Egyptian Political Islam: Engagement or Marginalization?


Six Arguments in Support of Disengagement

Political Islam is a concept that has existed in Egypt for almost a century. It emerged in 1920 as a reaction Egypt’s occupation by the United Kingdom and the lack of resistance of this occupation on the part of the ruling monarchs of the time. The concept of political Islam in Egypt was embodied in the organization known as the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ that is still active today and managed to obtain twenty percent of the parliamentary seats in the last parliamentary election in 2005.

The question often raised by Egyptian and Western scholars is whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be granted legal permission to establish a political party? Those who support the idea of allowing the Muslim Brothers to set up a political party justify their view by stating that the Muslim Brotherhood is a large and active political organization that should not be marginalized from the political sphere. The majority of the people who maintain that the Brotherhood should be disengaged from Egyptian political arena argue that since the Muslim Brotherhood is not a democratic organization, there is no doubt that it will put an end to democracy in Egypt should it come into power.

Although I agree that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a democratic organization and will never become one, I believe that the Muslim Brothers must choose between politics and religion. The Brotherhood must decide whether it wants to be a political organization (political party) or a religious one. Merging religion and politics is not good for Egypt. Allowing the Muslim Brotherhood, as it now stands, to run as a political party will set back Egyptian political development, pulling the country centuries into the past.

As defined by democracy scholars, democracy is not only about fair and free elections; it is also about what happens before and after each election. In the context of the Muslim Brothers’ political enrollment, I will argue further that democracy is about competing politically on an equal basis. Bringing the religious element into politics in a country like Egypt would mean giving the Muslim Brotherhood a significant edge over all other political parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood is competing in a different path, with different motivations. The Brotherhood is addressing different issues, has a different mission and a different agenda than those of ordinary political parties. My position in support for disengaging the Muslim Brotherhood from the political field is based on six fundamental arguments:

1. The Broader Mission of the Muslim Brothers

The ultimate mission of Political Parties is often to rule! They work hard to persuade citizens to join their respective parties and to vote for them based on their socioeconomic and political programs. Politicians reach out to followers by addressing their hearts and minds. The Muslim Brothers’ mission goes beyond socioeconomic and political programs. It has a different and broader mission; its mission is to transform ordinary Muslims into ‘better Muslims’ simply by capitalizing on its attractive slogan, ‘Islam is the Solution’. Joining the Muslim Brotherhood is a kind of religious enrollment in both life on earth and the ‘afterlife’. Joining or voting for the Muslim Brothers is the first step towards a sustainable engagement towards larger Islamic commitments and rewards. Muslim Brotherhood leaders don’t address the hearts and minds of citizens; they address a religious belief that is beyond their hearts and minds.

Muslim Brothers place Islam on a higher level, above Egypt as a nation. They are therefore competing in a different political sphere. Their aim is to first sustain Islamic principles and, second, to rule Egypt. Ruling Egypt is a means towards an end - that of sustaining and spreading Islamic principles. In addition to the fact that Islam is not a political ideology that may suitably compete with liberalism, socialism and other ideologies, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood also automatically obliges a fraction of Egyptians to choose between one of the political ideologies and their religious identity.

2. The Illegal Status of the Muslim Brothers

Rather than harm it, the illegal status of Muslim Brotherhood has benefited the organization. The Brotherhood managed, as a political organization, to obtain twenty percent of the seats in Parliament by nominating a large number of candidates and running a campaign similar to that of the legal political parties. However, as an illegal organization, it has no commitments to uphold, nor is it subjected to supervision by government authorities. All Egyptian parties are financially monitored by the government and are only allowed to receive financial contributions from Egyptian citizens. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, as an illegal organization, does not declare its funding sources or even publicize its budget.

Furthermore, due to the lack of democracy and the weakness of Egyptian parties, Egyptians don’t financially support political parties. However, they are committed to the Islamic Zakat (charity), which is collected, in part, by the Muslim Brotherhood and distributed to poor Egyptians, thus strengthening the position of the Muslim Brothers among the poor who eventually join the organization and bolster its popular support.

