February 1, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 321

Relations Worsen Between the Egyptian Regime and the Muslim Brotherhood

February 1, 2007 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 321

Relations between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, never less than tense, have recently taken a turn for the worse. Following a December 10, 2006 march at Al-Azhar University in Cairo by masked, black-garbed students of the university who were Muslim Brotherhood members, the movement was accused of operating a "militia" that endangers state security and damages Egypt's image in the world. Following this event, the Egyptian authorities went on the offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood, moving against it in the security, economic, and media spheres.

The tension between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood increased further following January 12, 2007 statements by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reiterating that the Muslim Brotherhood was endangering Egypt's security, and following a declaration by Mubarak about the expected passing of a constitutional amendment banning religion-based political activity.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, stated that these moves by the government were a deliberate clampdown stemming from political motives, to prepare the ground for the accession of President Mubarak's son Gamal Mubarak to the Egyptian presidency.

The following is a review of the government's efforts to curb Muslim Brotherhood activities and recent exchanges between the two parties, as reflected in the Egyptian media:

Mubarak: The Muslim Brotherhood is Endangering Egypt's Security

Reflecting the tension between the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood were statements by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to the effect that the Muslim Brotherhood movement posed a danger to Egypt's security. Mubarak said in an interview to the opposition weekly Al-Usbu': "The Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is banned in Egypt, is a danger to [the country's] security because it adopts a clear religious path... [Should this movement come to power], many will take their money and flee the country; investment [in Egypt] will come to a halt; unemployment will increase; and, worse yet, Egypt will be irrevocably isolated from the world." [1]

In a move that was interpreted as aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood and that enraged the movement, Mubarak declared that the anticipated constitutional amendments were expected to include a ban on religion-based political activity. In a December 26, 2006 New Year's speech, Mubarak called for "a ban on political or party activity, or the establishment of a party, based on religion, race, or origin..." [2]

Responding to a question on why he perceived a possible religious regime as dangerous for Egypt, Mubarak said: "It is indeed a danger. You stand here before many groups that comprise the weave of Egyptian society, and before different - and even conflicting - opinions about whether Egypt should be a civil or a religious state... From this stems the importance of the constitutional article banning the establishment of parties based on [religious] principles or on religious sources of authority, [as well as banning] the use of religious slogans in elections... We support a civil state with civil rights for all..." [3]

In a speech on the occasion of Police Day, Mubarak referred to "the country's determination to exalt civil values and civil principles, and to prevent the mixing of religion and politics, and of politics and religion..." [4]

March by Masked Muslim Brotherhood Students Reverberates Across Egypt

The Egyptian authorities' offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood came in response to a December 10, 2006 march at Al-Azhar University by Muslim Brotherhood students of the university. This march was a continuation of other demonstrations by students belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which broke out in November 2006 as a response to the students' association elections held at universities across Egypt during that month. These events were sparked by, and were in protest against, the involvement of Egypt's security apparatuses in the elections, which was intended to damage the Muslim Brotherhood elections campaign. [5]

During the election period, some of demonstrating students were suspended from their universities after establishing a Free Students Association to rival the students' association that had triumphed in the student elections. [6] Their suspension exacerbated the students' uprising, which reached its height with a march at Al-Azhar University by 50 students, who, masked and dressed in black, gave a martial arts demonstration in front of the office of the university's president. [7]

This show of strength aroused concern among various circles in Egypt, which viewed the group of students as a Muslim Brotherhood "militia," particularly in light of an August 2006 declaration by Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide (i.e. leader) Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef that he had the capability of sending tens of thousands of fighters to Lebanon in order to fight Israel. [8] It should be noted that this was not the first time that the Egyptian media had discussed the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had a military wing. For example, the issue was raised in June 2006, following Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif's statement that the Muslim Brotherhood was a secret organization. [9]

The Religious Establishment Resents the Muslim Brotherhood: "They Have Made Al-Azhar University Look... Like it is Exporting Terrorism"

