x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egypt's freer atmosphere finds Muslim Brotherhood wrong-footed

The Islamist group maintained rigid discipline when it was outlawed, but since the fall of Mubarak, it has suffered a series of breakaways as reformists criticise the group as antiquated and with a patriarchal leadership that cannot stand renewal.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood had long shielded itself from scrutiny, laying down strategies and patching up differences within its ranks behind closed doors. It made sense for an organisation outlawed in 1954 and often persecuted since.

The Islamist group now has its own party and its leaders spend almost as much time talking on prime time TV talk shows, including on the state channel, as they do preparing for parliamentary elections they expect to dominate in September.

Freedom has finally arrived in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. But with that freedom, the Brotherhood has now realised, comes a price.

In intensely publicised moves, faction after faction and leader after leader have broken away from the Brotherhood, forming their own political parties. In the process, some have harshly criticised the group as an antiquated organisation with a patriarchal leadership that cannot stand renewal.

It has been a major embarrassment for the Brotherhood at a time when it has been seeking to persuade sceptics, particularly the secular-minded and minority Christians, that they have nothing to fear if the Brotherhood dominates the next parliament.

The Brotherhood has said it will contest half of parliament's seats but it will not field a candidate in presidential elections due late this year or early 2012. However, many in Egypt fear that a likely alliance between the Brotherhood, the ultraconservative Salafis and other Islamist groups could produce a majority in the next legislature.

The Brotherhood's best electoral showing came in 2005 when they won some 20 per cent of all seats. But the group failed to win a single seat in last year's tainted elections.

The Brotherhood has been contesting elections since the early 1980s, skirting a ban on participating in politics by fielding ostensibly independent candidates.

But if more factions and leaders break away, the Brotherhood may find it difficult to make good on its predictions that it would win about a third of all seats.

The group has been hurt by the militant rhetoric of some of its leaders, who boasted that they intend to turn Egypt into a pure Islamic state. The Brotherhood has sought to play down such comments, arguing that they have been taken out of context or accusing the media of trying to discredit the group.

Critics also charge that the Brotherhood stayed away from this year's uprising that toppled leader Hosni Mubarak, allowing supporters to take part only after it became clear the protesters would prevail.

Further, the independent press and secular politicians have accused the Brotherhood of taking advantage of Egyptians' piety by portraying a "no" vote to constitutional amendments in March as a vote against Islam and for Christians.

Egyptians voted overwhelmingly for the amendments, which will allow the Brotherhood to take advantage of its extraordinarily well-organised ranks when competing against new parties or established ones long co-opted by Mr Mubarak's regime and lacking popular support.

The Brotherhood's attempts to forge an electoral alliance with liberal and leftist parties have failed to make headway. The would-be allies chafe at what they consider a Brotherhood scheme to use them to spread its appeal beyond its own base.

Back in its house, the group has threatened to fire any supporter who joins a political party other than its own Freedom and Justice Party. In some cases, it made scathing attacks on those who left.

In many ways, the group's tough handling of deserters exposed it as a rigid organisation and cast into doubt its repeated promises for equal treatment of Christians and a fair deal for women.

A significant early defector was Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fottouh. He has announced plans to run for president, violating the Brotherhood's decision not to field candidates. Mr Abul-Fottouh, who has been expelled for violating the group's rules, represents the most moderate face of the Brotherhood.

In his writings, for example, he has interpreted the veil not as Islamic dress code but rather a traditional dress like the Indian sari. He has also supported the rights of all Egyptians, even atheists.

The latest desertion came last week when several Brotherhood members, headed by a senior group figure, formed a new political party. Led by members of the Brotherhood's so-called "reformist" camp, they formed Al Riyada, or The Pioneers.

Khaled Dawoud, the senior deserting member, said the new party views Islam as the foundation of Egyptian culture, but not its politics. "The culture of Egypt is Islamic."

He criticised the Brotherhood for not separating between the group's mission as an Islamic preaching organisation and its political party. He also criticised the "undemocratic practices" within the group.

Another high-profile departure came earlier in June when about 20 young Brotherhood members formed the Egyptian Trend. Its founder, Islam Lotfy, said it was not a Brotherhood party, nor a party of the Brotherhood youth.

He said he saw no contradiction between being a member of the Brotherhood as an advocacy group and joining a new political party.