x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

A Coptic Christian's reasons for backing the Muslim Brotherhood

Rafik Habib, an Egyptian Christian intellectual, defends the Muslim Brotherhood against accusations of having a secret extremist agenda, and his own choice in joining its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, as third-in-command.

Rafiq Habib, a Coptic Christian, has been elected second vice-president of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, the only non-Muslim in the top four positions of the party.
Rafiq Habib, a Coptic Christian, has been elected second vice-president of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, the only non-Muslim in the top four positions of the party.

CAIRO // Rafik Habib likes to finish his days at a Costa Coffee shop near his home in Rehab City on the outskirts of Cairo. He drinks an espresso, reads the newspapers … and defends the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamist organisation needs little help from one man: surveys show it has support from at least 15 per cent of Egyptians. But Dr Habib is an exception. He is a Coptic Christian intellectual who crossed sectarian lines to join the Brotherhood's newly established Freedom and Justice Party as third-in-command.

"A large segment of Muslims think it was a good step, except some Salafis," he says in his sparse office dotted with 1970s furniture.

"But the Christian community in general has refused my choice, and especially my decision to join as a founder."

Some of his detractors have said his position in the group is merely cosmetic, but Christians have been more vitriolic, calling it an act of treason.

For Dr Habib, 52, it was one of the most difficult political decisions of his life.

"It would have been much easier for personal reasons not to join the group, especially as a founder and vice-president," he says. "I think joining the party is for the benefit of Christians in Egypt. If we don't overcome the gap between Christians and Islamist movements, especially moderate ones, we have a problem."

His decision came only a week after 12 people were killed and dozens injured when violence between Muslims and Christians erupted in the Imbaba neighbourhood of Cairo last month.

Sectarian clashes have become a concern in Egypt in the months since a popular revolution forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president and hand power to a military council until elections are held, tentatively scheduled for September.

"Reconciliation can be found in shared identity as Egyptians. The Freedom and Justice party has an answer for that. Even though there is a distinction, we share an identity," Dr Habib says.

He dates his first interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood to 1989, when he began research into Islamist movements. In 2004, that relationship deepened when Mohammed Mahdi Akef was the group's supreme guide. Mr Akef allowed him access to the leadership of the organisation to explain how it works.

The result of those decades of study is that Dr Habib today believes the Muslim Brotherhood to be one of the most sophisticated groups in the country. Long gone, he says, are the days when it could be associated with its terrorist wing, known as the "secret apparatus", and radical teachings of such members as Sayid Qutb, whose works inspired Al Qaeda.

"The important question when looking at a group is whether it has developed or not. I found in my study that they had. They try across history to preserve the basic beliefs of the group, rooted in Islam, and at the same time develop with society."

A case in point are the views of Hassan Al Bannah, the primary-school teacher who founded the group in 1928. While he believed in democratic principles, he was against the idea of political parties because he felt they did not represent people well.

This month the Freedom and Justice Party was officially recognised by the government, the first time the Muslim Brotherhood has had a legitimate party to participate in politics.

"This shows that the group was able to accept different terms of democracy, to take new ideas and incorporate them into its thinking," Dr Habib says.

But the most important part of his joining the group was his belief that Egypt is at its core a religious country. What this means is that many of the ideas of modern society - human rights, democracy, balance of power - can be derived from the teachings of Islam.

Dr Habib believes Christians and members of other religions, including Judaism, can coexist peacefully in an Islamic state under a Muslim president with a parliament made up of representative groups from society.

"The president of Egypt has a religious responsibility from the time of the pharaohs," he says. The top position in the government should be filled by a Muslim because the government manages the building of mosques, printing of Qurans and other Islamic roles. The Coptic Church, however, performs the equivalent tasks itself and the government has no role in managing the machinery of that religion.

"The president must belong to the religion of the majority to manage these issues. I think if the majority of the population was Christian, the same idea would be there."

The platform of the Freedom and Justice Party is in many ways indistinguishable from that of other secular groups vying for power.

Its main priorities are establishing personal and political rights, running the country better and allowing free-market principles to rule the economy. Its foreign policy focuses on strengthening relations with other Islamic countries, including Iran, but also retaining its alliances with the US and western countries. The difference is that the group says these ideas originate in Islam.

That is not to say all Egyptians believe them. There are widespread suspicions, foremost among Christians and the youth groups that led the revolution, that the Muslim Brotherhood have a secret agenda to make the country gradually more conservative and to sideline minority groups.

Dr Habib deals with these fears every evening at the coffee shop.

"People come up to me and try to understand my choice, or they have questions," he says. "Some of them disagree strongly, but in all cases, there is a chance for dialogue and understanding.

"This is an important time for these conversations. If not, Egypt will have big problems."

bhope@thenational.ae