Saturday, January 21, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood reformers tap into a generation of young activists

Muslim Brotherhood reformers tap into a generation of young activists

Poised to dominate Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party laid down a new challenge to the authority of Egypt’s interim military rulers on Tuesday, even before polls had closed on the second day of voting.

Although a top general on the ruling military council said as recently as last weekend that the council would continue to choose the prime minister even after Parliament was formed, Mr. Erian argued that the turnout showed that voters wanted the new Parliament’s majority, and not the generals, to have that power, just as in other parliamentary systems.

“Millions of Egyptians voted because they wanted a strong, democratic Parliament,” Mr. Erian said.

“Any government has to have a vote of confidence from the Parliament,” he added. “That is a basic principle, even if it is not written into the law.”

His assertion is an early signal that the Brotherhood intends to use the seats it may gain in Parliament to push to limit military rule, even though it declined to join its liberal rivals in several days of street protests last week aimed at the same goal.

The Brotherhood’s position is the latest twist in a battle between the military council that took over after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster and those demanding the handover of power to civilians. The prime minister has served at the pleasure of the military council since Mr. Mubarak’s exit, and the military’s latest appointment, Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, has made it clear that he, too, reports to the generals.

Also at stake in the tug of war between the generals and their critics over choosing the prime minister is influence over the drafting of a new constitution.

The generals have already attempted to put their own stamp on the document, moving to provide themselves with permanent political powers and protection from civilian scrutiny. But the Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt’s strongest political force, also wants to exert its influence through Parliament.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party claimed Wednesday that its running tally of votes put it ahead in all nine governorates that voted this week, basing its claims on the reports of its election monitors observing the counts. The party said that it was ahead in conservative Alexandria as well as the relatively liberal areas of Cairo and along the Red Sea, and it was coming in second in only one district, behind the more conservative Islamist Nour Party. While other parties questioned the Brotherhood’s claims, it has a good track record in past electoral forecasts.

With its party positioned to dominate the elections, the Brotherhood stayed on the sidelines of a wave of protests against military rule last week, in part for fear the tumult could upset the vote.

Mr. Erian made his comments in an interview in the Freedom and Justice Party’s dingy headquarters in Cairo, where he had gathered with other party leaders to await news from the polls and an atmosphere of barely checked celebration prevailed.

Voting continued to go smoothly Tuesday, defying predictions of chaos and violence. Though ballot boxes were left overnight in the polling places, there were no reports of sabotage Tuesday. State-run news organizations reported estimates that turnout was above 70 percent.

The chance to cast a free vote appeared to drain some of the energy and crowds from a protest in Tahrir Square, where clashes between protesters and street vendors broke out Tuesday night. Witnesses reported gunshots and a few gasoline bombs, though it was unclear if anyone was hurt.

Election observers marveled that in the middle of what had seemed last week to be a second revolution, the country had suddenly quieted down enough to open the polls.

“There is a distinct possibility that you will have a representative Parliament, and I would have said something different a few days ago,” said Les Campbell, regional director for the National Democratic Institute, one of a half-dozen international groups allowed for the first time to monitor Egyptian voting.

The voting on Monday and Tuesday took place in nine of Egypt’s 27 governorates and included the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria. The results of a few races between individual candidates could be released by Wednesday. Others will go to runoff votes next week.

Full results for the lower house will not be announced until January, after two more rounds of voting in different regions of the country. Voting for the upper house will take place between January and March.

Scott Mastic of the International Republican Institute, another election observer, said much remained uncertain, including how the transportation and counting of the first ballots will be handled.

Election monitors have also raised questions about how the disclosure of a few results might influence later voting, or even create false expectations that could cast doubts about the final results.

Still, Mr. Mastic said, given Egypt’s history of fraudulent polls and dismal expectations for these elections, the vote so far has been “historic.”

However, the revolution has also created new challenges for the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly, an emboldened group of Muslim Brotherhood insiders who strongly oppose what they have characterized as the organization’s extremely timid agenda when it comes to reform. And although dissension within the ranks is not a recent phenomenon for the Muslim Brotherhood, it has assumed unprecedented relevance as many the predictions of many observers that reformers would break from the more conservative leadership of the organization has come to fruition.

The reformists (as a term relevant to the Muslim Brotherhood) emerged around 2004, and the Egyptian media initially used it as a relatively hazy category to refer to those who were disgruntled with the authoritarianism of the organization’s guidance bureau. The Muslim Brotherhood’s reformists demanded greater freedom of debate and accountability within the movement, greater participation for women and the young, and the establishment of a set of transparent guidelines to guide decision-making.