Following the masked students' martial arts demonstration, senior figures in Egypt's religious establishment, and in particular those at Al-Azhar, launched a campaign of criticism against the Muslim Brotherhood. During a session of the university's Supreme Council on the issue, Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi condemned the demonstration at Al-Azhar, [10] and Al-Azhar University President Ahmad Al-Tayyeb said: "We have tried very hard to embrace these students, even though we knew that they are deviating [from the proper path]. But we discovered that they have a particular way of thought, [and wear] battle dress, and worse: They have made Al-Azhar University look, on the satellite channels, like it is exporting terrorism - thus, there was no avoiding government intervention." [11] Al-Tayyeb added: "The university president's deputies will [in the near future] be holding campus tours of the various institutions [of higher education] in Cairo and in the provinces, so as to gain an understanding of the students' problems... [These tours will be in the framework of] heightened means for preventing the infiltration of extremist ideas into the minds of students and lecturers." [12] Al-Tayyeb pointed out that it had been decided "to appoint representatives who will look over the books and leaflets being distributed in the university corridors, and to vigorously prosecute any violation of the rules of Al-Azhar - which represents the middle path of Islam." [13]

Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Muhammad Hamdi Zaqzouq issued a call to protect the Egyptian people from "the plague called the Muslim Brotherhood." He added: "The current Muslim Brotherhood activity will harm investments and tourism, and after they take over the regime in Egypt, [it will lead] to anarchy..." [14] Criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood was also heard in the Egyptian parliament. Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Dr. Mufid Shihab said, during a meeting: "The government will strike, with an iron fist, at anyone who strives to [to establish an Islamic caliphate]... The December 10 events [at Al-Azhar University] aroused panic amongst the citizens, and the government sees them [i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood students] as a grave threat to the security and stability of Egypt." [15]

Egyptian Government Papers vs. the Muslim Brotherhood: The Muslim Brotherhood's Aims Are Like the Nazis' Aims

Attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood appeared also in op-eds in Egyptian government newspapers. The editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Gumhouriyya, Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, published a series of op-eds condemning the Muslim Brotherhood. He wrote: "The fighting training, martial arts, and self-defense that the students demonstrated at Al-Azhar University revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood has a great measure of Fascism and extremism. The black shirts worn by the youths during this show of force, and their boasting, are tied historically to Fascism, Nazism, and extremism... It appears that the Muslim Brotherhood looked at history and found that the best way to express themselves was through black shirts and through resembling Fascists and Nazis, for a very simple reason: Fascism and Nazism are compatible with the Muslim Brotherhood's aims of toppling the regime, spreading out, and using violence and blood [as a way of] resolving disagreements...

"Like the Fascists and the Nazis, the Muslim Brotherhood is not interested in whether Egypt is destroyed or conquered... These inciters strive for one thing only - to create a military, or militia, parallel to the Egyptian army - [the army that has] lost many of its sons defending the precious homeland, while the Muslim Brotherhood wants [Egypt's] sons to die in battles waged by the regional and neighboring powers, in which we have no interest [in participating]. Perhaps they [i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood] are striving to brainwash the youth and to exploit them for other aims within the country that will lead the youth only to great danger..." [16]

Columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram Tareq Hassan expressed apprehensions about the radicalization of Muslim Brotherhood activity. About a month prior to the student demonstrations, he wrote: "The Muslim Brotherhood is not a political opposition, but a program for anarchy, takfir [i.e. accusations of apostasy against other Muslims], heresy, murder, and permitting killing in Egypt. An opposition works within legitimacy and the law, while the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to establish a state within a state, and [then there will be complete] anarchy. The [Muslim Brotherhood] Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef has begun to place himself as president of the state - while the state has a single elected president who rules according to the constitution and the law. Who is this guide who gives himself [a rank] parallel to that of the prime minister? What remains, then, in order to declare a Muslim Brotherhood state? Are we waiting for a flag and an anthem?..." [17]

