Sunday, May 08, 2005

Enter the Ikhwan

Catering to more than one audience: The Ikhwan hold aloft the Qur'an and English-language banners during their May 4, 2005 protest in Cairo.

In these heady times in Egypt, I’m finding it a challenge just to keep up with the dizzying pace of events, much less to understand and digest them. Particularly challenging and confusing for me and perhaps others is what’s been happening with the Ikhwan (Muslim Brothers). The past few weeks have seen demonstrations, arrests, conflicting signals, international overtures, more demonstrations, more arrests, and one death. Now we learn that Essam al-Eryan, perhaps in an echo of Marwan al-Barghouti’s withdrawn bid back in December, is running for president, perhaps from behind bars, though the Ikhwan made clear he's not their candidate and trumped it up to "a personal decision." No doubt all of this is part and parcel of the general turmoil on the Egyptian scene this eventful year, but because of the Ikhwan’s hefty political weight and proven abilities to mobilise thousands, everyone is understandably curious. As usual, however, partisan biases, wishful thinking, and ignorant claims are in abundant supply. Let me try not to fall into any of these.

Opportunities and Challenges

It seems to me the Ikhwan are buffeted by enticing opportunities and new challenges, both of which are amplifying as never before the subterranean rifts and tensions in this allegedly tight-lipped, hyper-organised organization. The opportunities consist of a tattered, unpopular regime weathering perhaps the greatest challenges to its survival in 24 years, and friendly signals from both the EU and the United States on the necessity of holding a dialogue with Islamists. EU foreign ministers are mulling over the idea of talking to Arab Islamists with constituencies and not simply well-connected but unrepresentative secularists, while Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has said that she’s not fazed by the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism.” In her words, “It isn’t as if the status quo was stable the way that it was. What we really learned on September 11th as you really started to look underneath what was going on there, is that the Middle East is a place that’s badly in need of change, that some of these malignancies that are represented by the rise of extremism have their root in the absence of other channels for political activity or social activity or the desire for change.” Some American policy intellectuals have endorsed and perhaps influenced Rice’s view. Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East, wrote in Foreign Affairs recently, “The Bush administration needs to listen to Muslim moderates. The United States has an obligation to stand by them and to raise the costs to regimes--including the Egyptian and Saudi governments that U.S. administrations have always been reluctant to criticize--of suppressing them. The time is ripe for creating more regular mechanisms to support Muslim reformers while learning from them how best to help.”

Challenges are exemplified by Kifaya’s swift entry onto the political stage as a tiny but credible “third way” to the tense tango long thought to dominate Egyptian politics: the Ikhwan and the regime. In a few months, Kifaya has captured domestic and international attention and revitalized the medium of street politics, a venue the Ikhwan have always been ambivalent about. Kifaya is on everyone’s tongue, and the media-hungry Ikhwan do not take kindly to this upstart movement edging them out of the limelight.

Another challenge, simmering for years, is managing the serious rifts within the Ikhwan and controlling this behemoth organization after the quick successive deaths of General Guides Mustafa Mashour and Ma’mun al-Hudaybi and the defection of Abul Ela Madi and his friends to form the Wasat. The Wasat people are extremely adept at using both domestic and international media to air their bitterness at the Ikhwan, and they don’t paint a pretty picture. Because Abul Ela is affable, voluble, and smart, it’s easy to believe his horror stories about how refractory and dictatorial the Ikhwan are. But I tire of his one-note tune and the zeal of his mudslinging. With all due respect and admiration, please give it a rest, Abul Ela and move on. You’re starting to sound like Rif’at al-Said (the most venal joker on the Egyptian political scene), and I just don’t buy your claim that the Ikhwan will never change and should be shunned forever.

New Documents, New Stances?

The Ikhwan are a strange creature. They have the air of a vibrant movement, sinister cult, and government-in-waiting all wrapped up into one. Their statements are maddeningly inconsistent and almost always a retrospective gloss on their actions. I suspect other Egyptians share my totally conflicted feelings about the Ikhwan. Some days I respect them and sympathize with their real sufferings and almost unreal resilience. They truly live by an ethic of public service, and if I was a down-and-out citizen, I’d go to them for help. Other days I’m furious at their superior attitude and holier-than-thou attitude of guardianship toward the Egyptian people. They still like to go it alone when it comes to protests, and I have this sneaking suspicion that if Hosni Mubarak woke up tomorrow and decided to invite them over to lunch to discuss the nation’s problems, they’d trip over themselves rushing to the presidential palace.

Emotions aside, it’s important to note that the Ikhwan have been experiencing some fascinating changes since the selection of their new General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef early last year. He’s rather inscrutable. As one of the “old guard” (he was tried and imprisoned in the 1954 round-up after the alleged assassination attempt against Nasser), he prefers conciliation instead of confrontation and has always made it clear that the Ikhwan are always ready to negotiate with the government. On March 20, I noted his willingness to back Mubarak for a fifth term if the latter recognizes the Ikhwan. But as of yesterday’s press conference, there’s a clear shift in the General Guide’s posture.

Akef’s press release is a strongly-worded document, by the Ikhwan’s fence-sitting standards of course. It holds the regime and the president responsible for the recent crackdown on protestors and death of Tareq Ghannam (point 2) and calls on the people to lift the weight of despotism (istibdad) from the nation’s shoulders (point 6). Especially important is point 15: for the first time to my knowledge, the Ikhwan are explicitly demanding further constitutional reforms “concerning the unlimited powers granted by the constitution to the president of the republic…the president’s term must not exceed four years renewable only once.” The Ikhwan have always been leery of joining the constitutionalist bandwagon, fearing that a reduction of presidential powers will hamstring the chief executive in dealing with the Israeli threat. I’m delighted they finally realized that unchecked presidential powers are inversely proportional to protecting Egyptian national interests. Finally, Akef calls on parliament not to sign off on the amendment setting crippling rules for the upcoming presidential “election”.