Since that time, the term has only gotten hazier and the reformists in the Muslim Brotherhood are known to come from all walks of life: The term now embraces a group diverse in age (those from 20 to 50 years old), profession (political pundits, student leaders, activists, social media entrepreneurs, etc.), socio-economic status, and place of residence (hailing both from small towns and big cities).

These reformers advocate for more creative approaches to Islamic texts, and they insist on the necessity of justifying the values of democracy and citizenship in Islamic terms. Crucially, they also advocate far-reaching doctrinal and organizational restructuring of the Muslim Brotherhood that would separate the party’s networks of political participation from its mission of proselytism.

These reformist members were some of the most active in the mobilization of youths in the lead-up to the January 2011 uprising; they pushed senior leaders to join the revolution when the Muslim Brotherhood was initially indecisive over how to respond. In debates with party conservatives, the reformists argued that “youth passion” could be successfully assimilated into a modern Islamist party, and to that end, they held a two-day conference in Cairo in April 2011 to articulate their agenda. The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party boycotted the conference.

In fact, the conservative leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has refused to internalize any of these criticisms. Their fear is that internal reform will alienate the organization’s more conservative constituency and push them instead toward the Salafists. This inflexibility has prompted a number of prominent figures to resign, such as Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, the grandson of the sixth General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mamoun al-Houdaiby.

More disappointingly, Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh (the most well-known figure among the reformers) left the organization’s guidance bureau during the last internal elections before the revolution. He was eventually suspended from the organization in May 2011 when he announced his intention to run for president in defiance of the official Muslim Brotherhood stance not to field a presidential candidate.

Similar official positions taken by the leadership throughout the transition have alienated reformists and pushed them over the edge. They have criticized the Freedom and Justice Party’s limited commitment to state reform and have emphasized the need to restructure the Egyptian police and judiciary, liquidate the former regime’s political networks and resources. They also have supported the rights of workers to demand better working conditions. Additionally, reformists have censured the Freedom and Justice Party’s decision not to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as well as its failure not to join the dissatisfied secular revolutionary forces that took to the streets again last April.

The “we-did-it” euphoria has pushed disaffected reformists to search for or create alternative political forums. Many of them have resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood, while many others have been fired by its guidance bureau following an official investigation into their “violations of group regulations.”

Among the alternative parties created by former Muslim Brotherhood members is the Egyptian Current Party (Al-Tayar al-Masry), founded in June by Islam Lotfy and Mohammad al-Qassas, which is the largest of the new parties. It includes two other prominent members, Ahmad Nazily and Ammar al-Beltagy who is particularly noteworthy because his father, Mohammad al-Beltagy, is a key and very visible leader in the Freedom and Justice Party. Some members of the Egyptian Current Party like Mohammad Osman, Mohammad Afan, and Ali al-Meshad, also defied warnings from the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership by joining Aboul Fotouh’s presidential campaign.

Two smaller political forums are in the process of establishing legalized parties: Al-Nahda and Al-Reyada. Their membership is generally older than that of the Egyptian Current Party, as most of the Muslim Brotherhood youth active during the revolution largely prefer the latter. Al-Nahda is headed by the veteran reformers Ibrahim al-Zafarani and Mohamed Habib, who is a former deputy guide who resigned amid an alleged character-assassination campaign during the 2010 guidance bureau elections.

Al-Reyada’s constituency is centered in the port city of Alexandria and is headed by Khaled Daoud. The forum includes renowned ex- Muslim Brotherhood civil society pundits like Haitham Abu Khalil, Amr Abu-Khalil and Khalid al-Zafarani. Although both Al-Nahda and Al-Reyada are still in the initial phase of political development, they seem to have very similar outlooks. The separation of the two is mainly based on personal antagonism among supporters. As Haitham Abu Khalil has noted, most members of Al-Reyada disagree with the “authoritarian leadership style” of Al-Nahda’s Ibrahim al-Zafarani.

These new parties are working hard to emulate Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, and have focused especially on the separation of its political and proselytizing missions while also promulgating a conciliatory social message. The Egyptian Current Party, for example, notes that Islam is only one element of contemporary Egyptian society’s multiplicity of cultural identities. Members are attempting to tap the socio-economic demands of the relatively deprived middle class yuppies and youthful labor force at the heart of the Jan. 25 uprising. Their platforms call for human rights and community development rather than engaging in the meta-politics of establishing an Islamic state.