A Wave of Arrests of Muslim Brotherhood Members

The Egyptian security apparatuses recently launched an extensive wave of arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members. The detainees included Supreme Guide 'Akef's second deputy, Khairat Al-Shatr; a member of 'Akef's bureau, Dr. Muhammad Ali Bishr; dozens of movement leaders; and some 180 students. Also arrested were numerous businessmen and senior movement officials in charge of fundraising in the provinces. Further, numerous businesses and publishing houses close to the Muslim Brotherhood were shut down. [18] The monetary damage to the movement as a result of this campaign was estimated at about half a billion Egyptian pounds, or nearly $88 million. [19] In addition, the Egyptian authorities blocked the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language website to surfers in Egypt. [20]

Egyptian security apparatus member 'Atef Al-Husseini said that the interrogation of the detainees had produced information that "some of the Muslim Brotherhood members had agreed amongst themselves to renew the organization's activity, to revive the secret activity, and to act to disseminate their ideas, particularly in the student sector... In the meantime, the group of Muslim Brotherhood members held meetings to spread these ideas within Al-Azhar University... The Muslim Brotherhood members aspire to establish an Islamic Caliphate, to abolish the existing laws, and to replace them with what they call 'Islamic laws'... [Muslim Brotherhood activists at the university appointed students to establish] paramilitary units following the model of Hamas, Hizbullah, the Mahdi Army in Iraq, and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran... The movement's leaders strove to persuade the students to [wage] jihad in order to help the Muslims in the occupied countries in the Islamic world..." [21]

Human rights organizations expressed their concern about the repressive measures being taken against Muslim Brotherhood activists by the Egyptian government. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) warned about the shows of strength by both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. EOHR director Hafez Abu Sa'da said: "The attack of the government militias on the students, and the violence against members of the opposition, will bring about more [internal] hatred within Egyptian society..." [22] Human Rights Watch called on the Egyptian government to free all recently detained Muslim Brotherhood members until they were charged. [23]

Criticism of the Egyptian Regime: The Regime is Responsible for the Radicalization in Egypt

Editor of the Egyptian government cultural magazine Al-Muhit Dr. Fat'hi Abd Al-Fattah argued that the Egyptian government was partially responsible for the radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood activity. In an article in the government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, he wrote: 'What the black-[garbed] militias did at Al-Azhar is the natural outcome of the policy of putting out fires that has been used [by the regime] for some time now in dealing with the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement... and in dealing with all our political and social problems, with no serious attempt to draw up a plan to prevent these fires from starting [in the first place] and to deal with the roots of the problem..." [24]

President Mubarak was also criticized for his anti-Muslim Brotherhood statements. In his daily column in the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Magdi Muhana wrote: "If the Muslim Brotherhood movement is indeed endangering Egypt's security, we must ask how [Mubarak] - as president of the country, as commander-in-chief of the military, and as head of the police and the executive authority - is permitting such a danger to exist. How did he permit Egypt's security to be threatened by the rise of the power and scope of this movement? How did he permit [the election] of 88 MPs [belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood] to parliament?..." [25]

The Muslim Brotherhood on the Defensive: The Attack on us is Politically Motivated

With the regime's offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood from all possible angles - security, constitutional, economic, and media - Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen and activists stated that they had no military wing and that "the athletic demonstration" by the students, for which the students apologized, had been blown out of proportion by the media for political purposes. [26] In an interview, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef told Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "We have no militias at the university, and we have no information about what the students at Al-Azhar do. I am opposed to violence and to the use of force for solving problems..." [27]

In response to President Mubarak's statements that the Muslim Brotherhood constituted a danger to Egypt's security, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a communiqué stating: "We are sacrificing our souls, our children, and our money for the security of Egypt... The students' [martial arts] demonstration at Al-Azhar, which has been used as a pretext for escalation, for arrests, and for harming the economic interests of individuals, workers, and companies, is the only event in [the movement's] history, which for three decades has been unblemished... and despite this we have condemned it and those who participated in it have expressed apologies...

