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The Brotherhood under Mubarak

During the more than thirty-year reign of President Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood went through periods of political openness and repression, which led to significant changes in its political behavior and strategies. Following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by militant extremists in 1981, the Mubarak regime followed a policy of appeasement toward the brotherhood. Mubarak released many brotherhood members imprisoned under Sadat, including the general guide, Omar al-Tilmisani, and began building a relationship aimed at utilizing the brotherhood as a counterweight to growing extremism in Egypt.

Although Mubarak allowed the brotherhood to remain socially and politically independent, the organization was still officially banned from direct political participation. After Mubarak came to power, the brotherhood began making attempts at becoming a recognized political party. It applied for recognition in 1984 and again in 1987 after minor electoral victories, only to be turned down. Nevertheless, during the 1980s, the state maintained a strategic relationship with the brotherhood: the brotherhood would be allowed to operate through grassroots activism and social welfare programs as long as it refrained from politically contesting the state and voicing harsh criticism of President Mubarak. For much of the decade the brotherhood cooperated with Mubarak’s regime and focused primarily on “the improvement of society,”1 but it did attempt to take advantage of new opportunities to express themselves politically.

Noting the brotherhood’s general cooperation with the regime and avoidance of challenging state politics, the state began to allow it more exposure and a louder voice in the public sphere. This allowed the brotherhood not only to voice its positions on social issues, but also to compete publicly with its secular opposition. The regime hoped that this strategy would reveal the brotherhood to be a weak movement whose social vision would be rejected by the public.2 This strategy of challenging the popularity of the brotherhood, which was barred from returning the challenge to the state, thereby exposing the brotherhood as a weak movement, continued until 1984. However, in 1984, when the brotherhood formed a political alliance with the secular Wafd Party and as a result made remarkable gains during the parliamentary elections, the regime decided it could no longer continue to ignore the brotherhood’s activities.3

The results of the 1984 parliamentary elections surprised both the regime and the brotherhood. The brotherhood fielded twenty-two candidates, and eight of them won seats. According to the brotherhood’s then general guide Tilmisani, “We would have been satisfied if only five of them won.”4 The brotherhood’s surprise emergence on the political scene, through an alliance with a secular opposition group, forced the regime to reconsider its position toward it. The brotherhood’s unexpected display of power “alerted the regime to the potential political force of the Brotherhood and prompted it to closely examine the organization’s activities.”5

Much to the regime’s surprise, the brotherhood was changing strategies. It would no longer focus on social issues and on the improvement of society, but would begin turning attention to regime activity and attempting critiques of government policy. Yet, while brotherhood leaders endeavored to make such bold statements, the party accomplished very little else. Its efforts to introduce Sharia in parliamentary discussions were often ignored, and as a result its new parliamentary status did not offer it any new political power. The regime remained unthreatened by it.6

Since the small victory of 1984 did not result in any real political power, the brotherhood shifted strategies again, and by the 1987 parliamentary elections, it had allied with both the Liberal and the Liberal Socialist Parties. This alliance allowed for the three parties to collectively hold thirty-six seats, demonstrating the increasing popularity and influence of the brotherhood among the electorate. It expanded its reach, not only to gain representation in the People’s Assembly, but also to strengthen and utilize its network of social services in neighborhoods and villages. Its initiatives aimed at filling gaps in government services created an enormous degree of popular support for it without directly challenging the government, and its growing societal influence would come to change the nature of its relationship with the regime. In April 1989, the then interior minister, Zaki Badr, forever changed the relationship between the brotherhood and the regime when he alleged that the brotherhood had links to radical Islamist groups. After this official denouncement in 1989, there emerged a more determined state effort to confront the organization in response to its noticeably more independent position and its increasingly confident opposition to the regime.

In the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood amplified its criticism of the government and its policies, redefining its nature as well as its relationship with the regime. What was once a movement focusing primarily on social services was now developing itself into a more formal party with political ambitions. In 1990, it took a clear position against the regime and joined the opposition party, al-Wafd, in its boycott of the upcoming parliamentary elections, which were seen as flawed because they were not representative or democratic. In a joint statement released by the boycotting parties in October 1990, they refused to “contribute to the creation of a false democratic facade.”7 This stance was seen by some as aiming to embarrass the regime.

Following the 1992 earthquake, during which President Mubarak was out of the country, the weakness of the state apparatus became apparent, and the brotherhood’s social service structure and reach came to the fore. Because the state apparatus could not deal with social demands, brotherhood rescue teams struggled into the night to dig out survivors and provide alternative shelters, food, and potable water; the brotherhood, through its own organizational structure, emerged as heroes to the victims of the earthquake.