The differences among these breakaway factions and the Muslim Brotherhood are so deep that today many ex-Brothers find those in non-Islamist movements more appealing partners than their Islamist counterparts. In fact, the new reformist parties have debated the viability of shifting toward a center-left position in alliance with Egypt’s non-Islamist liberal and leftist political actors.

The Egyptian Current party and members of the Al-Nahda forum have already done so. Last October they entered into the “Completing the Revolution” Alliance with socialist groups such as the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and the Equality and Development Party, as well as moderate liberal parties such as the Egypt Freedom Party. This alliance has fielded 306 candidates in 33 electoral districts: 280 on unified electoral lists (out of a possible 332) and 26 (out of a possible 166) for independent seats to the 508-member lower house of Parliament. Of these candidates, 32 belong to the Egyptian Current party (including Lotfy and Qassas).

Despite these developments, given the lack of financial clout and organizational resources, Muslim Brotherhood reformists still appear to be electorally insignificant. So far, they have not been able to win a single seat in the first round of the parliamentary elections (though other parties in the Completing the Revolution Alliance have won 10 seats). The fragmentation among them is also problematic, and they have a long way to go to catch up with the electoral competence of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and reproduce its extraordinary party structures.

But despite poor performance in these elections, their presence in Egypt’s transition cannot be ignored. Though not yet apparent on the ballot, they have tapped into a generation of Islamist activists and young middle class professionals whose aspirations for socio-economic development is not fulfilled by the discourse of the Freedom and Justice Party. They are in the process of reshaping a new Islamist discourse on good governance, democracy and development. In doing so, the reformists are undermining the polarization between Islamists and secularists that long inhibited the development of policy-oriented (rather than identity-based) party politics.

Ashraf El Sherif, who teaches at the American University in Cairo, is a specialist on political Islam. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Libyan Islamists rally to demand sharia-based law

 Hundreds of Libyan Islamists rallied on Friday to demand that Muslim sharia law inspire legislation in what organizers called a response to the emergence of secular political parties after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship last year.

Assembled by Islamist political and religious groups, mostly young and bearded men holding up copies of the Koran demonstrated in squares in the capital Tripoli, the eastern city of Benghazi and in Sabha in the southern desert.

In Tripoli's Algeria Square, Islamists burned copies of the Green Book, Gaddafi's eccentric handbook on politics, economics and everyday life, to underline that the Koran should be the country's main source of legislation.

By contrast, a group of secularists who have staged a sit-in in the square for more than a month chanted: "We want a civil state."

The Islamist demonstrators encompassed members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and harder-line Salafis, who both back strict versions of Islam, and relative moderates who prefer a civil state simply inspired by sharia.

The protests offered a glimpse into Libya's political future in which Islamist and secularist parties are expected to vie for seats in a national assembly scheduled to be elected in June to draft a constitution for the North African country.

Experts believe the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized political force and could emerge as the leading political player in Libya after Gaddafi, who harshly suppressed Islamists during his 42 years in autocratic power.

Western powers are coming to accept that the advent of democracy in the Arab world means bringing Islamists to power. They have become the biggest election winners in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco over the past few months.

 The chairman of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil, promised in October to uphold Islamic law. "We as a Muslim nation have taken Islamic sharia as the source of legislation, therefore any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified," he said.

The deputy central bank governor said last month a law regulating Islamic banking would be issued in the first quarter of 2012, but stressed that both conventional and Islamic banks would be allowed to operate in Libya.

Islamists in Algeria Square held up placards demanding a financial system respecting Islam's ban on interest and calling for a constitution derived from sharia's legal and moral codes.

"We want to run our life according to Islamic principles, be it the economy, politics or our relations with other countries," said Abdul Basit Ghuwaila, a preacher at a Tripoli mosque. "Most people think Islam is just about harsh penalties."

Ghuwaila, 49, said sharia should not govern all Libyan law, but insisted that legislation should not contradict it.

Nour al-Zintani, a participant in the month-long sit-in for a secular state, said the majority of Libyans wanted Islam to be a part of their life but not a strict interpretation of it.

"We all want sharia," she said, standing next to her teenage daughter, both of them wearing a Muslim headscarf, "but not the one they're talking about, the one that rejects women. We want a moderate Islam that gives women their rights."

1. Ballot boxes being collected from a polling station near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday after a second day of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

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