By Dan Murphy writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief is explaining to a small group of reporters his government's commitment to democracy. He promises that restrictions on political parties will soon be eased to allow for real political competition.
But when asked if the regime will legalize the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and best-organized opposition group, a bit of steel creeps into his congenial tone. "Never,'' he says. The Brotherhood "will never be a political party."
The Brotherhood - which has provided the intellectual seeds for peaceful Islamist political organizations throughout the world as well as Islamist terrorist groups - is at the center of calls for more democracy not just in Egypt, but in much of the Arab world.
And in this restless Arab spring, the 77-year-old organization, which favors Islamic law and says it's committed to democracy, has been roused from a public slumber. Worried that the proactive steps taken by secular Egyptian reformers like the Kifaya (Enough) Movement could cost the Brotherhood its position as Egypt's leading opposition movement has stirred the organization into action.
In recent months it has organized demonstrations and in turn been hit hard by the government. Thousands of leaders and activists have been arrested in the past two months and more than 800 remain in government custody. In an interview, senior Brotherhood leader Abdul Moneim Abul Futuh alleges one of the arrested, who has since been released, was "severely" tortured while in custody.
Brotherhood leaders say democracy isn't possible unless they and their vast constituency are allowed a voice. The Egyptian government is just as forceful in asserting that any system that allows them a route to power will end in a new form of dictatorship.
A violent past
In most of the Arab dictatorships, Islamist organizations are the principal opposition, and if they come to power are likely to dramatically reconfigure their societies and their relations with the US.
That unpredictable potential shift frightens not only entrenched regimes but the US and secular opposition groups. While the US has spoken out against Egyptian attacks on secular demonstrators, the words "Muslim Brotherhood" rarely pass US officials' lips in public. Both Arab regimes and secular opposition groups say the stated support for democracy by Islamists is a chimera.
The Brotherhood, which has branches in almost every Muslim country, favored assassination of political opponents and violent tactics in its early decades, but abandoned terrorism in the 1950s. It hasn't been involved in political violence in Egypt since, though it does support political violence by Palestinians and by Iraqis, which it views as legitimate resistance.
Egypt is not alone in outlawing the group. In Syria, where the local Brotherhood is one of the strongest opposition groups, the movement is illegal and membership is punishable by death.
On a day-to-day basis, the Brotherhood's leaders in Egypt have adopted a discourse of democracy - both practical and ideological, if their leaders are to be believed. "For the Brotherhood, the issue of freedom is at the top of our agenda now,'' says Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood's soft-spoken supreme guide. "Freedom is at the heart - it's the principal part - of Islamic law."
According to Mr. Akef, the Brotherhood has evolved a fairly unusual view of Islamic law. Most Islamic orthodoxy holds that apostasy - leaving Islam - is a punishable crime, and is never to be allowed. But asked if his idea of freedom includes allowing a Muslim to choose another religion, or no religion at all, he says, "of course."
Yet almost every non-Islamist in Egypt fears them. "I'm not ready to sacrifice my nation to these people,'' says Said al-Kimmi, an author and historian of Islam who says he favors democracy for Egypt, but limits on religious parties. …