An even more revealing document is Akef’s message dated May 5 entitled “Clear Positions on Specific Issues”, a statement addressed to all of the group’s significant others. Akef seems to disavow the group’s hallowed modus operandi of striking backroom deals with the government: “We want for nothing from the ruling regime, but call for freedom for all. In the climes of freedom, we will embark on what is dictated by our legitimate duty and national conscience. We are not about to strike separate deals with the government that has refused to dialogue with us for 25 years and insisted on treating us as a security matter dealt with by the Interior and Justice ministries, and persists in this deviant position. We want the government and regime to respond to the pressures of the people calling for reform and freedom.” At yesterday's press conference, in response to a question about trading recognition of the Ikhwan for support for a Mubarak fifth term, Akef retorted, "It is inconceivable that I derive my legitimacy from a regime I consider to be a failure and finished, my legitimacy comes from the street as stipulated in the constitution." Strong words indeed.

What’s caused this paradigm shift, if it is indeed such and presages a new chapter in the Ikhwan’s behavior? I second the ever-insightful Dr. Mohamed Sayed Said’s analysis: “The General Guide may have been disappointed by the discussions, or let’s say negotiations, with senior state figures on the Ikhwan’s positions on the upcoming elections and the political situation in general. Perhaps the General Guide concluded that the state wants much from the Ikhwan without giving them anything in return.” The Ikhwan definitely had been negotiating with the government, as early as last week, especially on coordinating one of their protests condemning foreign intervention and all that. It seems the negotiations broke down, the General Guide finally got fed up, ordered the sudden Wednesday and Friday protests, and upped the ante. Demonstrators explicitly called for a political party: al-Islah Haqq al-Ikhwan, al-Shar’iya w’Hizb Kaman!” (Reform is the Ikhwan’s Right, Legality and a Party Too!). The security forces’ violent response to Ikhwan protestors was a marked departure from their generally non-violent conduct during Kifaya’s protests (are there more media cameras at the Kifaya protests?)

Addressing Multiple Audiences

As for all-important external actors, Akef’s statement is shrewd. It does not deny the Ikhwan’s multiple meetings with representatives of foreign governments, “but we do not accept dialogue with foreign governments away from the presence or knowledge of the Egyptian government, and we never accept that such dialogue is used to pressure our national governments.” Finally, the statement ends with a call to the group’s members, similar to past Ikhwan statements addressing all relevant parties, perhaps especially the group’s own diverse and reportedly disgruntled rank and file.

Much has been said and written about the old guard-new guard split in the organization, and is it any wonder? All Egyptian political forces have been going through serious internal turmoil and self-questioning for the past few years, and it is only natural that the Ikhwan experience their own internal upheavals, about which we know little beyond the stereotypical old guard-new guard contest. I have no information to add to this dimension, but wonder if Essam al-Eryan’s announcement of his candidacy fits into this overdone narrative about generational splits.

Is al-Eryan fed up with the cautious approach of Akef et al and striking out on his own, banking on his popularity among the Ikhwan rank and file? This would seem odd since he has plenty of say in the organization’s decision-making and was the model of loyalty when Abul Ela split and started badmouthing the group back in 1996. If he's disgruntled then that's big news to me. Or is Eryan’s announcement a well-rehearsed escalation by the Ikhwan to further embarrass the regime, especially internationally, and force it to sit back down to negotiations? Eryan is a shrewd political animal extremely interested in national and international exposure, and I can see him managing both scenarios. But as far as I know, Egyptian law disqualifies anyone with previous convictions from putting himself up for election. Eryan was sentenced to five years imprisonment by a military tribunal and served jail time from 1995-2000. That was the whole rationale for the military “trials” he and his fellows were subjected to, to disqualify them from ever running for any elected position. So can his candidacy be anything but a symbolic gesture?

The more I struggle to understand the Egyptian scene, the more I think back to the 1940s. It was a time saturated with politics, where the streets were never empty, petitions and campaigns were wrought with breakneck speed, and the air was pregnant with impending upheaval. Foreign diplomats and local police chiefs alike watched nervously as students and workers, men and women, Communists and Muslim Brothers, students and nationalists and nationalist students, striking policemen, all were loudly and collectively pressing claims against public authorities. British forces stationed on Egyptian soil must evacuate. The Zionist build-up in Palestine must be resisted. Corruption and nepotism in government must be rooted out. Social justice now! Eradicate poverty. Resist sinister attempts to separate Egypt and the Sudan. Restore popular democratic accountability and redistribute the country’s wealth more equitably.

Into this roiling scene entered an unexpected actor: Egyptian courts. Criminal courts threw out government cases seeking to incriminate citizens for spreading “Bolshevism,” issuing lucid, terse rulings on the distinctions between subversive Bolshevism and legitimate socialism. The universities were seething, the army was restless, the parties were bickering, the King was philandering. Police crackdowns targeted Communists and the “fanatic Moslem Brotherhood” (as American and British reporters routinely referred to the group). “The disquieting thing is that Egypt seems tending toward the rigid controls of a police state,” warned an American reporter in late 1947. The following year witnessed the Palestine war, the imposition of martial law, the dissolution of the Muslim Brothers, the assassination of Premier Noqrashi Pasha, the assassination of Hasan al-Banna in February 1949…and the rest is history.