By Valentina Colombo
On 22nd June 2011, Time Magazine published an article which is worth analysing. The title – clean and telling – was “Why the Muslim Brotherhood Are Egypt’s Best Democrats”. The article’s thesis was the following: “Of all political groups to have emerged since the fall of Hosni Mubarak – including the myriad youth movements, secular parties, leftists and remnants of the old National Democratic Party – the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have the best understanding of how democracy works.”
On the other side, the article’s author describes liberals as “…sore losers and far from democratic”. Whilst there is a grain of truth in these statements, some remarks must nonetheless be made.
There is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is highly organised on the ground and is deeply rooted in society in Egypt. It is on good terms both with the army and the National Democratic Party and has played a significant part over the past 50 years in the political history of the country and is likely to do so in the future. In this regard, in May 2011 Amr Moussa, who is likely to become the next Egyptian President, attended the opening ceremony of their new central office in Cairo. The movement in Egypt is much more entrenched than in other countries, despite being officially banned since 1954 when it was held responsible for having organised an attack on former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However since the 1970s the MB has entered the political arena.
In the 2005 parliamentary elections, candidates linked to the Brotherhood presented themselves as independent and obtained 88 seats, constituting 20% of the total number available. Mubarak’s regime alternated between repression and tacit acceptance of the MB. Suffice to say that the works of Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric living in exile since 1961, have always been published by the pro-government Egyptian publishing house Dar al-Shorouk. Indeed, until May 2011 the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood were in the central Talat al-Harb Square. Furthermore, no one can deny that the movement’s expansion in Egypt was helped, from a political, economic and social point of view by the Mubarak regime’s oppression. This made the Egyptian population, whose illiteracy rate is around 44%, easy prey for the proselytism of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both the Al-Nahda party in Tunisia and the newborn Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt have removed the image of the Koran and the word “Islam” from their logos and mottos, seemingly implying a change of direction towards a more moderate and secular ideology. The motto “Islam is the solution” was changed to “Freedom is the solution and justice is its application”. This is simply another disguise (taqiyya) of the movement founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928. As already mentioned, it is an attempt to appear less Islamic and more democratic, at least from the outside, using words and expressions that are not automatically linked to an Islamic or Koranic context.
But does this necessarily mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is becoming more democratic? Does it necessarily mean that the Muslim Brotherhood has become more moderate? This seems to be the impression we get from the article published in Time.
The key word is undoubtedly “freedom.” For this reason it is essential to understand the meaning of the term in an Islamic context. If the youths of the revolution in Egypt are still asking for “freedom,” if the Christian Copts in their demonstrations are calling for “freedom” and now the Muslim Brotherhood uses the word “freedom” in its motto, it is obvious that these are three completely different conceptions of freedom. The youths of the revolution demanded and are still demanding freedom from tyranny and freedom of expression; Copts are demanding the freedom to worship and the freedom to be citizens, just like Egyptian Muslims, while the Koranic view of freedom primarily means the opposite of slavery and depends on the Islamic context. So, from a certain point of view, freedom as conceived by the Muslim Brotherhood could approach the freedom sought by demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo as the fight against the tyrant, and to some extent the emancipation from slavery.
Confirmation of this statement is found in the writings of Yusuf Qaradawi, the theologian of the Brotherhood, calling people to fight tyrants, which he describes with the Koranic term taghut. On 28th June 2011, Qaradawi published, on his personal website www.qaradawi.net, the transcript of the last issue of his programme on Al Jazeera Al-Sharia wa-al-hayat (Sharia and Life) on “Political and civil freedom” (for the Arabic text see the link http://www.qaradawi.net/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=8384&version=1&template_id=105&parent_id=16). The interview clearly shows the meaning of the term for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi says: “Freedom is a part of sharia, that is, sharia enables people to be free and to practice freedom. […] Freedom is a part of religion and a part of sharia, this is the reason why we cannot say either sharia or freedom.” This means that the change of the motto of the Brotherhood from “Islam is the solution…” to “ Freedom is the solution…”, is not an acurate change but simply wordplay. If sharia, whose main sources are the Koran and the Islamic tradition, is synonymous with freedom, freedom is synonymous with Islam as well.
Qaradawi also refers to Hasan al-Banna’s words in his statement: “Our imam and martyr Hasan al-Banna said in the conclusions of his Epistle Between Yesterday and Today that: “If you are asked about what you call for, answer that you call for Islam and government is a part of it, and freedom is a religious duty, on the one hand we must say that freedom is a part of sharia and it is neither its opposite nor its contrary, on the other hand we must say that to implement sharia in a proper way […] we must help the winds of freedom and as the first idea we must teach people to say “We want sharia” while secularists say that people do not want sharia’[…] The majority of Egyptians still believe that Islam is the solution, is the basis and they do not want import anything from the West””.
Qaradawi’s words leave no room for doubt. For the Muslim Brotherhood the vocabulary “freedom” and “democracy” have different meanings. Its aim has not changed. It wants an Islamic State and it does not matter whether it gets it tomorrow or in ten years. Mahdi Akef, former Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, interviewed last year by Walid al-Kubaisi declared that “the Brotherhood’s dream is to establish a unified Islamic State”.
In conclusion, recent facts demonstrate that the Muslim Brotherhood and its parties are the best organised and they are winning against liberals and their allies, but we should be very careful in describing them as true democrats. We had better help liberals and secularists to organise and stick together in the name of true freedom for a new Egypt where Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist and Bahai Egyptians would simply be called “Egyptians.”
Valentina Colombo is Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy.