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
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
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. …