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Brotherhood shelves Egypt's Islamization, for now at least

Posted: June 29, 2012 - 12:07am

CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood has stopped talking about its longtime dream of an Islamic Egypt and expelling Israel’s ambassador to Cairo. Instead, President-elect Mohammed Morsi is hurriedly building a diverse alliance with leftists, liberals and Christians to bolster his battle to end military rule.

Those familiar with the group’s inner workings say, however, that this may only be a short-term strategy that will give way later to a push for the stricter imposition of Islamic law. That could partly explain why the secular generals who took over from ousted President Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago will not relinquish their hold on most levers of power.

Less than a week after he was declared winner of a hotly contested runoff, Morsi has promised to name a woman and a Christian as vice presidents, held talks with liberal intellectuals, indirectly assured Israel that it has nothing to fear from him and told Washington that maintaining close relations with the U.S. is a priority.

Since qualifying for the June 16-17 presidential runoff, Morsi has made no mention of the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional positions, such as banning alcohol, forcing women to cover up in public or prohibiting bank interest as usury.

“The Brotherhood wants to take on the generals, but it cannot do that alone,” said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic groups from Britain’s Durham University. “It is a necessity for the Brotherhood to offer concessions to different groups.”

But no one is taking Morsi’s promises at face value. Some Christian and liberal groups have set up teams to monitor whether he keeps his promises.

“They will just have to work with him and the Brotherhood for now and hopefully try to organize a secular leftist front that will pressure the new government and new parliament to make sure the demands of the street are taken into account in the public policymaking process,” said Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert at St. John’s University in New York.

The “new” Brotherhood as embodied by Morsi has left many debating whether the group has had a genuine, long-term shift of ideology dictated by the demands of politics or was simply making the right noises to win allies and would shift back to its longstanding goals at the next opportunity.

Some analysts see Morsi, a 60-year-old, American-trained engineer, as a conservative Islamist who subscribes to a school of thought within the Brotherhood that advocated “Taqiyah,” or secrecy, about one’s true intentions until the most opportune moment comes for their implementation.

Others, however, see Morsi’s outreach as the group’s response to a dramatic drop in its popularity after it failed to turn its domination of parliament earlier this year into real political power. They also cite the group’s lack of experience in governance to explain its need for allies.

Genuine or not, some of the group’s actions in recent weeks appeared designed to allay fears of what many see as the Brotherhood’s lust for power and readiness to make secret deals to secure it.

Having spent most of the 84 years since its inception as an outlawed group targeted by successive governments, the Brotherhood’s keen interest in power — some call it an obsession — may be understandable.

But it may have over-reached, unleashing the fury of the generals.

It won just under half of parliament seats in elections held some six months ago even though it had earlier pledged to contest only 30 percent of them. It also reneged on a decision not to field a presidential candidate, and packed with Islamists a 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution.

At the time, Brotherhood lawmakers gave the military and many Egyptians something to worry about. They sharply criticized the judiciary and the police force, demanded the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in Cairo and called for a national referendum on the 1978 Camp David accords, which provided the basis for Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But it was its suspected desire to dominate every vestige of authority that provoked the military.

The generals dissolved parliament after a court ruled that a third of its seats were elected under a law that breached the principle of equality. The constitutional panel was also dissolved by a court ruling that said the process of selecting members violated a constitutional declaration adopted in March last year.

The Brotherhood again packed the panel with Islamists but has sought to make amends by giving its chair and two deputies to non-Islamist figures.

Ammar Ali Hassan, an Egyptian expert on Islamist groups, says the Brotherhood’s newly adopted moderate tone and Morsi’s outreach are motivated in large part by their desire to share the blame if the new government fails to make headway in tackling the country’s seemingly endless problems.

“All this, however, could be temporary until Morsi’s feet are firmly in the ground as president,” he warned. “Morsi will never disengage from the Brotherhood and its longtime objectives. For one thing, he can only be loyal and grateful to the group that backed him all the way to the presidency.”

Morsi was not the first choice for presidential candidate, having been thrown into the race after the group’s chief strategist and financier, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified over a Mubarak-era conviction.

Morsi’s attempts to position himself and the Brotherhood as moderates seeking inclusion apparently have not convinced the military. Two senior members of the ruling military council indicated in a television interview late Wednesday night that they and other generals were not prepared to cede any of their powers.

They both insisted that there would be no going back on a “constitutional declaration” issued last week that gave the military legislative powers and control over foreign affairs as well as the drafting of a new constitution.

The armed forces, said Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy, will continue to be the “trustworthy guardian” of the nation and its people. When pressed to explain what the role of “guardian” will entail, Maj. Gen. Mohammed el-Assar abruptly chipped in: “interpret it any way you like.”

The final word was Hegazy’s. The military, he said, would protect the country from external as well as domestic threats.

Michael W. Hanna, an Egyptian-American expert on Egypt at the Century Foundation in New York, said “the military’s recent steps suggest they are unlikely to turn over all the levers of governance to the Islamists, regardless of any future efforts by Morsi to assuage the fears of other political factions and parties.”

The Brotherhood’s apparent plan to shelve Islamization, at least for now, comes at a cost.

Already, some ultraconservative Salafi groups have publicly said that their participation in a Morsi administration is conditional on his declaring his commitment to implementing Shariah, or Islamic law. The Salafis won about a quarter of the seats in the dissolved parliament.

Abandoning their goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state, according to Hassan, could also cost the group the support of its hardline faction, which has long objected to its involvement in politics at the expense of its original mandate as a charity that helps Muslims to understand their faith and practice its many rituals.

Hassan, el-Anani and others trace the causes of the Brotherhood’s shift to the dramatic drop in support for the group in the first round of the presidential elections held in May. Morsi won about 25 percent of the vote, or half the votes won by the group in the legislative elections five months earlier. In the runoff against Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, Morsi edged his rival by about 1 million votes, a narrow victory for a group that claims to be the country’s largest.

“The group’s leaders met and did some soul searching,” el-Anani said. “They realized that they were out of touch with the new environment in Egypt and decided they can only survive if they reached out to other political forces.”

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