«What will the Muslim Brotherhood do when it grows up?»
Blogger Issandr El Amrani talks to Elisa Pierandrei 20 December 2010

The Muslim Brotherhood has been the target of fierce repression in the electoral period. Should we reconsider the Muslim Brotherhood’s definition as a banned but “tolerated” Islamist group in Egypt?

These elections raise the question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood is tolerated any more. For a long time, it was able to maintain a small number of deputies in parliament. It now appears that after their 2005 performance, when they got 20% of the seats, the regime decided to hit back. The recent elections suggest that, for now, they are no longer tolerated in formal politics. But this does not mean they are not tolerated at all, since the group continues to run offices, charities, hospitals etc.

What is the challenge now for this Islamist group?

The MB’s challenge is now to redefine itself after being banned from formal political life. Since they are not allowed newspapers, radio or television stations, parliament was an important means for the MB to get its message out. The press — including the state press — had to cover the statements made by their MPs. A longer term challenge is figuring out what the Brotherhood is about in the 21st Century. Is it a political party or a religious movement? Is it part of the opposition, or is it a conservative lobby trying to push the regime in more a religious direction? What it decides to be will depend largely on the political context of post-Mubarak Egypt.

This year’s parliamentary results represented a challenge for Mubarak’s regime too. Violence and accusations of fraud are damaging Mubarak’s attempts to make Egypt a more democratic country.

Few people had taken seriously the idea that Egypt was democratizing anyway, and the Mubarak regime appears determined to ignore foreign and domestic criticism about these elections. In the absence of strong domestic opposition or foreign partners willing to pressure it about democracy and human rights, Egypt figures it can afford the bad publicity. But there is a price to pay; formal politics were delegitimized by these elections, and opposition groups now feel they have little incentive to believe in “gradual reform” and more incentive to put aside their differences and group together against the status-quo.

And the international community remains powerless.

Egypt, seen by the West as a “moderate” Arab state, calculates it has little to fear from Western pressure. The European Union is generally silent on human rights abuses in Egypt, while leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi publicly embrace Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. France and Italy also act to counter countries more critical of Egypt inside the E.U., such as Sweden. The UK and France, among others, have considerable investments in Egypt and don’t want issues of democracy to disrupt political and business relations.

For the US, the question is more that Egypt provides military and intelligence assistance that is important to ongoing operations in Iraq and counter-terrorism more generally. Although there exists more of a concern about Egypt’s lack of democracy in the US political system than in any European country, these issues remain the most important. Combine the above points with the absence of  clear alternative to Mubarak, and you have an international community that simply feels it has no choice but go along with Egypt, particularly when there are plenty of other Arab states it considers worse.

Again, Mubarak, 82, seems to be the only candidate with a chance to win next year’s presidential elections. If he is re-elected, do you think he will appoint a vice-president?

It’s impossible to know. Mubarak has kept his cards very close to his chest in the nearly 30 years he has been in power, to the extent that we don’t even really know whether he wants his son Gamal to succeed him. This ambiguity about succession has benefited him, keeping internal rivals away and most people unwilling to lay a claim to the presidency. It’s likely that Mubarak considers himself an indispensable man and will rule until he dies or is too sick to rule effectively, at which point he may appoint a vice-president who will be seen as his designated successor.

Former IAEA Secretary Mohamed El Baradei’s last Facebook call for boycotting the presidential elections suggests that no renewal will ever come from elections in Egypt. Do you agree with that?

My understand of what Dr. El Baradei is arguing is that there is no point in participating in elections under a rigged system — one where the security forces benefit from the Emergency Law, where court decisions are not enforced and opposition movements can’t really campaign. This refers to his six points, or pre-conditions, for being a presidential candidate: 1) the end of the Emergency Law, 2) full judicial supervision of elections, 3) constitutional amendments of Articles 76, 77 and 88 of the Egyptian constitution to limit presidential terms to only two and allow any Egyptian to be a candidate, 4) equal treatment by state media, 5) the right of Egyptians abroad to vote and 6) the right to vote with only a national ID card, rather than imposing a special voting card as is currently done. Since these conditions have not been met, he does not believe in participating in elections.

There is some merit for this position, but it is easy for El Baradei and his movement, who have no MPs or any kind of elected officials, to boycott. For existing political parties the boycott choice entailed losing all representation in parliament. Of course, with the way these elections went, this happened anyway, but no one thought they would be this bad several weeks ago. His main point — that the political climate and restrictions are more important than elections — still holds.