the traditional group anthem which was passed down since the days of the group’s founder Hassan El-Banna. One youth did, however, question the modern day relevance of the group’s motto “Islam is the solution.”
Altogether, there was a sincere interest in an open and public multi-faceted discussion about the future of the group after the revolution of 25 January. This was presented in two discussion papers about the future of the group’s political party and MB proselytising. Each paper gave a different and distinct perspective.
The first called for the group to abstain from any direct political party activities and not to partake in a “national reformist project.” The other championed establishing a political party and separating proselytisation from politics and discussed the problems of the relationship between the two. It suggested that the MB should form more than 70 per cent of founding members of the political party and that the youth should be no less than 35 per cent, women 25 per cent and Copts 10 per cent.
With a new law regulating political set to be issued soon and the MB leadership’s decision to launch the Justice and Freedom Party without putting it to the group as a whole, it is understandable that a political party is a top priority among the youth. For many MB youth, the leadership’s position is hasty, giving rise to other problems such as the large number of Islamist parties, competition and the legality of MB members joining other parties.
One of the most poignant statements was made by one young man who said that the MB party should not become a new National Democratic Party (NDP) in control of political life and the state and it would be a mistake to allow an Islamist trend to control the state of Egypt.
I cannot say that a coup occurred against the teachings of “yes, sir” within the MB, but I believe what is taking place among the group’s youth is a type of jihad against this attitude. When these youth dare to publicly question the nature of their group, whether it’s a school of thought or an interest and lobby group, it indicates there is something original taking place within the Egyptian political arena. This new tendency also includes the courage to publically critique oneself and the group on issues such as its faults and the dangers of secrecy, which they asserted encourages financial and administrative corruption; weakens innovation; permits the promotion of relatives, the less qualified, the more submissive and loyal; and makes trust and virtue more important than achievement and expertise.
In this context, participants posed daring and sincere questions: Why aren’t there elections for all positions in the MB from the base to the top? Why can’t the youth and women become members of the Supreme Guidance Office, the highest leadership body of the group? How can the various chapters within the group teach that the goal of the MB is to establish an Islamic state and restore the caliphate, while they are told that the rhetoric to the general public about a civic state based on Islamic guidelines is only for foreign consumption? This is a dangerous disparity and one which requires deep thought and resolution.
This self-criticism by the youth is caused by lack of democracy within the group, the rotation of power and generational differences. These are all ailments that have been endemic to all political organisations and institutions in Egypt for more than half a century, and are indicative of a state and society in crisis.
In all honesty, and as an independent leftist, I was happy and proud to listen to these Egyptian youth who took part in the revolution as they now seek to express themselves and hold the language and tools of this age, including using power point to convey their ideas, and with a reasonable number of female participants. I was even happier that Egyptians undertook self-criticism in this manner.
But all this joy did not quiet my curiosity about why there was no mention of revising the history of the group, including the violence, alliances with undemocratic governments and tyrants. I was also averse to their use of the word “Nasara” to describe the Copts, which has negative connotation for Egyptian Copts and Christians. There was also clear confusion about the right of Copts, Christians and women to nominate themselves for the presidency as citizens with equal political rights.
I don’t know if the MB youth who participated in this important conference are aware of previous attempts at self-criticism within the group, which ended in rebellion and departure. One of the most recent attempts was a book by Dr Ali Abdel-Hafeez entitled Alternate Trend published in 2007, and is a testimonial about a reform initiative which the author proposed to the leaders of the group in the summer of 2005 that fell on deaf ears. In fact, it was muted in the media through collusion by the MB, the government, the political elite and the media combined.
My concern is the lack of interest among the youth at the conference with the future of the revolution. Their addresses and actions signaled that the revolution succeeded and the reign of the police state, corruption and oppression is over. While there were many positive signs in the fact that these young leaders and actors discussed their duties and roles within the group for the first time in public, it also demonstrated less circumspection as if the revolution is victorious and what was will never return.
I believe that conference participants, even if they were a minority among MB youth, are so far “reformers” within a group that is reformist and conservative by nature. Its positive and appreciated participation in the revolution between 28 January and 11 February transitioned the group from its traditional nature to a “revolutionary” one in response to the yearning of its youth to change the country – even if the MB returns to its conservative reformist philosophy after Mubarak’s departure.
After seven enjoyable hours listening to these youth, I hoped that the conference would conclude with the national anthem as well as the group’s anthem. Nonetheless, they gave me joy and I hope that their honest voices will be heard and understood. Perhaps the youth in other political movements across the country will view them as a role model, and everyone will begin critiquing themselves and practicing different forms of internal democracy, which we have sorely missed in our public lives.
The writer is an independent leftist