For decades since its establishment, the Muslim Brotherhood has had an ambivalent position on political participation. While it largely ignored formal politics from the 1920s to the 1970s, it has been increasingly involved in Egyptian politics and has a growing number of representatives in the Egyptian parliament. Yet debates within the organization have centered on how and if political efforts can advance the Brotherhood’s broader agenda in Egypt’s shifting political environment.
Calls for total withdrawal from politics are heard only in the margins of the movement, as well as among some of the movement's critics. But if there is an internal consensus that the Brotherhood should remain partially engaged in politics, leaders have nevertheless debated how extensive political participation should be, what forms it should take, and how political activity can be connected to the Brotherhood’s long-term reform goals.
The debate over political participation has been complicated by the movement’s difficult relations with other political actors, from the ruling regime to opposition parties and protest movements. Fearing regime repression, the Brotherhood has been conscious to avoid signaling a determination to challenge the regime’s grip on power. The movement has consequently remained reluctant to commit to formal and electoral alliances with other opposition actors. This understanding was evident in the Brotherhood’s self-limited participation in 2005 parliamentary elections when it fielded candidates in less than one-third of the electoral districts, sending the message that they did not seek to challenge the ruling National Democratic Party’s two-thirds majority in the People’s Assembly.
Relations between the Brotherhood and other opposition parties have been less hostile but have nonetheless been characterized by a long-standing tradition of mutual mistrust, limiting their attempts to harmonize political positions and coordinate activities. Liberal and leftist parties as well as protest movements have remained deeply concerned by the Brotherhood’s ambiguous positions on equal citizenship rights for Muslims and Copts, as well as their position on women’s rights. Possible partners fretted about the negative impacts of Shari'a provisions on the freedom of expression and pluralism. Ultimately, they were equally disturbed by the contradictions between the Brotherhood’s Islamic frame of reference and the constitutional pillars of Egyptian politics.
The Brotherhood too has had legitimate reasons to mistrust the attitudes of other opposition actors. Some legal parties—such as the leftist Al-Tajammu' (Unionist) party—have rejected Islamist participation in politics, and thus allied with the regime to limit the Brotherhood’s political space. In several incidents, the leadership of Al-Tajammu' has even endorsed repressive government measures against the Brotherhood, justifying them on the grounds that they were targeting an undemocratic organization. Other parties have been less openly hostile but have still distanced themselves from the Brotherhood during times of severe regime repression.
But if alliance achievements have been limited, they have left some real effects on the Brotherhood’s positions. Since 2002, the Muslim Brotherhood’s partial search for common ground with other opposition actors has resulted in the strengthening of the movement’s platform on social, economic and political reform. In different official public statements—for example, the 2004 Reform Initiative and the 2005 electoral program—the Brotherhood’s platform has echoed that of liberal and leftist parties, calling for constitutional amendments, democratic reforms, government accountability and safeguards on personal freedoms.
The Brotherhood in Parliament
The Brotherhood’s recent parliamentary activity must be seen against the backdrop of its growing parliamentary presence. Moving up from only one representative out of 444 in the 1995-2000 parliament, to 17 in the 2000-2005 session, the Muslim Brotherhood now has 88 members in the 2005-2010 Egyptian parliament, second only to the ruling-NDP. This growing parliamentary presence is one important reason for its increased parliamentary activity.
The nature of the movement’s parliamentary platform has also shifted throughout the last three decades: Calls for the application of Shari'a and the promotion of religious and moral values that the bloc prioritized until the 1990s have given way to issues of legal and political reform, socio-economic policies and human rights violations in the 2000-2005 and 2005-2010 assemblies. Although religious and Shari'a-based priorities remain key elements in the Brotherhood’s parliamentary activities, their significance in shaping the movement’s platform has gradually diminished. Other elements have remained unchanged, such as the preoccupation with government accountability, anti-corruption measures.
