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Ahmed Shihab Eldin
Ahmed Shihab Eldin
Ahmed Shihab Eldin is a journalist and multimedia producer who currently co-hosts The Stream on Al Jazeera English.
The Stream: Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
As the Brotherhood aims for a position in the new government, Egyptian youth discuss the topic of Islamist politics.
Last Modified: 20 Jun 2011 14:27
Egyptian youth have ousted former President Mubarak from leadership, but they now face a new struggle for a fair and democratic election [GALLO/GETTY]

[Be sure to check out The Stream's update on #TweetNadwa]

"You can't dictate democracy," I said to a woman from the US who fearfully asked me: "But what if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt?" The question came at the end of a panel hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City.

This was one of several dozen times I had been asked the question in the months since Mubarak was overthrown by a popular uprising in the Arab world's most populous nation.

With parliamentary and presidential elections due in September, the question is both relevant and timely, but as fearful as some in the West may be, it is nearly impossible to envision a scenario wherein the Muslim Brotherhood will not play a substantial role in governing Egypt following these elections.

"The Brotherhood is a formidable movement, as old as the state itself in Egypt - and it will disappear only if Egyptians themselves stop endorsing it," says Larbi Sadiki, a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.

"The MB is not some kind of clerical temple of wisdom - it has doctors, engineers, lawyers, merchants, business people, teachers, the army and police force ... all of Egypt is represented in its power base."

Despite, or perhaps in part because of, Mubarak's banning of the group for decades, the Brotherhood is undoubtedly both the most organised and most influential political group inside Egypt.

For that reason, the group is poised to secure a large number of seats in parliament, if not a majority.

So what then if the Brotherhood comes to power? 

What does this mean for Egypt's secular and Coptic communities, many of whom played a central role in the very revolution that overthrew Mubarak, and in doing so, allowed for the Brotherhood to finally be recognised as a political party on June 6.

The answer may lie in the political reality that in a democratic election, with power, comes accountability.

"The MB has always been the party that exercised self-restraint," Sadiki said.

The Brotherhood has been positioning itself to be a loud and influential voice in whatever new government takes shape - but careful to not be seen as leading or attempting to take over the government.

"They will now seek to increase their share of the vote but never to create political imbalance. They are capable of pragmatism and they will seek to form 'coalitions' inside parliament instead of seeking an outright majority on their own right," Sadiki said.

This strategic move is designed to deflect criticism from within Egypt's galvanised public, during times that will be marked by struggle, before stability and prosperity is established. But it also gives the West and the international community less reason to withhold economic assistance - including in the form of tourism, on which Egypt will remain heavily dependent in the coming years.

The question of whether political Islam and democracy can co-exist is not a new debate in the Muslim world, but one that, for Egyptians - to face the question at the polls in September - demands serious consideration.

It is the Egyptian people's right to decide, as their ultimate decision will have enormous consequences on the entire region.

Provided elections are both fair and transparent, their right to decide must be respected.

"US administrations should worry about the absence of democracy - not the absence of Islamists from Arab politics," Sadiki said.

"The former is more detrimental to Arab citizenry, the US and the world. This has been demonstrated by the misrule of people like Gaddafi, Bashir, Saleh, Mubarak and Ben Ali. Democracy means accepting, periodically, the verdict of the people."

Given the new era of civic engagement that is spilling over from the virtual realm on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere into the streets, the West must trust that, should the Brotherhood be elected to office and leads the country astray, they will be held accountable and find themselves fatefully matched with Mubarak.

"I have confidence that the Egyptians and Tunisians have now invented a brand of politics that no single party, ideology or movement can hijack from the people," Sadiki said.

'TweetNadwa'

On Sunday, the question of Islam's role in Egyptian public and political life was the focus of Cairo's first-ever "TweetNadwa", a meeting organised for activists, bloggers and tweeps from across Egypt's political spectrum to exchange - in 140 seconds at a time - their opinions on the matter.

The discussion focused on the subject of Islamist youth and included some of the country's most well-known examples - including Ibrahim Hudhaibi, Abdel Moneim Mahmoud and Ahmed Samir.

The gathering, which took place in Dokki, Cairo, was intended to be an extension of the many 140-character message conversations around politics, society and religion taking place in the Twitterverse, as young Egyptians explore the various paths for Egypt's future.

The success of the event can be seen as a modern and technological manifestation of the will for democratic self-determination. A healthy public discourse is flourishing online and is now finding its way into social life.

Alaa Abd El Fattah (@alaa), who organised the event, said his primary intention was to help facilitate new conversations and new contacts for the participants.

"One day I was watching an Muslim Brotherhood leader on TV and Twitter was full of commentary on what he was saying," El Fattah said. "I realised that all my Ikhwani friends have basically left the group or are highly critical of it."

Despite it being the week of exams for local universities across Cairo, the venue was already over capacity 20 minutes before the gathering was scheduled to start.

While the main speakers were all from the Brotherhood, independant Salafis were also there, though in fewer numbers and with less of a concrete political platform.

The first half of the meeting consisted of El Fattah putting tough questions to his guests including: "Are you an Islamist?", "Is Egypt an Islamist nation?" and "Why did you leave the Muslim Brotherhood?"

The answers to the final question highlighted the most pressing of several challenges facing the Brotherhood today - the growing divisions among its youth.

More than 70 per cent of the population in Egypt is under the age of 29, and they make up more than 80 per cent of the country's unemployed citizens.