3. The Attachment of Egyptians to Religion

A poll by the U.S. Gallup Institute showed that Egypt is the country where religion is given most importance (100% of the Egyptian interviewees said religion is important to them). Egypt was followed by Canada (45%), Switzerland (42%), and France (25%).

The above survey does not mean that there is a common understanding of the role of religion or its magnitude in the lives of Egyptians; it does not even mean that there is a common understanding of the Holy Book. But it does show the importance of religion in the life of Egyptians.

Permitting a single organization to carry the ‘religion flag’ and enabling it to compete with ordinary parties on an equal basis is giving the Muslim Brotherhood an ace card capable of attracting large numbers of Egyptians at anytime.

4. The Identification of the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood provides its member with a unique identity. Egyptians who join the Brotherhood are labeled with a certain Islamic identity that is linked to them in this life and the next. Affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood provides members with rewards not only in life on earth, but also in the thereafter. The relationship between Muslim Brotherhood leaders and their followers is limitless, unrestrained by any rules or regulations - because it is framed by Islam as a religion. Supporting or joining the Muslim Brothers means achieving a certain religious status that is elaborated through its simple slogan 'Islam is the Solution,' which ties citizens to the organization forever.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s structure serves both to impede the organization’s development and to sustain it. Organizations often progress through the emergence of ideas and new leaders. New ideas and leaders appear frequently in liberal social environments as a result of the dynamics of such structures. Because the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood is based on seniority, it precludes the emergence of young leaders or new ideas. This makes the organization immune to the internal conflicts often faced by ordinary political parties and to challenges posed by people who quit their parties. The Muslim Brotherhood has its own discipline supported by the Holy Book that strengthens the position of its leaders, giving no room for its followers to use their own judgment or disagree with the established leadership. Once a citizen joins the Muslim Brothers, he or she is contained within a framework and structure that sustain them forever without giving them room to change or to challenge Brotherhood leaders.

5. Moral Support for the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood’s moral support reaches far beyond the government’s legal framework for political parties. The organization has the sympathy of thousands of Preachers who give their weekly Friday sermons to millions of Egyptians in numerous Mosques. These Preachers simply express their sympathy for, and preference of, any religious group over the usual non-religious ideologies. In a nation like Egypt with an illiteracy rate of fifty percent and where another thirty percent of the population is living below the poverty line, it is easy to become more attached to a religious rhetoric that is delivered in mosques than to any logical or judgmental rhetoric. Over and above the mosques, dozens of Muslim Preachers appear on Egyptian and regional satellite TV. The closer Egyptians get to their religion of Islam, the greater is the chance that they will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood.

6. The Egyptian Government’s Support of the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt is living in an era that is defined by a lack of justice. Corruption is widespread, the government is inefficient, and furthermore, the State prohibits the establishment of new political parties. The government has designed the Egyptian political sphere to provide Egyptians with two alternatives: the ruling party or the Muslim Brotherhood. Joining the ruling party will enable people to widen their business opportunities, enhance their personal power and develop better career paths (for the one-third of the Egyptian workforce employed by governmental organizations). Meanwhile, joining the Muslim Brothers through its slogan 'Islam is the Solution' provides an ideal alternative for Egyptians to uphold Islamic principles and attain a better life in the hereafter.

Finally, I believe that although the official membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is a tiny fraction of the Egyptian population, the real challenge lies in the empathy Egyptians have for the organization. The misinterpretation of Islam that has succeeded in creating this kind of popular empathy, continuing to imprison Muslim Brotherhood members, promoting government inefficiency and widespread corruption. The proponents of this overall lack of justice are all elements that indirectly support the Muslin Brotherhood.

In conclusion, the pre-requisite to engaging the Muslim Brotherhood in the political field is the abandonment of the religious aspect of its status. This will ensure that it will abide by the same rules of the game as other political parties. There is no doubt that dropping the religious element will prevent the organization from maintaining its present purpose of existence and its present mission, and I presume that they will completely reject any such proposal. However, this step will bring the organization into par with political parties. Without this development, it would be useless to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a legal political organization.

--Mohammed Nosseir chairs the Secretariat of International Relations at the Democratic Front Party, Egypt.