"To attribute danger to [state] security [to us] because we follow a religious path is puzzling, because our path is the Islamic path emphasized in Article Two of the [Egyptian] constitution... Egypt is our spirit, and its security is more precious than our own. Our goals are [Egypt's] sovereignty and progress, and we would never endanger this. We reiterate that our hearts and our minds are open to dialogue, with members of the regime and also with opposition factions, for the good of Egypt; also, our hands are extended to cooperate with all, without exception..." [28]

According to senior Muslim Brotherhood officials, the aim of the campaign against them is to neutralize opposition to amendments in the Egyptian constitution, as well as neutralizing potential rivals for the succession of the regime. Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef's first deputy, Dr. Muhammad Al-Sayid Habib, said: "The aim of these arrests... is clear: [It is] to cover up the constitutional amendments that are to be presented in the coming days. It is clear that the government wants no opposition of any kind, [so it can] pass the amendments that it wants. The aim [of these amendments] is first of all to establish the scenario of the regime's succession [by Gamal Mubarak], and the repression of freedoms and the revocation of rights." [29]

The Muslim Brotherhood Aims to Establish a Civil Party

In late December, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef announced the imminent unveiling of the platform of a new political party to be established for the first time in the history of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Sources in the movement's leadership said that it would be a civil party with an Islamic source of authority, and that it would also be open to non-Muslim Brotherhood members. At the same time, a senior source told Al-Ahram that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be permitted to submit a request to establish a political party to the parliament's Parties Committee, because their movement was not recognized by Egyptian law. [30]

The Muslim Brotherhood rejected the argument that their movement's actions were based on religion. Further, 'Akef explained that "the Muslim Brotherhood supports the ban on activity based on religion, race, or origin, because we believe in the [equality of all] citizens, the democracy, and the public freedoms, that are anchored in Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood activity is not religion-based, because it is a movement... that deals with [diverse] activity and that is not characterized by religious discrimination. The Muslim Brotherhood respects [Egypt's] laws and constitution, and derives its path from the Islamic faith." [31]

* L. Azuri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Usbu' (Egypt), January 12, 2007.

[2] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 27, 2006. The reform will include Article 5 of the constitution, which states that "the political regime in Egypt is based on party pluralism according to the basic principles of Egyptian society, as defined in the constitution, and set out in the Political Parties Law." Under the amendment, the following will be added: "There shall be no political or party activity or establishment of a party based on religion, race, or origin. The method of political and national work will be based solely on [the equality of all] citizens, regardless of religion, race, or origin." Al-Akhbar, Egypt, December 28, 2006. The secretary of the National Democratic Party clarified that even though the ban on religious parties was already law, the amendment was aimed at anchoring it in the constitution and consolidating it. Al-Ahram, Egypt, January 15, 2007.

[3] Al-Usbu' (Egypt), January 12, 2007.

[4] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), January 25, 2007.

[5] Al-Wafd (Egypt), November 3, 2006.

[6], December 11, 2006. It should be noted that a few weeks before the students' association elections and the establishment of the Free Students Association, a similar attempt was made following elections in Egypt's labor unions. In that instance as well, the defeated Muslim Brotherhood representatives raised ideas for establishing parallel Muslim Brotherhood labor unions in protest against what they claimed was election fraud. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, October 29, 2006.

[7] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 11, 2006.

[8], August 3, 2006.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 5, 2006.

[10] Al-Wafd (Egypt), December 17, 2006.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 19, 2006.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 20, 2006.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 19, 2006.

[14] Al-Masryoon (Egypt), December 25, 2006.

[15] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 18, 2006.

[16] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 13, 2006.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 11, 2006.

[18] Al-Wafd (Egypt), December 15, 2006;, December 14, 2006, January 14, 2007; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 25, 2006; Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 15, 2007.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 13, 2007.

[20], January 6, 2007.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 21, 2006.

[22] Al-Wafd (Egypt), December 15, 2006.

[23] Al-Masryoon (Egypt), December 18, 2006.

[24] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 21, 2006.

[25] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 13, 2007.

[26], December 13, 2006.

[27] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 13, 2006.

[28] , January 16, 2007.

[29] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 4, 2007.

[30] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 14, 2007.

[31] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 28, 2006.

Share this Report: