Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood today backed down from its demand that the ruling military dismiss Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri’s cabinet, conceding that it does not want a conflict with the army. But the group is committed to establishing an Islamic state that will “regulate life in its entirety,” a leading spokesman insists.
“We will not take matters to the stage of confrontation. We respect the constitution,” said Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. “There are many problems in Egypt which will not bear tension and confrontation or anything like this, and from the start of the revolution we have avoided confrontation with the military council and any other party.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran today applauded the Egyptian parliament’s call for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Cairo.
“Egypt will never be the friend, partner or ally of the Zionist entity which we consider as the first enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation,” said a statement from the lower house of parliament, which demanded that the government “revise all its relations and agreements with that enemy.”
The parliament’s speaker Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, demanded that a parliamentary committee “monitor the government’s implementation of parliament’s demands.”
The votes to expel the Israeli envoy, and the Islamists’ recent calls to end the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. assistance and dismiss the SCAF- appointed Cabinet indicate a coming power struggle, said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The forces that want change are saying ‘power now rests with us and we’re going to exercise it,’” she said. “What we are seeing right now is the real struggle to see whether there’s going to be a real revolution or not in Egypt. Keep in mind the Mubarak regime has not been undone.”
The Israel vote may have been largely symbolic, as the assembly lacks constitutional authority, but the move will disappoint analysts who have suggested that the Brotherhood will be too focused on addressing the country’s pressing socio-economic problems to pursue a conservative Islamist social agenda or radical foreign policy initiatives.
Recent Gallup polls revealed that most Egyptians of varying political allegiances prioritized issues of employment, the economy and inflation, and personal security.
“Egyptians expect substantial policy-relevant actions” from the Brotherhood, writes H.A. Hellyer, an authority on Islamist movements. “Slogans, or symbolic measures aimed at ‘Islamizing’ the system, will not cut it.”
The country’s political transition may even compel the Brotherhood to reject its ideological baggage, with Egypt “likely to see a transformation of political Islamism,” he suggests.
“Islamism for much of its history (which only exists in the modern period), relied on being in opposition – where responsibility for policy was low, and thus accountability from the wider public was as well. That day is over,” Hellyer writes:
For the first time in its history, the [Brotherhood] in Egypt cannot rely on external repression to justify a conservative, non-dynamic approach to politics and society. As it seeks to survive in this new environment, in order to respond to the real life challenges of governance, it is likely to change dramatically, or split up into different groups, all of whom will compete to win public approval.
“We saw how the dignity of our country was insulted when the American NGOs were evacuated,” Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate, told a rally of young supporters this week.
“Egypt is not owned by anyone but Egyptians!” he proclaimed. “We shouldn’t allow anyone to offend our country anymore.”
Democrats are also uneasy at the Brotherhood’s insistence on an all-encompassing notion of political Islam that not only rejects the separation of religion and the state, but encompasses personal and social relations in a potentially or incipiently totalitarian fashion.
“The Islamic reference point regulates life in its entirety, politically, economically and socially; we don’t have this separation” between religion and government, the Brotherhood’s Khairat el-Shater (above) told the New York Times. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a value-based organization that expresses itself using different political, economic, sportive, health-related and social means. You can’t take one part from one place and another part from another — this isn’t how it’s done.”
The Brotherhood’s concept of Islamism addresses the totality of social, political and personal relations, says Shater, reputedly the group’s most powerful figure and likely prime minister.
“It talks about building the individual, building the family, building the society, building the state,” he said. “It talks about the economy, it talks about sociology, it talks about culture.”
Shater meets foreign ambassadors, the executives of multinational corporations and Wall Street firms, and a parade of United States senators and other officials to explain the Brotherhood’s vision, the Times notes. To the Brotherhood, he tells them, Islam requires democracy, free markets and tolerance of religious minorities.
But he also says that recent elections have proved that Egyptians demand an explicitly Islamic state. And he is guiding its creation from a position that his critics say may undercut his avowed commitment to open democracy: he sits atop a secretive and hierarchical organization, shaped by decades of working underground, that still asks its members — including those in Parliament — to swear obedience to the directions of its leaders, whether in the group’s religious, charitable or political work.
The Islamists’ electoral success gave them a mandate to reshape Egypt’s institutions and individual citizens, Shater insists.
“The people are insistent,” he said. “All institutions should revise their cultures, their training programs and the way they build their individuals in the light of this real popular choice.”
Although the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has yet to cede authority to a civilian body, some Egyptian democrats believe a transfer of power has already taken place:
“Egypt is now being run from the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council,” said Mohamed Abu Hamed, an outspoken liberal lawmaker, said in an interview, describing events at a recent party at the Indian Embassy to illustrate his point.
Politicians, diplomats and businessmen all rushed past the elected lawmakers and straight for Mr. Shater, Mr. Abu Hamed said, just as they once did for Mr. Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, Gamal.
“This tells you where power lies.”
The Brotherhood’s declared embrace of democratic norms is belied by the absence of democracy in its internal affairs, observers suggest. And former members describe a Leninist form of inner-party centralism that would put Egypt’s emerging “democratic Parliament under the effective control of the undemocratic Brotherhood”:
Abdulrahman Ayyash, 22, a former Brotherhood member who worked closely with Mr. Shater before leaving over the issue, said: “Is it O.K. that the Freedom and Justice Party takes direction from the Guidance Council of the Muslim Brotherhood? No, it is a majority party now, not the Muslim Brotherhood party.” But the Brotherhood leaders, Mr. Ayyash said, “are building all their authority on the policy of blind obedience.”
The forthcoming presidential election and subsequent constitutional design will be dominated by the country’s two dominant power blocs: the Brotherhood and the military, writes Faisal Al Yafai.
“Many in Egypt suspect that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are aiming for a consensus presidential candidate, who would be amenable to both of their concerns,” he writes, but talk of a Turkish model of democracy is far-fetched:
Egypt is not Turkey – building a modern Egyptian state will mean not only reforming the executive branch, but also the lumbering, ineffective judiciary, which could serve as a further check on the powers of the parliament and the president….It will take time for a civilian government to entrench itself, time for an Islamist-dominated legislature to grow its power to the point where – as the AKP in Turkey has – it can challenge the army and hope to win.
Having a prime minister as head of the executive would aid that process, giving the prime minister a significant power base. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood, wary of the example of Algeria, where the military stepped in after Islamists won democratic elections, would probably aim for a token figurehead, at least at the start of the democratic transition.
“Egypt faces a choice between a president too reliant on the army, and a prime minister too beholden to his party,” Yafai concludes. “Given the machinations of politicians who will choose who sits on the constitutional assembly, the choice will not be made by those who made Tahrir Square the centre of the revolution.”
The tensions in Egypt are representative of a growing struggle to determine the trajectory of the regional upheaval in which the democratic forces and narratives that dominated the first phase of the ‘Arab Spring’ are being seriously challenged by opposing sectarian, conservative and Islamist alternatives, say analysts.
“This was never going to be an Arab Spring, but an Arab decade,” said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re at the beginning of a protracted crisis. None of these countries are really stable and Western diplomacy, led by the U.S., can do little but muddle.”