FaithWorld

U.S. to resume formal Muslim Brotherhood contacts, official says

(The skyline of Washington DCl, May 22, 2009/Larry Downing)

The United States has decided to resume formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a senior U.S. official said, in a step that reflects the Islamist group’s growing political weight but that is almost certain to upset Israel and its U.S. backers.  “The political landscape in Egypt has changed, and is changing,” said the senior official, who spokeon Wednesday on condition of anonymity. “It is in our interests to engage with all of the parties that are competing for parliament or the presidency.”

The official sought to portray the shift as a subtle evolution rather than a dramatic change in Washington’s stance toward the Brotherhood, a group founded in 1928 that seeks to promote its conservative vision of Islam in society. Under the previous policy, U.S. diplomats were allowed to deal with Brotherhood members of parliament who had won seats as independents — a diplomatic fiction that allowed them to keep lines of communication open.

Where U.S. diplomats previously dealt only with group members in their role as parliamentarians, a policy the official said had been in place since 2006, they will now deal directly with low-level Brotherhood party officials.

There is no U.S. legal prohibition against dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt and which is not regarded by Washington as a foreign terrorist organization. But other sympathetic groups, such as Hamas, which identifies the Brotherhood as its spiritual guide, have not disavowed violence against the state of Israel.

The result has been a dilemma for the Obama administration. Former officials and analysts said it has little choice but to engage the Brotherhood directly, given its political prominence after the February 11 downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s Brotherhood faces sterner critics, internal rifts

(Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie in Cairo, April 30, 2011/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

In the weeks after Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Egyptian television channels revelled in their new freedoms by giving airtime to the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, offering them an open platform to speak.  Members of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organised political group, are still regular guests. But the tone has changed. Soft-ball questioning has given way to rigorous interrogation about their plans and criticism of their public statements.

“You are not the guardians of the faith alone. No one gave you such a power,” writer Khaled Montasser told one Brotherhood member and former member of parliament, Sobhi Saleh.

Egypt’s Islamists explore electoral deal with liberals

(Mohamed Mursi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood's newly formed Justice and Freedom Party, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, May 28, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is exploring an alliance with 17 liberal and other parties that could lead to electoral cooperation, in an apparent move to allay liberal concerns about the Islamist group’s goals.

The Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised political force, is widely seen as best prepared for the September parliamentary election as many secular parties struggle to get ready for the first free vote since President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.

Vague agenda fuels doubts over real aims of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

(The Sphinx at the great pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo, February 25, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Few things better sum up Egypt’s uncharted future than the vague policy platform of the Muslim Brotherhood, a long-repressed Islamist movement poised to become a decisive force in mainstream politics. With the country’s military rulers reluctant to push through major reforms without a popular mandate, all eyes are on the emerging political class set free by the overthrow in February of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak.

None is likely to mobilise as much grassroots support as the Brotherhood, which has won the sympathy of millions of poor Egyptians by railing against venal politicians and campaigning for an Islamic state free of corruption. But with parliamentary elections looming, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party has sketched only the broadest outline of a manifesto. A pledge to do nothing that might harm Egypt’s floundering economy has barely reassured nervous investors.

Mideast Christians struggle to hope in Arab Spring, some see no spring at all

(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the period of interfaith unity on February 6, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks. Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.

Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists — a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region’s now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes — have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.

Egypt’s divided Muslim Brotherhood expels presidential hopeful

(Supporters at the new headquarter of the newly-formed Muslim Brotherhood Party during a news conference in Cairo, April 30, 2011/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has expelled a senior member for saying he would run for president in defiance of the group’s decision not to seek the post vacant since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The Brotherhood announced in April that its newly formed “Freedom and Justice” party would contest up to half the seats in a parliamentary election in September but would not field a candidate for the presidency to avoid dominating power. But Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh said in May he would run as an independent in a presidential vote expected to take place before the end of the year as an independent.

Will the Arab Spring bring U.S.-style “culture wars” to the Middle East?

(From left: Olivier Roy, Cardinal Angelo Scola and Martino Diez of the Oasis Foundation at the conference on San Servolo island, Venice, June 20, 2011/Giorgia Dalle Ore/Oasis)

Where is the Arab Spring leading the Middle East? What will be the longer-term outcome of the popular protests that have shaken the region since the beginning of this year? Of course, it’s still too early to say with any certainty, even in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that succeeded in toppling their authoritarian regimes. Some trends have emerged, however, and they’re on the agenda at a conference in Venice I’m attending entitled “Medio Oriente verso dove?” (Where is the Middle East heading?). The host is the Oasis Foundation, a group chaired by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Roman Catholic patriarch of this historic city, and guests include Christian and Muslim religious leaders and academics from the Middle East and Europe.

In one of the most interesting — and hotly debated — presentations, the French Islam specialist Olivier Roy described the Arab Spring as “a break with the culture and ideologies that dominated the Arab world from the 1950s until recently.” It marks a clear change in the demographic, political and religious paradigms operating there, he said. The old dichotomy of the authoritarian regime or the Islamist state has broken down, he argued, and Islam is taking on a new role in the political process. In the end, the region — or at least the states where the Arab Spring brings real change — could see democratic politics marked not by major efforts to establish an Islamic state but by Muslim “culture war” controversies not unlike the way hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage emerge in U.S. political debates.

Egypt’s Sufis see post-Mubarak Islamist threat, consider launching own movement

(Egyptians dance to the music of a Sufi singer as they celebrate the birthday of Sayida Zeinab, the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, near her shrine in Cairo July 7, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

Down the narrow alleyways of Cairo’s Sayidda Zeinab neighbourhood, 100 men sway their heads and clap in rhythm as they invoke God’s name. “O how you have spread benevolence,” chant the men, some dressed in ankle-length galabeya robes, to celebrate the birth of Fatima al-Zahraa, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

The men are followers of the centuries-old Azaimiya Sufi order who seek to come closer to God through mystical rites. Some of the country’s estimated 15 million Sufis say their traditions are now threatened by various groups of Islamists elbowing for influence after the overthrow of Egypt’s veteran leader Hosni Mubarak. Some Islamists, such as the ultra-conservative Salafists, see Sufi practices such as the veneration of shrines as heresy.

Muslim Brotherhood says it won’t force Islamic law on Egypt

(Mohamed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood's newly formed Justice and Freedom Party gestures during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, May 28, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

The Muslim Brotherhood wants a diverse parliament after elections in September and is not seeking to impose Islamic law on Egypt, the head of the group’s newly formed political party said in an interview. The Brotherhood, which has emerged as a powerful force after years of repression under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, has said it does not want a parliamentary majority, although rivals see it as well placed for a dominant position.

“We only use Islam as the basis of our party … which means that our general framework is Islamic sharia … We don’t issue religious rules in individual cases,” said Mohamed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood’s newly formed Justice and Freedom Party, which will contest the vote.

Egyptian Christians worry their country is being hijacked by Salafists

(An Egyptian Christian chants slogans as he protests against recent attacks in front of the state television building in Cairo May 15, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh )

Last January, Nazih Moussa Gerges locked up his downtown Cairo law office and joined hundreds of thousands of fellow Egyptians to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down. The 33-year-old Christian lawyer was back on the streets this month to press military rulers who took over after Mubarak stepped down to end a spate of sectarian attacks that have killed at least 28 people and left many afraid. Those who camped out in Tahrir Square side by side with Muslims to call for national renewal now fear their struggle is being hijacked by ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists with no one to stop them.

“We did not risk our lives to bring Mubarak down in order to have him replaced by Salafists,” Gerges said. “We want an Egypt that will be an example of democracy and freedom for the whole world.”