By Mike Rowley
In last year’s multi-party presidential elections, the first such in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the oldest and largest political-Islamist organisation in the world, did not stand a candidate. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, its candidates (nominally independents: the MB is still illegal in Egypt) won 19% of the vote, emerging as the main opposition group in parliament.
Both sets of elections featured a lot of corruption and violence. Al-Wafd, the mouthpiece of Egypt’s bourgeois-democratic opposition, states “bullets govern[ed] the elections", with pro-government mobs intimidating and beating opposition supporters, and the renewed imprisonment of the former opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour.
The MB has taken a cautious attitude towards the limited liberalisation of the Mubarak regime, standing only a limited number of parliamentary candidates for fear of provoking a backlash. It presents itself as very moderate and democratic but its main slogan, “Islam is the solution”, indicates its adherence to “sharia law” and the Islamic caliphate. The Egyptian constitution is equally ambivalent, declaring that the Qur’an to be the main source of law, but banning religious parties. Why is this?
The MB was founded 1928 by Hassan al-Banna who sought to build a right-wing mass religio-political movement modelled loosely on western fascism, with “Islamic” features. Like fascism, this strategy involved populist rhetoric about social reform which appealed to the petty-bourgeoisie and the urban lumpenproletariat, combined with scapegoating of minorities (in this case, Copts) and Communists.
For most of Egypt’s independent history, from Nasser’s seizure of power in the 1950s on, the MB has been an illegal organisation in a (relatively) secular state. The leadership could not and did not have to express their policies clearly or engage in open argument about them.
In the 1940s and 1950s the MB became more “radical” under the leadership of Sayeed Qutb. Both al-Banna and Qutb sought to develop a form of Islam that emphasised the reactionary characteristics of organised religion while not making its implementation utterly impossible in contemporary circumstances. Qutb, however, placed greater emphasis on action against “unbelievers”. Nasser’s banning of the party must also have strengthened the hand of the advocates of an extreme rather than a “constitutional” form of political Islamism.
The MB pursued a policy of infiltrating sites of power and influence such as the trade union movement and professional organisations but did not try to penetrate the government or the armed forces. More radical Islamists, developing a terrorist ideology under the pressure of the repression, did attempt to do that, and one of them assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, prompting a wave of repression which also engulfed the MB.
The MB responded by continuing their infiltration, becoming a much more middle-class organisation. They have come to control such groups as the Egyptian lawyers’ organisation. For many members the MB became a sort of political Freemasonry which middle-class people joined to further their professional careers or get profitable business deals. The majority do not actually participate in the MB’s structures.
Meanwhile, the regime has partly “Islamised”, beginning with Sadat who appealed to religious ideas as a substitute for the state-capitalist nationalist edifice of Nasser. In the last few years, the government has committed high-profile acts of repression, such as an attack on the Cairo gay community, in order to appease the Islamists’ supporters. Another scapegoat has been the Sudanese refugee community, which suffered at least thirty dead in a vicious attack by police and troops on a refugee camp sit-in.
The MB has adopted a neo-liberal, pro-capitalist-globalisation economic line, while still being for the fundamentalist Islamisation of the state. It has alienated many former supporters who have turned either to more moderate Islamist parties or to more extreme organisations. The MB found itself under pressure from both sides after 9/11. It denounced al-Qaeda. But do all of its supporters agree with this?
Even a para-militarist splinter from the MB, “Gamaa al-Islamiyya”, has “apologised” for some of the murders it committed during the 1990s. These include the murders of fifty-eight tourists at Luxor in 1997, which caused a popular reaction against Islamist violence.
The effect of all this on the MB, so long an underground party, has become apparent in conditions of semi-legality. In the first major demonstrations last year against Egypt's President Mubarak, the MB were absent and there was even a suggestion that they had urged their members not to participate.
The demonstrations were organised by a coalition of oppositionists, mainly bourgeois liberals, civil society organisations and left Nasserists. There is an active NGO sector in Egypt.
The two main bourgeois liberal parties and two left Nasserist parties each won a handful of seats in the parliamentary elections, but together these amount to only seventeen seats out of 450-odd. 37 “independent” MPs are mostly MB members. Mubarak’s NDP and its non-party hangers-on hold nearly 90% of parliamentary seats. The Egyptian Communist Party (officially banned) and socialist organisations are active but most did not stand.
Egypt has, however, seen a limited upsurge in grass-roots workers’ struggle, seen most notably in a number of incidents such as the successful sit in on the Cairo Metro to stop the victimisation of a worker, and the occupation of the Esco textile factory against privatisation.
This upsurge has a long way to go before it breaks the stranglehold of the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions, an organisation which has never backed a strike by any of its members. The leaders of all of its 23 affiliated “unions” are, without exception, members of Mubarak’s NDP.
Mubarak’s limited liberalisation has encouraged the beginnings of a new climate of political and social activism. Nawal el-Saadawi, a veteran feminist, psychiatrist and award-winning novelist, declared herself a candidate in order to assert women’s right to participate fully in political life in a country where women are 53% of the population but hold only 2.5% of political positions.
Feminist activists are campaigning for equality in all areas of social life. Globalisation in the field of culture has had its impact, and even some moderate Islamist women are demanding a measure of equality — unthinkable to traditionalists. For instance, women preachers are becoming popular. The change in mood is, for now, confined mainly to the Cairene middle class — and there still exist a minority of extreme-right Islamists who would destroy even these modest developments. And one cannot describe the appointment of Egypt’s first veiled cabinet minister, Aisha Abdel Hadi — the former vice-chair of the government-controlled GFTU — as representing a victory for women or workers.
Some middle-class women may be able to live active social lives and have careers by outwardly seeming to conform to certain Islamist norms — mainly wearing the veil.But such gains made within the Islamist paradigm are neither secure nor can it be extended to the vast majority of working-class women, who do not have the financial resources to escape from the extant mediaeval forms of oppression.
Ultimately it is the working class of Egypt who hold the key to lasting democratic and progressive change and a society where there is full and permanent emancipation for women, immigrants, Copts and all other oppressed groups in Egypt.