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What do the Muslim Brothers want?

Youssef Sidhom
Thursday 15 February 2007

Problems on hold

Over the past 15 months, since the November 2005 legislative elections, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) maintained a high public profile through a string of debates, demonstrations and clashes with the police, but without achieving any impact whatsoever on the political, economic or cultural reform fronts.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the MB secured 88 seats—20 per cent of all parliamentary seats—I accepted an invitation from my friend Mohammed Abdel-Qodous, who is a MB member, to conduct a dialogue with MB figures. Contrary to claims by some observers that the dialogue was a Coptic-Brotherhood one, I was keen to stress that it was a dialogue among Egyptians under the umbrella of citizenship concepts. Meanwhile, I was convinced that focusing on areas of divergence between myself as a staunch advocate of a civil State and the MB members as promoters of a religious State would do more harm rather than good. I considered it more worthwhile to explore points of convergence, our shared homeland and cultural and civilisational heritage.

I was eager to steer the dialogue clear off two points. One concerned the ideologies and strategies of the MB, and the other pertained to the position of Copts in the Islamic State the MB aspires to establish. Delving into the first point would have only served to create a climate of distrust and to widen the ideological gap between us, especially since the MB themselves are intentionally vague on the matter. As to the second point, I found it extremely humiliating, on the citizenship rights level, to ask about the fate of Copts in a MB-sponsored Islamic State.

The MB figures approved my proposal and we agreed to work on mending fences between Copts and Muslims, especially young people who had grown up steeped in the divisive culture which prevailed throughout the past three decades. We stressed the need to focus on shared activities, and ingrain a culture of accepting differences. This is one of the main principles applied by Watani in all the activities it sponsors, such as its Youth Parliament, Journalistic Formation Centre, and the Coexistence Group co-sponsored by the Journalists’ Syndicate. Following up on shared areas of interest proved beneficial in creating a climate favourable to accepting the other. At the time, prominent MB member Essam al-Erian said that the MB’s 20 per cent of parliamentary seats shoulders the group with great responsibility. The group, he said, would thus not concern itself primarily with being at loggerheads with the government, but would embark upon formulating a comprehensive programme for modernity and reform that would take into account the principles of citizenship rights, pluralism, women’s issues, and modern state features.

That was then. Today, following more than a year in Parliament, the group’s performance leaves much to be desired. I know that many Egyptians, especially intellectuals and politicians, share my wariness. The frequent fanatic declarations by the MB supreme guide, the performance of the group’s MPs, and the military-style parade organised by MB students at al-Azhar University, have all triggered public fears. Last but not least was the latest declaration on the Brotherhood’s intention to form a political party, which dealt a blow to citizenship values. In all these instances, the frightful discriminatory spirit characterising the MB was directed against both Muslims and Copts; the group propagated the message that it monopolised the correct vision of Islam—the sharia of God—and that all other outlooks were sinful and infidel. It reached the point where an honourable MB member announced in Parliament that the Brotherhood’s project of an Islamic State was the sole valid outlook and that anyone who disagreed should go find himself another religion.

I do not regret my dialogue with the MB, am happy with my friendship with some of the group’s leaders, and am keen to maintain our communication despite disagreement. But when I contemplate the past 15 months, I realise that the gap between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian public has widened, and that the former need to work hard if they are to quell people’s fears.

Finally, I would like to say that some positive outcome has ensued out of the MB clamour. The supreme guide’s declarations have prompted a general disaffection which proved that most Egyptians are for modernity, and that the cause of citizenship rights is not about Muslims versus Copts, but about an Egyptian majority versus an extremist minority.

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