Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Muslim Brotherhood Part II

Mohammad el-Sharqawi was first arrested in late April during a protest that criticized Egypt's government. The rally was one of many that Sharqawi had attended over the lack of judicial independence in Egypt. He was imprisoned for a month, then released on May 23 with instructions to avoid all protests. He chose to ignore the advice. Just two days later, he was back on the street, taking part in a rally demanding the abolishment of prison sentences for journalists who "commit libel" against the Egyptian government. Sharqawi was immediately arrested, taken to a police station and tortured, physically and sexually. Sharqawi's lawyer Gamal Eid said that when he finally was able to see his client, about 12 hours after the initial arrest, the lacerations and bruises on his clients face made him unrecognizable. When Eid tried to take out a camera, a guard knocked the camera out of his hand. Sharqawi was then kept in prison for 2 months (Under Egypt's emergency laws, the prosecutor can hold prisoners for up to 15 days without charge. That 15 day sentence, however, can be renewed indefinitely). Sharqawi was refused sufficient medical treatment, and his lawyer believes he was kept in prison in part to allow the worst of the wounds to heal before pictures could be taken.

The day after his arrest, as news reports surfaced, America responded with an official complaint, but little more. Sharqawi's case symbolizes the democracy struggle here in Egypt: For all of president Bush's promises back in 2004 to bring freedom to the Middle East, advocates for change in Cairo are today almost entirely on their own.

Sharqawi's is not an isolated case. The top opposition candidate from the 2005 national election was arrested soon after those elections and has been in jail now for more than a year. The editor of one of the most popular opposition papers, Ibrahim Essa, along with two reporters were recently sentenced to a year in jail for "insulting" the president in an article. In June the government ordered two US-based democracy NGOs to stop their work in Egypt. The list goes on. America's complaints are few. One person I spoke with who has had contact with senior members of the Bush administration said that he had been told directly by those officials that pressure would not be brought to bare on Egypt's government to curb its abuses or reform its electoral laws.

The reason is not that America loves Egypt's current regime. It is because America fears what could, and ultimately would come if activists like Sharqawi get what they want. Sharqawi is 24 years old and a second year college student. His lawyer describes him as a secularist. If there were truly open elections in Egypt, people like Sharqawi would lose. Instead, the winners would probably be followers of Muhammad Akef.

Muhammad Akef is the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, an organization that has widespread support here. The Brotherhood is officially band, as are all parties based on religion, but it's existence is tolerated. Members of parliament affiliated with the Brotherhood are technically independents, but everyone knows their affiliation, and in major newspapers, they are referred to as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. You can walk the back streets of Cairo and find posters pasted on the side of buildings with the slogan "Islam is the answer." You can talk to people in coffee shops and in electronics stores, and they will tell you openly that they support the Muslim Brotherhood. You can look at the parliament and see that the MB has more members than any other opposition block (it holds about 20 percent of the seats) and know that the the party's power is real.

The MB is an organization in transition. The group has renounced violence in Egypt (not in Israel) and before the Lebanon war had launched a concerted campaign to make itself less scary to a western audience. The group has promised non-Muslims equal rights within a Muslim state. It has also condemned the kidnapping of Jill Carroll and Christian peace activists in Iraq. For these activities and others, Al Qaeda recently denounced the MB as a tool of America. Despite this effort, the groups success in the national elections last year are one of the main reasons that the US has backed off pressuring Mubarak's government to reform. 100s of MB members were arrested during protests against the Lebanon war with hardly a peep from the US government. The primary complaint that the United States has about the MB is that they do not recognize Israel. If they came to power, the Camp David accords would be severed, and the largest Arab state would most likely rejoin the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What the Bush administration truly fears is not just Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. It is a general rise in Islamism that is happening throughout the Muslim world: Iran is ruled by an Islamic government. Hezbollah (Party of God") in Lebanon is seen as the champion of Arab nationalism. Hamas ("The Movement for Islamic Resistence") is now the majority party in the Palestinian parliament. And in Iraq, in free and fair elections, the people chose Islamists to run their state. In this regional context, America has little interest in seeing a freer Egypt emerge. The Sharqawis are thus being left to fend for themselves.


At 3:38 PM, Blogger MechanicalCrowds said...

You have a very good understanding of the issues (or aligned with mine :)).

FYI the MB assassinated President Anwar Sadat.

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Gabrielle K. said...

While I agree that America should keep its/our promises to promote democracy and freedom of speech in the middle east, I find the consequences you described (MB winning power and thus creating a bigger threat to Israel) a justified reason for us to stay out of it. Unfortch in the US the general population chooses not to distinguish between the "reasonable muslims like tariq ramadan and from what you described the MB (aside from the Israel thing) from the fundamentalists who seek to impose their rules on the occidental world...but I have to side with the Bush administration on this one - it would be catastrophic if Egypt joined the ranks of other countries that want Israel gone....and this American defense of Israel is something I am grateful for. IF the MB miraculously stopped hating on Israel, do you think they would make good rulers in Egypt? Disperse a non-fundamentalist doctrine of Islam? Do they agree with the actions of Iran, hezbollah and/or hamas?



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