The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood has been the principal target of one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics of President Hosni Mubarak that Egypt has witnessed.
Democratic parties, civil society groups and independent media have also been targeted prior to Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
Cairo rejected the Obama administration’s call for international monitors, arguing that domestic observers could do the job. But the authorities are withholding the 2,200 poll-monitoring permits that two NGO coalitions have requested.
The influence of corporate oligarchs linked to the ruling National Democratic Party is also drawing attention to the role leading businesses in Arab countries play in stifling democracy.
But the NDP’s determination to quash the Muslim Brotherhood has been the principal feature of the election campaign. NDP Secretary-General Safwat Sherif has openly stated that the regime “would not allow” a repeat of the 2005 election upset in which the Islamists won 20 percent of seats in parliament.
Police have arrested at least 1,200 active Islamists since the movement announced that it would contest Sunday’s poll. A leading Islamist was this week attacked by a pro-government mob wielding knives, the latest in a series of violent clashes.
The violence confirms that the NDP “cannot compete; it lacks a coherent ideology,” according to Amr al-Shobaki, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. But the Brotherhood’s engagement with the political process has failed to deliver or reassure its critics.
“I see this as a failure in their parliamentary work and, given their (religious) slogans, some intellectuals also feel they are a threat to civil society,” he said.
The movement is a critical factor in the regime’s strategy for maintaining authoritarian rule, allowing it to cite the Islamist threat while denying political space to secular democratic alternatives.
“He is using the Muslim Brotherhood as a scarecrow. Mubarak says, ‘It’s either me or the jihadists.’ [It's] his only guarantee for staying in power.”
So, as an article in this week’s Time magazine asks “What’s so scary about Egypt’s Islamists?”
The Brotherhood is committed to establishing an Islamist state, based on sharia law, but it is not a violent jihadist movement, despite sharing a common lineage with al-Qaeda and similar groups based on the writings of ideologue Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna, the movement’s founder.
“Since the Brotherhood gave up violence 40 years ago, says the Carnegie Endowment’s Michele Dunne, “there are no grounds for calling them a terrorist organization. But they do strongly support Hamas financially and politically.”
So why does the Time portrait leave the impression that the Brotherhood is a cross between United Way and the Salvation Army, a social welfare movement contesting the election on a “progressive platform”?
While it has formally rejected terrorism – the movement retains an ambivalent approach to violence.
The Brotherhood projects itself as an antidote and alternative to violent jihadism – as “a moderate, mainstream movement that is capable of overshadowing radical ideologies,” in the words of spokesman Aziz Fahmy.
But in a recent sermon, movement’s Supreme Guide Muhammad Badie declared that Muslims “crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as our enemies pursue life.”
Muslims “must meet iron with iron, and winds with [even more powerful] storms,” he said, dismissing the United States as an immoral force that is “experiencing the beginning of its end and is heading towards its demise.”
And isn’t the above allusion to Hamas also telling?
“I don’t believe they have demonstrated their commitment to democracy,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Cairo. “I think if we want to take an example of this, there’s a real laboratory of this in Gaza as to the way the Muslim Brotherhood is going to operate if it ever obtained majority status in a place like Egypt.”
The Palestinian wing of the Brotherhood has expelled or killed its political opponents, suppressed its critics and enforced sharia law at the expense of civil liberties and women’s rights, according to human rights groups.
Egypt’s Brotherhood is by no means monolithic: internal leadership elections and policy debates have seen pronounced clashes between reformists and traditionalists. The former are committed to political engagement and even to collaboration with secular democratic groups, while conservatives emphasize traditional Islamic dawa – gradually building the movement’s base through religious proselytizing and welfare programs in the hope of avoiding government crackdowns.
Some analysts have suggested that reformists’ influence in the Brotherhood was instrumental in securing “a remarkable change in its orientation, discourse and strategies,” including acceptance of “the civic nature of authority; citizenship as the basis of equal rights and responsibilities; democratic principles and practices; and transfer of power, pluralism and legal means for bringing about change.”
But the reformists were soundly defeated in the most recent election for the group’s 16-member executive bureau, shortly before the conservative Muhammad Badi became Supreme Guide.
The regime’s repressive response to the movement’s 2005 election gains has also complicated former alignments.
Some prominent reformist advocates of electoral participation, such as Abdel Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, now advocate boycotting elections, a recent Carnegie analysis notes, because of restrictions on political space and parliamentarians’ lack of influence.
A group of “Muslim Brotherhood reformists” proposes that the movement separate its religious and political activities and form a legitimate political party to contest elections.
But Essam al-Arian, one of the few reformers to keep his seat a member of the Brotherhood’s cabinet and its unofficial spokesman, insists that the movement will remain politically engaged despite the likelihood of losing most of its seats in Sunday’s poll.
“It is clear to all observers that we are going on [with] our strategy to participate politically,” he told Al Jazeera. “Some people want us to be out of the seats, but … we struggle [against] any attempt to exclude us from the political scene.”