February 15, 2011 |
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt announced Feb. 14 that it intends to form a political party. The political atmosphere does not guarantee the movement’s success — it will need the provisional military-led authority to approve its application, and forming a political wing could create internal problems for the MB — but the unique political opening in Cairo could be the best time for the MB to make the attempt.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) issued a statement Feb. 14 in which it voiced its intention to form a political party once the Egyptian Constitution is amended to make such a move possible. The MB has never formed a political party, though it has in the past tried to seek legal status, and members have participated in elections as independent candidates.
The current atmosphere in Egypt does not guarantee the MB’s success, given that cooperation from the military is needed for the movement to reach its goals. However, the group is taking advantage of the opening of Egypt’s political landscape created by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and it hopes its chances of becoming a recognized political entity are better now than in the past.
The Egyptian MB is a social movement, or “society,” as opposed to the MB branches in other countries, such as Jordan, which have political wings. (In Jordan, the MB’s political wing is called the Islamic Action Front; it has had members in parliament, has led many protests against the government in recent weeks and has been negotiating with the state.)
In Egypt, not only has the MB been denied the chance to have a political wing, but the whole movement technically has been banned since at least 1954, though tolerated and allowed to function since the days of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The MB tried to secure legal status decades ago but failed — a license is required to form a political party, and, as in the MB’s case, the government can reject applications for such licenses. MB members have run for political office, but they have always done so as independent candidates, not as members of any political party.
The main reason the Egyptian MB had largely given up applying for the creation of a political wing was that the state had been clear it would not accept its application. Another reason, however, was that the MB leadership was afraid that creating a new power structure would eventually weaken its authority and that the political wing would eventually lead to serious rifts within the movement.
The post-Mubarak atmosphere in Cairo has not necessarily eliminated either of these potential problems. Though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military body currently running the country, has displayed goodwill toward the MB thus far, that does not necessarily mean it will allow the creation of a legal political party connected to its leadership. The SCAF could still reject the MB outright or, more likely, take a great deal of time to consider the matter. And of course the potential for a political party to break away from the movement that spawned it is ever-present.
However, if the MB ever wants to enter the political mainstream in Egypt, it needs to have an official party. The group sees this moment in Egyptian history as its best chance to do it. It has stated its intentions and has been talking with the SCAF, pledging to stop protesting and promising that it has no desire for power and will not field a presidential candidate. Furthermore, the MB has shown a willingness to negotiate with the regime, as it showed when it agreed to attend the Feb. 6 talks with then-Vice President Omar Suleiman during the second week of protests in Cairo. Whether the MB gains the SCAF’s approval will depend on a discreet understanding between the two sides, an agreement that likely will take a lot of negotiation.
Besides seizing a unique opening in the Egyptian political landscape, the MB is also working to counter a threat from the state in its drive to form a political party. The MB knows the military has an interest in dividing the movement, and it does not want the more pragmatic MB elements drifting away and making their own deal with the SCAF. A similar schism occurred with the formation of the Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party). A group of MB members who wanted to be more pragmatic formed the party in the mid-1990s. Hizb al-Wasat never got a license from the Mubarak government to become a political party, but the military could easily revive the movement, grant it a license and persuade members of the MB to join.
All of this comes as the MB faces internal pressures over the movement’s overall direction. Some members believe the movement should become more like the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, as such a move would placate the majority of MB members and would ward off the threat from the military. Given the circumstances in Egypt, the MB will need to make some adjustments and become more mainstream if it is to remain strong — and if it wants any hope of gaining the SCAF’s acceptance as a political party.