The ability to mobilize quickly allowed the brotherhood to publicize its political ambitions. The fact that it had resources in rural areas and a presence in urban areas led to the effective distribution and rapid mobilization of its efforts in a manner that proved it to be more effective than the state. Its success was noted by both cnn and bbc, furthering the perception that the brotherhood was grow?ing both in power and in numbers. Alongside the brotherhood’s relief efforts, the same political banners displaying its slogan of “Al-islam huwa al-hal” (Islam is the solution), which were used in the run for the 1987 elections, were once again displayed in public as the brotherhood conducted relief efforts, again tying the political activities of the brotherhood to its social success. Despite its increasing social clout, the 1990s were marred with a period of great repression of the brotherhood, resulting in a period of electoral boycott by the organization as much of its leadership was in prison. Subsequent elections in the decade would not result in increased political activity.

However, in 2000 and subsequently in 2005, during a period of limited political liberalization, the brotherhood sought to reassert itself on the political and electoral scene. If electoral outcomes were at times almost certain, then why would opposition candidates and parties take parliamentary elections seriously? In Egypt, elections are opportunities for opposition parties to publicly present electoral platforms and vigorously campaign in the public sphere. This was especially the case during the 2005 election cycle. In Egyptian politics, elections—the very essence of procedural democracy—serve as a moment of strategic interaction between the opposition and the state. And thus, elections are seen as an opportune moment for the opposition movements to directly oppose the state.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success in 2005 provides insight into the question of what happens when Islamists win. Just as its 2005 electoral platform focused on reform, right after its electoral gains the brotherhood issued a statement asserting that its top priority in parliament would be to press for general political reform in Egypt, or islah. The platform of islah, although seen as ambiguous, was a far cry from the previous platforms based primarily on instituting Sharia principles.

In the 2005 election, eighty-eight members of the Muslim Brotherhood were elected to parliament, representing twenty-one of Egypt’s twenty-six governor- ates, whereas only seventeen brotherhood members were seated after the 2000 election. The eighty-eight members—or the Brotherhood Bloc, as they came to be known—took their role in parliament and the power of parliament more seriously than the ruling party had in the past, with interesting consequences. The entire Brotherhood Bloc moved into a hotel in Cairo in order to work and live together while the People’s Assembly was in session, and most importantly, to attend parliamentary sessions regularly. Their visibility in parliament challenged and changed the dynamic of what was not a powerful legislative body, but what, according to Saad al-Katatni, then head of the Brotherhood Bloc, had “been for so long just a rubber stamp on the actions of the President. . . . The ndp [National Democratic Party, the state party] [had] such a stronghold, because of the joint-benefits the Party [had] with the President. We intend[ed] to change that.”8

Before the 2005 election, fewer than thirty ndp members would be present by the end of a parliamentary session; during the first sessions, at least one hundred had to be present to outnumber the Muslim Brotherhood members. “Our presence in the parliament, and our persistence, dictates that a similar number of the National Party must be present, so the total number of members in parliament [present in session] went from 30 to 200—allowing for real work and real debate to occur.”9 Another consequence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attendance was not only the attendance of ndp parliamentarians, but also an improvement in their level of preparedness. By 2008, it could be said that “for the first time, everyone comes ready to work.”10

In the span of five years—2005 to 2010—brotherhood parliamentarians sought to alter the image of parliamentarians in the eyes of their constituents by becoming effective politicians. The brotherhood parliamentarians’ reform agenda aimed to expose the regime’s fraud. “Seats were not the goal,” said Mohamed El Biltagy, a brotherhood parliamentarian, but “active participation, getting people together for reform and change—that is the goal.”11 Their first move was to interact with their constituents on a regular basis. According to member Hazem Farouq Mansour, from the Shubra al-Kheima district, “We want the people to see a politician that interacts with his constituents on the street instead of avoiding them, a politician who reports to parliament in the morning and argues for the public’s demands—setting the example for what it means to be a productive parliamentarian.”12

The 2005 Committee on Education exhibited an example of the effect of attendance on parliamentary activity. The committee had fifty-three members, twelve of whom were from the Muslim Brotherhood. In the attendance roster of the Nineteenth Congress, the twelve members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the chair of the committee, Sharif Amer, were the only mps who regularly attended. The brotherhood mps directly affected the discussion and implementation of draft proposals. Katatni asserts that health, industry, and consumer protection committees all followed this pattern.13 The strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood seemed quite simple—to be effectively distributed in committees so as to have an overall presence. It always had at least two mps participate in every discussion, leading to a tangible effect in a few committees that do not garner great attendance. According to Katatni, this participatory strategy, which was maintained from 2006 to 2008, led to a “change in the work mechanism. Not only did our work become visible, but the [parliament] became visible as an active legislative body.”14

This strategy did not go unnoticed by the Mubarak government, and the increased committee activity led to a change in media coverage of parliament. Before the increased presence of the Brotherhood Bloc in parliament, a state-owned television station used to broadcast council sessions live, “but that was banned in order to prevent the public opinion from observing the conduct of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the council.”15

During the 2006 legislative session, the brotherhood gained seats in twenty of the twenty-three legislative committees, and it took majority control over the following legislative committees: education, executive, economic, health care, human rights, and industry. It did not pursue a majority of seats in committees with a social or cultural affairs focus. For example, in the Cultural Affairs Committee, it held only two seats, or 6 percent, whereas the National Democratic Party held twenty-three seats, or 75 percent. This strategic commitment to pursue seats on committees dealing with economic and governance issues rather than on social committees signifies a marked difference with the brotherhood’s past strategy of focusing on social issues.

