Q+A-The Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on Egyptian politics

By Reuters Staff
January 17, 2010
badeea
Mohamed Badeea at news conference in Cairo 16 Jan 2010/Asmaa Waguih

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist political group, has named a conservative as its new leader, suggesting that the country’s biggest opposition group may lower its political profile and focus on a social agenda.

Mohamed Badeea’s appointment on Saturday followed a heated debate between conservatives wary of stepping up political activities that have already triggered repression from the state and many from a younger generation seeking more political activism.

The Brotherhood, which seeks to introduce Islamic rule by democratic means, is officially banned but grudgingly tolerated by the state, and took about a fifth of the seats in parliament in 2005 by fielding candidates as independents.

Following are questions and answers on the Brotherhood, which is Egypt’s biggest opposition group:

* WHAT IS THE POLITICAL ROLE OF THE BROTHERHOOD?

Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown despite periodic crackdowns through the decades when it was accused of plots to destabilise the state.

The Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and says it seeks an Islamic state through a democratic system.

In the 1980s, it gained influence among professional syndicates and student bodies.

The Brotherhood is officially banned but grudgingly tolerated by the state, and took about a fifth of the seats in parliament in 2005 by fielding candidates as independents.

The ruling National Democratic Party overwhelmingly controls parliament.

brotherhood protest
Muslim Brotherhood protest in Cairo against trial of members, 26 Feb 2008/Nasser Nuri

* WHAT INFLUENCE DOES THE BROTHERHOOD WIELD TODAY?

The group has been increasingly sidelined from mainstream politics because of state repression and a ban on religious-based parties. Hundreds of members have been detained, and Brotherhood participation in local council and other elected bodies has been restricted.

Leading figures in the group have ruled out open confrontation with the state on the streets, or even stepping up their political challenge.

Analysts say they fear being crushed by the state, and have opted instead for survival to try to win over society gradually at grassroot level to their vision of an Islamic state.

* WHAT ARE THE GROUP’S CHANCES IN THE NEXT ELECTIONS?

In the run up to 2008 municipal elections, hundreds of Brotherhood candidates were jailed.

After being allowed to compete for only a fraction of the seats, the group said it would boycott the vote, and analysts say the NDP was unchallenged in about 70 percent of seats.

The Brotherhood’s image of being the only credible challenger to the NDP at the ballot box has been further diminished by internal divisions and the low political profile of its leaders.

A parliamentary election is due later in 2010 and analysts say the Brotherhood may be squeezed down to only a handful of seats. Rules for the presidential race in 2011 make it almost impossible for any independent candidate such as one from the Brotherhood to mount a challenge.

* WHERE IS THE DEBATE GOING INSIDE THE BROTHERHOOD?

brotherhood women
Muslim Brotherhood women in Cairo protest against Israeli attacks in Gaza, 21 Jan 2009/Amr Dalsh

Internal divisions in the Brotherhood were exposed in the run up to the vote for a new leader.  The rift pits an old guard wary of political confrontation against mainly younger members who want the group to be more politically active. The younger generation also seek internal changes, such as giving women and young people a bigger role in decision-making.

With more cautious voices prevailing, analysts say the Brotherhood is likely to expand its social services and promote its values through religious teaching. These are the twin pillars of its popularity among the poor. A fifth of Egypt’s 78 million people live in dire poverty.

But a retreat from the political frontline may widen divisions and weaken the group’s ability to rally so many supporters in a single bloc. This in turn may leave a space for other, possibly more militant, Islamist voices to fill.

“The Brotherhood has been a kind of counterforce in its reformist opposition, and also to jihadists. With the weakening of the Brotherhood, a heavy-handed and authoritarian government might create conditions that would foster a resurgence of jihadist groups,” said John L Esposito, professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

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