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Egypt's Brotherhood No. 1

world Updated: Feb 13, 2011 00:53 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times
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"We are not fighting for an Islamic state," declares Rashad Al-Bayoumi, Brother No. 2 at the Jama'a Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen. And with that, the first deputy to Brother No. 1 El Morshed (the murshid, or guru) Mohammad Badie, directly addresses the gravest concern western nations harbour over Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

There are reasons to take the words seriously. The Ikhwan is the best-organised social and political outfit in the most populous Arab nation. Its leading ideologue of the 1950s and 60s, Sayyid Qutb, inspired the top leaders of Hamas and al Qaeda (though Qaeda No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, later broke with the Brotherhood's moderate, non-violent stance). In 1992 the Ikhwan proved its social strength by delivering the most efficient medical help following Cairo's devastating earthquake.

And, though the party itself is banned politically, 88 of its members independently made it to Egypt's 2005 parliament - the largest ever opposition group, representing a fifth of the legislature. Many expect them to re-emerge as a large political force in a free election.

Al-Bayoumi doesn't give out membership numbers but says the Hosni Mubarak government overstated in its claim of 1.5 million. Alaa Al-Aswany, novelist and opposition leader of the once-popular Kefaya movement that included the Ikhwan, says it wouldn't be larger than 300,000-400,000.

But the declamation of a religious state isn't the entire picture. "We do want to implement the sharia in its truest form," adds Al-Bayoumi, a 76-year-old doctorate of geology.

Sobhy Saleh, a lawyer and former MP, explains with the help of the country's soon-to-be-amended constitution. My translator Hamdy Kenawy reads out the second article: "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic its language, and the sharia is its main source of legislation." Sitting in his Alexandria office behind a glass plaque bearing the Ikhwan's banned logo of a Koran and two crossed swords, the feisty 57-year-old member of the Brotherhood's 115-member central shura (consultation) council says, "We do not have to amend this bit of the constitution - we just have to implement it properly."

Given that the sharia has been implemented variously in different countries, which model should Egypt follow? "We have comments to make on each one of them," says Saleh. What about Saudi Arabia, the richest of the Sunni states? "It's the worst, the most corrupt," spits Saleh.

'Halaal' money channels
The Ikhwan also proposes 'Islamic economics' as the best cure for Egypt's vicious cycle of low investment, slow growth and high unemployment. By different estimates, 40-60% of the population live on less than a dollar a day, a fifth of the youth are unemployed, and the economy has grown at a mere 2-4% since 2000.

Abdel Hamied Al-Ghazaly, a former head of Ikhwan's political and economic cell, says, "We are for liberal economics… we welcome foreign investment in every sector," says the specialist on Islamic economics who earned his doctorate in development planning from Glasgow University. How to bridge the revenue and employment shortfalls? "By increasing the savings rate from 16.7% of the national output to over 30% and focusing on labour-intensive small- and medium-sized industries… We are not for raising taxes, but we want to implement the voluntary zakat (donations) and obligatory waqf (obligatory endowments for charity)."

What about the high prices? "You cannot leave prices free," exclaims the 74-year-old professor.

Just like brothers
From outside, the Brotherhood looks like a well-laid pyramid. Under the morshed is a 15-member guidance council, under which is the shura council.

There are separate cells for political, social, legal, media, student, women and children.

Given that hundreds of brothers are still behind bars, there's even a cell to look after detainees. The structure is replicated in each province of Egypt, with Ikhwan members populating the professional syndicates of doctors, lawyers and engineers.

For the last couple of decades, there has been no central organisation running the schools and hospitals associated with the Ikhwan. Saleh explains, "We go to some wealthy people - the good ones, with halaal money - and ask them to sponsor orphans, aged people and the sick." That skirts the central pyramid.

But there are murmurs of dissent within the monolith.

When Al-Bayoumi says his goal is "higher than seeking offices in government" he represents the set that dislikes parliamentary politics, preferring instead to expand the social base. Daniela Pioppi of Rome's Institute of International Affairs has written that the current morshed's anointment to the 4-year office in 2010 was seen as a win for this lot.

Abdel Moneim Mahmood, a 31-year-old journalist who blogs at (literally, I am Ikhwan), has talked earlier of a rift between the old guard and the young, whose numbers grew rapidly around 2004. He told HT: "The younger people are inspired by the Turkish model, which is more inclusive."

There's something to learn from India, too.

Al-Bayoumi wants to study Indian democracy. Saleh wants to understand our electronic voting system. Al-Ghazaly says India can teach a thing or two about rural development.

All this may come about in the next phase of the Egyptian revolution, after open elections are held. This week was just the end of the beginning.