According to the minutes of the 2006 parliamentary assembly, brotherhood mps submitted over 207 out of a total of 221 questions and interpellations on education alone, equaling 94 percent of the work on that committee,16 even while the brotherhood had only 42 percent representation on the committee and the ndp enjoyed 53 percent representation. According to Katatni, because of the consistent presence and attendance of the brotherhood members, they were able to take part in discussing, drafting, and addressing all the decisions and laws pertaining to the Education Committee. Similar situations played out in the health, industry, and economic committees. For Katatni, the strategy was to ensure that the brotherhood members were “well distributed among the committees, and yes, we have a relatively large presence in some of the committees that we see as important, and a smaller one in others, but our presence is effective.”17

Given the enormity of its mandate, days after election the brotherhood filled a four-story building in the Minyal district of Cairo with experts on parliamentary issues, dedicating entire floors to social, economic, and political legislation.18 Symbolically, the building sits on a major road in a bustling neighborhood, signaling to both the regime and the masses the public nature of the brotherhood’s work. The first floor of the building has a reception area to welcome guests and hold media interviews. A separate room for conferences (with a separate entrance) allows the brotherhood to hold roundtable discussions, invite guests from various think tanks and universities, and record statements made by brotherhood parliamentarians that are broadcast on the internet. The Brotherhood Bloc also launched its own website, (no longer in existence), to provide information on their activity and voting behavior, stream video conferences, and offer taped broadcasts to various media outlets. The website further signaled to the masses that the once private, underground organization was now public, with a presence that could be monitored by anyone interested. The brotherhood ran on a platform of transparency and had now, in the name of transparency, become the most visibly organized political group in the country.

The secondary strategy of the brotherhood was to focus on three primary issues: corruption, social services, and political reform. This strategy was twopronged, as the group established early on that it would commit itself to two levels of work: one, riqabi, to monitor parliament’s previous work and review it for effectiveness, corruption, and maintenance of the national interest; and another, tashri’i (legislation), to submit new proposals and discussions on new issues.19 The task of closely investigating the legislative work of past assemblies while simultaneously establishing a work agenda for its present legislative session was an enormous one. Uncovering the work of the past assemblies was seen as key to the group’s primary goal as laid out by the electoral platform—political reform and ending the culture of corruption.20

The pragmatic approach to politics that the brotherhood took in the mid- 2000s stood in stark contrast to the approach taken by the brotherhood members in parliament who came before them. Whereas previous members would voice opposition in the Cultural Affairs Committee on issues like Egypt joining the Miss World competition, or discuss the content of schoolbooks, now brotherhood parliamentarians were no longer perceived as hard-liners. Rather, they were more open to working with other groups to forge compromises, and even garnered support from secular members for their opposition to the extension of the country’s emergency law, and their support of human rights reform. The brotherhood also pushed for the independence of the judiciary and lobbied for increasing press freedoms. These goals and attitudes, however, were not well received by the Mubarak regime.

In 2007, the regime responded with the mass arrest of brotherhood members. Eighteen brotherhood legislative staffers drafting education and health-care- reform bills were among the hundreds of members arrested. Mubarak followed this with a brutal crackdown not on the organization’s hard-line leaders but rather on the movement’s moderates. It seemed that they had emerged as the regime’s largest threat. The brotherhood’s history of social activity and now its strong political presence were beginning to highlight the gross incompetence of the Mubarak regime, setting the stage for what was to become the most crushing political defeat the brotherhood would suffer. In the rigged 2010 parliamentary elections, the brotherhood did not win a single seat in the People’s Assembly. The overwhelming defeat of the brotherhood, or more precisely its moderate members, pushed its members out of Egypt’s political institutions.

The ideological moderation and political activity of the brotherhood that, rather than centering on religious and social issues, focused on transparency and good governance, emerged as the new face of political Islam in Egypt, and also served to be the very undoing of the Mubarak regime. One month after the 2010 parliamentary elections, millions of Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square, among them moderate members of the brotherhood. Eighteen days later, on February 11, 2011, Mubarak was gone, ending his more than three-decade-long reign over Egypt. But the question remained: What would this mean for the brotherhood?

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