The Brotherhood's youth may still be part of the organisation, but they are first and foremost part of a generation that, like the #TweetNadwa participants, interacts with a wide range of individuals and groups through the internet and social media as well as books and satellite television.

"The youth of the MB were the first to use the internet to communicate different political messages, at once displaying connection with their peers in terms of age and ideological affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of championing democratic government and loyalty to Islamic identity and ideals," Sadiki said.

This generation is exposed to leftist, liberal and Islamic thinkers. This generation has struggled to find jobs for decades.

Large swaths of the Brotherhood's youth have been inspired by the Justice and Development party in Turkey which just won a landslide victory in this month's general elections.

Many of Egypt's youth members ignored calls by the group's elite members to boycott the Friday demonstrations that eventually led to Mubarak's ousting. Instead, the youth joined other political parties and groups in Tahrir square, indicating that unity against the corruption of the Mubarak's government trumped political divisions and strategies.

"TweetNadwa had the same magic we had in Tahrir. People were just happy we could be together," El Fattah said.

"They disagreed, even discussed their fear of each other, but if you treat people with expectations that they'll act as individuals, they will - and they will surprise you. If you insist on boxing them in categories, they will
eventually fit it comfortably."

The general consensus among former and current Muslim Brotherhood youth was that they felt the organisation was limited in scope.

"There was a feeling that the Muslim Brotherhood is not big enough to contain their aspirations, and not relaxed enough to accept their questioning minds," El Fattah said.

In June, the Brotherhood created the Freedom and Justice Party and announced that it was looking to create new alliances with liberal groups in the hopes of creating a path for a healthy democratic transition.

The move marked an effort to preserve their political positioning as the most popular political party at a time when divisions have been emerging primarily within the group's youth members.

Can the Brotherhood appeal to Egyptian youth?

After years of political suppression, assassinations and the mass imprisonment of its members by Egypt's government, the group is aiming to take measures to avoid international isolation.

"This is a very dangerous political period," Vice President of Freedom and Justice Essam Al Arian said. "We want to pass the next few months safely with the help of others."

This may lend some explanation to the recent news that the Brotherhood was aligning itself with the prominent liberal Wafd Party, which could very well increase its chances of winning a majority in parliament.

One of the Brotherhood's younger members - who asked to remain anonymous due to what he called "extreme political sensitivities" within the group - said that the leaders of the Brotherhood are not concerned with a unified Egypt or a particularly prosperous Egypt, but simply with electoral victory for the Freedom and Justice Party.

"The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood shuns the culture of secrecy within the MB and this is part of the problems arising today," Sadiki said.

"The Muslim Brotherhood prefers quiet politics."

Islam Lotfi, who played an instrumental role in organising the protests that eventually ousted Mubarak, has joined other young members criticising party leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie for claiming that the ousting of Mubarak from power could be seen as "divine retribution" for the jailing of members of the Brotherhood in years past.

"What the Supreme Guide said is not true, because members of other political waves were also detained, such as communists," Lotfi, one of the younger members of the group, said.

Moreover, while many of the youth members are calling for reforms, including the democratisation of the political structure and increased representation for women - it remains unclear whether the leadership will fully support these proposals.

Despite the divisions between the elder, more traditional members and the youth, the group is likely to make significant gains. For years they have garnered support from the largely rural and poverty-stricken parts of the country where, much like Hamas has done in Gaza, they have launched many social welfare projects including healthcare and educational services, despite being banned from politics.

As the Brotherhood decentralises their power by seeking out alliances in order to appeal to broader segments of the population more divisions and internal conflicts within the group have emerged.

Although the Brotherhood announced that they would not be running any presidential candidates, several prominent Brotherhood members have recently announced their intention to run for president.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh announced his candidacy - in direct defiance of calls from group leaders forbidding any Brotherhood members from supporting the candidacy of a Brotherhood contender.

Despite efforts by the Brotherhood - and other groups based on an Islamic platform - to acknowledge the necessity of a civil state, wherein national unity must trump political rivalries, and where the people themselves are the source of all government authority, many are still wary that Islamist parties are looking to enforce strict interpretations of Islamic law.

The Brotherhood's leadership has made it clear that their politics will be governed by Sharia, one way or another.

In June, Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood's Deputy General Guide, said the group was planning to develop an Islamic studies centre, aiming to rebuild the principles of Islamic Sharia.

Also, in June, the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said that opposing an Islamic basis for Egyptian governance was morally wrong.

"An Islamic reference for a civil state is the only guarantee for all Egyptians, but to call for a civil state without an Islamic reference is contradictory and against ethics and morality," Badie said.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, elections cannot come soon enough, so as to limit the time some of the newer parties running on Islamic platforms have to organise their campaigns and offer an alternative.

Ibrahim Houdaiby may have summed up the challenge facing the Brotherhood best in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

"The Brotherhood has two options. The first is to be a rigid organisation that insists on having only one legal political manifestation, and in that case the Brotherhood would eventually collapse."

"The other is to be a more flexible organisation, allowing different political manifestations and retreating from the political domain to the civil domain and operating in the background of society to shape ... social roles and so forth. In this case, it would grow more powerful. It would be able to capitalise as an organisation on the social capital."

Ahmed Shihab Eldin is a journalist and multimedia producer who currently co-hosts The Stream on Al Jazeera English.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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