In the past several months, the Egyptian government has upped the pressure on the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in the country.
|Some Muslim Brotherhood supporters have|
protested wearing militia-style uniforms [EPA]
In December, a group of students at Al-Azhar University staged a protest wearing militia-style uniforms, which analysts say gave the government the excuse it needed for a new clampdown.
Media coverage criticising the "increased militarism" of the Brotherhood preceded a round of arrests that saw 270 members detained including third-in-command Khairat El-Shatir, who is also seen as a key financier.
Since then, dozens more people have been arrested and about 40 members of the group, including senior leaders, have been referred to a military court to await trial.
The group has been criticised for its views on how it would run Egypt if it assumed power, the role of Christians in the country, and the status of women in politics.
Mohammed Habib, deputy leader of the brotherhood, told Al Jazeera that his group's 88-seat win in the 454-seat parliament in December 2005 has shaped the "fears and obsessions" of Arab governments and media.
He accuses the government and the ruling National Democratic party (NDP) of using the arrests and threats of military trials as a way to stifle political dissent, particularly as the country heads to a referendum vote on 34 constitutional amendments in the spring.
"These constitutional amendments are aimed at oppressing the political reforms and eternalising autocracy.
"All of these elements are the reasons behind the shameful campaign launched against the Muslim Brotherhood," Habib told Al Jazeera.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
Al-Jazeera.net: What is your strategy in dealing with the NDP and what do you say are its pressures exerted on your group?
Mohammed Habib: In this congested atmosphere, it is important for us in the first place to behave very rationally and prudently. Any rash act or behaviour will have its consequences. I believe our strategy will be to clarify things to the public whenever the NDP launches a campaign against us. They do that to either distort our image or defame us through fabricated stories, accusing us of money laundering and so on.
They want to arrest and oppress us through the use of the media, by which they can convince the public that we are not behaving in the right way. Our mission in the near future is to make it clear to the public that this is untrue.
We will be neither silent nor content of what was done to us.
We will issue press releases, make announcements, give interviews on the Arab satellite channels, participate in television programmes, and hold conferences and symposiums to explain our points of view. All of these are positive things which are in the frame of confronting the status quo in a rational way.
Do you see eye to eye with the government concerning the 34 proposed amendments to the constitution?
There are some amendments we do concur with the NDP on, such as the articles relating to the political system of the country and what economic framework - capitalism, socialism, and so on - should be applied.
But there are things that we disagree with, like articles 5, 41, 44, 88, and 76, to name a few. If you are asking if we disagree with the government about the "package" of amendments, then the answer is yes.
Take Article 5, for example. It restricts the establishing of parties which are called for by the Egyptian people.
There are 12 parties which have been seeking legal licensing for 10 years now but have always been refused by the Shura Council legislative body [which is responsible for granting legitimacy to groups seeking official political party status].
Furthermore, there are restrictions applied on who can run for the presidency. In its present form, Article 76 does not allow candidates from independent parties to run for president.
It is necessary to give every citizen the right to run for the presidency.
But if every citizen has the right to run for president, couldn't that potentially mean that several million Egyptians can vie for the top spot?
For this they can apply conditions to prove the seriousness of the candidate, but not to make it impossible for them.
The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will boycott any discussion and activity regarding the constitutional amendments. Will this be through non-participation in related proceedings or by voting 'no' in the referendum?
No. The referendum is a different issue. We will participate in discussing each article in the parliament and we will clarify our reservations to the amendments. Let us wait and see whether people will participate, and we will urge them to play a positive role in this process ... it is at this point that we will determine how to deal with the referendum.
Recently, you were quoted in a newspaper article saying Christians would be required to pay the jizya [a head tax imposed on non-Muslim males in Muslim countries]. How do you account for this?
We see Christians as part of this society and they are entitled to all the rights and duties just like Muslims. The identification card which the state gives to citizens has replaced the concept of ahl althemma [the non-Muslim subjects living in Muslim countries who, in return for paying the capital tax, enjoyed protection and safety].
We also said that jizya is a historic mode that had its own context and it ended. That's what I said.
The Muslim Brotherhood wants to impose zakat [Muslim concept of giving alms] in Egypt; how will this be applied to the Christian community?
We will not impose zakat on them but there are taxes that will be imposed which will equate between the Muslims and the Christians.
It has already been defined by fiqh [jurisprudence in Islam] that governments cannot impose on Christians what it imposes on Muslims.
Zakat is not only a matter of worship, but it is also a financial right and a social guarantee for society. And it should be regarded by all on this basis. We will take money from Muslims, which is defined by our faith, in order to be spent on poor people, either Muslims or Christians, and to be used to build hospitals, schools ... etc.
So it is not sensible that the Muslim and the Christian benefits without the existence of a tax to be imposed on Christians. This will make them equal with Muslims, in relation to social guarantees and financial rights they are entitled in society. Thus we say that if the Muslim will pay 10 pounds, the Christian will pay 10 pounds, and so on.
But zakat is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Why should Christians pay for something that is required of Muslims only?
It is on the one hand a matter of belief, and on the other hand it is a financial right of the society. And we will benefit from this money, and this money will be exploited to serve the whole society.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood's position on Egyptian citizenship?
The Islamic Sharia is the most comprehensive, complete and high statute regarding the principle of citizenship. In other words, the criteria of assuming public offices should be efficiency, capability, and excellence, not religion. There should not be a distinction between citizens before law on the basis of religion, race, or sex.
So, in that regard, the Muslim Brotherhood has no problem with a Christian assuming a senior political or military position?
Why not? Public offices are available for everyone. Christians could be members of parliament, judges, ministers, or leaders in the army.
Can a Christian assume the presidency?
This requires ijtihad [the process of legal decision by independent interpretation of legal sources in conjunction with the Quran and oral traditions of the Prophet Muhammad] from us. In other words, are we talking about a presidential parliamentarian state, or a mere presidential state? Each of them is tackled in a different way.
But you just said that the only criteria will be based on efficiency not religion?
Sharia contains texts that confine the presidency to Muslims. So we want to reach a confirmity between the provisions of Sharia and the principle of citizenship, and this requires ijtihad.
Can a woman assume the presidency then?
This also requires ijtihad. There are texts in the Islamic Sharia that stipulates manhood. Is it the woman or the institution who will rule? This is the question.
Are there any women at any organisational level inside the Muslim Brotherhood?
We keep our wives and daughters away from any presence on the organisational level because all the individuals at any level may be subjected to pressure or detention. So we always like to keep them away from such a filthy atmosphere.
But we are not conservative about women becoming businesswomen, employees, ministers or judges.
We are keen on the contribution of women, but unfortunately the general political atmosphere is inappropriate. We encourage women to attend conferences, such as the conference of population, and the conferences that were held in China and New York.