ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: « Les Frères musulmans oscillent entre confrérie et parti politique »
Translated Friday 20 January 2006, by
For Diaa Rachwane, a specialist at the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, the brotherhood represents a “socio-political movement with an Islamist ideology”.
Were you surprised by the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Diaa Rachwane. Not really. First of all, it’s important to understand that each time the Muslim Brotherhood has fielded candidates for parliamentary elections in Egypt, in 1984, 1987 and 2000, they have come second, behind the governing party. What’s different this time, is the number of seats they managed to win. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the Muslim Brotherhood has worked at the grassroots of Egyptian society for decades. They made use of this social and political capital during the elections and, above all, they chose constituencies where they knew they could win by putting up candidates who were most likely to be elected. The candidates shared the following profile: they were loyal members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and enjoyed the backing of a strong social network capable of mobilizing support during the election. The Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated a wide-reaching electoral campaign, which included door-to-door canvassing. In short, they did what the other opposition parties were unable to do.
There’s another factor that explains the result achieved by the Muslim Brotherhood: the political, economic and social policies pursued by the governing party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), have made them less popular. The resulting protest vote benefited the Muslim Brotherhood. This might seem surprising, given the NDP’s grip on power. But, in reality, the rivalries within the party organization between local and national candidates led to a loss of ground among the electorate.
Finally, the international context had an important part to play. Everything that has happened since September 11, 2001, the “war on terror”, as the US calls it, has led to an Islamic resurgence. If you examine the various elections held in Muslim countries (in Morocco, Pakistan, Iraq, Gaza, Iran and Bahrain), you’ll notice the increasing popularity of Islamist movements. The Muslim Brotherhood has also benefited from this development.
They say that the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, is divided into various tendencies. What exactly is the situation?
Diaa Rachwane. The Muslim Brotherhood is not an official political entity. Although widely tolerated, the movement is illegal under Egyptian law. Relations with the government have been strained since 1995, when the Muslim Brotherhood was the target of a major crackdown. Thousands of members were arrested, hundreds were tried, and dozens were sentenced to prison. They include the current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was condemned to three years in prison in 1999. It counts tens of thousands of people among its active membership. It’s normal, therefore, that a range of political tendencies should co-exist within the movement, including both radical and moderate wings. One of the sources of strength of the Muslim Brotherhood is its ability to manage internal differences. There has never been a major split within the movement within the last thirty years, although it has spawned several splinter groups.
What lies behind these differences? Is there any disagreement over the future of the movement as real political party?
Diaa Rachwane. From the end of the nineteen thirties, the movement has evolved into what I call a socio-political movement with an ideology and an Islamist programme.
Politics has been one of the principal pillars of the Brotherhood right from the beginning. But this political tendency was always expressed within the context of the movement’s other activities, which include social, educational and charitable work.
Over the last ten years, two major tendencies have emerged, which stem from an idea that enjoys unanimous support within the movement, that of a Muslim Brotherhood political party. One group, which still represented a majority of members two years ago, advocates that a political party should work with or in support of the Brotherhood, and that it should be an alternative means of supporting the work of the Brotherhood. The other tendency, which has now gained the support of most members, is in favour of replacing the Brotherhood with a political party. This disagreement has yet to be settled.
What’s behind this shift in opinion?
Diaa Rachwane. It stems from the current political situation in Egypt. The experience of the Brotherhood’s current members is completely different to that of its founders. For the latter, the Brotherhood was their life. It was impossible - or unfeasible, at any rate - to consider its demise. For second and third generation members, on the other hand, born into a Brotherhood that exists in a more political environment, there is a desire to behave more like other political movements.
What are the broad outlines of Brotherhood’s political programme?
Diaa Rachwane. They published a document in March 2004, called “An Initiative for reform” in which they explored a number of issues, including their social, economic, internal and external policies. In terms of political reform, there are no notable differences with other political movements. They talk about equal rights for Coptic Christians. As far as women are concerned, they support equal rights, with one proviso, that “the dignity of women must be preserved”, which is very much open to interpretation! They talk, of course, about sharia law, but without going into any detail. The Egyptian constitution already refers to sharia law as the main source of all legislation.
The Muslim Brotherhood has members in Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait; the Palestinian Hamas movement also evolved from the Brotherhood. Is there such a thing an International Muslim Brotherhood?
Diaa Rachwane. The Muslim Brotherhood is an international movement. But the term “international” should not imply that there is one single organisation. It’s more like the Socialist International. They have a single supreme guide, a single guidance committee, and a single consultative council, on which all the parties sit. Their sole function is to develop highly strategic directions for the Muslim Brotherhood, but they do not provide the details, which are left up to the national branches. One of these broad strategies, for example, is support for the Palestinian people and the refusal to recognise the state of Israel. It’s more of an “international umbrella organization” under which around forty branches of the Muslim Brotherhood are gathered.