Monday, November 22, 2010

The Muslim Brotherhood in flux

As Egypt's vote nears, the largest opposition group has ignored allies' boycott calls and will run candidates.

By Evan Hill

"Egypt is on the cusp of dramatic change. For the first time in three decades, the country will soon have a new president, either through election in 2011 - which would be unprecedented in Egyptian history - or through the death of the ailing 82-year-old president Hosni Mubarak, an event that has the potential to set off the most significant civil unrest in the Middle East since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

The Egyptian government reportedly has a detailed plan to shut down the country if Mubarak dies, including such details as the "mournful Quranic verses" that will play on state television. The black-clothed and plain-clothed security forces, well experienced in using their batons to squelch dissent, would be mobilised en masse.

Still, it is impossible to predict what would happen if, despite Egyptians' reputation for political lethargy, opposition groups managed to put tens of thousands of followers into the streets of Cairo to protest what many expect will be an attempted handover of power to Mubarak's son, Gamal.

The key to any roadblock on the path to such "republarchy" lies with the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's most influential Islamist movement and far and away the largest and best-organised counterweight to Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). Change in Egypt, for better or worse, does not materialise without the Brothers......

But the Brothers have bucked their best allies in the opposition by refusing calls for an election boycott, which some say is the most effective way to counter Egypt's gerrymandered electoral system. This, even as the Brotherhood itself believes it is about to suffer a rigged defeat at the polls that will reduce its representation in parliament by more than half.

Some Brotherhood members have said publicly that the choice to participate is a mistake, with others calling it a missed opportunity that reflects the group's internal strife and indicates the dearth of creative strategic thinkers in the conservative, 82-year-old organisation.

Others see the practical advantage to be had by holding even a slimmed parliamentary presence, while the group's leadership insists that their course is set by broad consensus and does not shift with the political winds.

As the Brotherhood is pulled inexorably toward a post-Mubarak world in which it figures to be a major player, nobody knows quite where it is headed.....

Dissent in the ranks

But Abdelrahman Ayyash, a 21-year-old Brotherhood blogger, said that choosing to participate in the election this year was a mistake that has created a schism between the Brotherhood and reform leaders such as ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, the former presidential candidate for the secular Ghad party who was imprisoned and reportedly mistreated during the 2005 election.....

The Brotherhood's decision to run may spring mostly from a simple desire to ensure its immediate survival, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and former US government Middle East analyst.....

Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institution's branch in Qatar and a close observer of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he understood the Brotherhood's rationale but still disagreed with their decision.

"This was the time to boycott," he said. "The opposition really lost an opportunity.".....

The Brotherhood is constantly insecure about its perception in the West, Hamid said, fearing that in a post-September 11 age of Islamophobia, it will be lumped in with al-Qaeda.

"We won't be another Iran," Ayyash insisted, adding that he believes Islamists will support US national security interests......

The role of women and members of other religions, especially whether a woman or a Coptic Christian, for instance, should be allowed to assume an elected position of power, remains a source of heated debate within the Brotherhood....."

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