But, despite their increased size and practical focus, it is important not to overstate what the Brotherhood’s parliamentary deputies can achieve. Although the group’s nearly continuous presence in parliament since the late 1970s has enabled its MPs to acquire extensive oversight tools as well as a collective ability to challenge the government, its impact on the legislative process has been minimal. The Brotherhood’s failure to pass platform legislation is ultimately linked to the ruling National Democratic Party’s firm grip on the legislative process, as it has persistently secured a comfortable two-thirds majority in all assemblies since 1976. Even in the current assembly, despite the significant growth of the Muslim Brotherhood’s representation to almost one-fifth of the entire body, the NDP holds three-quarters of the seats and is virtually unchallenged in forming the cabinet and passing its draft legislation.
In this context of strong oversight performance and weak legislative impact, the Brotherhood’s parliamentary activities in recent years have centered on five pillars: constitutional and legal amendments, political reform, social and economic legislation, religious and moral legislation and women’s rights.
In general, the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc has developed its own set of proposals for reforming Egypt’s constitutional order while simultaneously advancing a critique of the constitutional amendments proposed by the regime. Indeed, the issue of constitutional amendments has occupied a prominent position in the debates and platforms of various political actors in Egypt since 2002.
In the run-up to the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections, President Mubarak proposed an amendment to Article 76 of the constitution allowing multi-candidate presidential elections. In so doing, he appeared to give in to opposition demands to abandon the decades-old system of popular referenda designed merely to confirm the regime’s candidate for the presidency. But the Brotherhood rejected the proposed amendment as insufficient. They later called for a boycott of the referendum to confirm the amendment in May 2005 because it restricted the ability of independents and opposition parties to field presidential candidates. Specifically, political parties—and only those founded five years before the enactment of the amendment—that wish to put forth a presidential candidate must have at least five percent of the assembly’s seats. Independents in particular were required to have the support of 250 elected members of the People’s Assembly, Shura Council (the upper house of the Egyptian parliament), and local councils.
The Muslim Brotherhood continued its opposition to constitutional amendments proposed by the president and the NDP throughout the 2005-2010 People’s Assembly. The largest battle took place over a large set of presidentially-proposed amendments in 2006 and 2007. On 26 December 2006, President Hosni Mubarak called for the amendment of 34 constitutional articles to prohibit the establishment of religious parties and introduce more changes to presidential and legislative election laws, without setting a term limit for the presidency. Of the 34 amendments introduced and eventually approved, the Brotherhood bloc focused its critique on a number of elements, which it interpreted as limiting political freedoms and impeding its political activism.
The Brotherhood, for example, blocked amendments banning religious-based political parties and activities, which clearly limit the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in politics and obstruct its transformation into a legal party. The Brotherhood viewed the ban as completely inconsistent with the existing stipulation that states that Islam is the religion of the state in Egypt and Islamic Shari'a is its major source of legislation.
The organization also criticized an amendment laying the groundwork for a proportional system of legislative elections, which suggested that Egyptians would no longer vote for individuals but instead for party lists. This amendment, they argued, cemented the Brotherhood's exclusion from regular electoral politics. Further, an amendment to Article 88 that reduced judicial oversight of elections by forming special oversight committees comprised of both judges and former government officials was also blocked. The Brotherhood charged that the new system would increase opportunities for election rigging and manipulation. Finally, they also blocked amendments that would allow the enactment of a terrorism law. The Brotherhood joined other opposition critics, arguing that the effect of the amendment would be to allow the regime to replace the longstanding state of emergency with a new set of permanent legal tools designed to restrict political life. The constitutional amendments asserted the right of the Ministry of Interior to curb political and civic rights by restricting the press, subjecting journalists to potential imprisonment, and allowing governmental bodies to observe and control the activities of political parties.
Dilemmas of Participation
While the Brotherhood has worked hard to pursue this comprehensive agenda on constitutional amendments, it has attempted to do so without abandoning its longstanding emphasis on religion, morality and the family. The Brotherhood has tried to portray its religious agenda as compatible with, and even a full expression of, its comprehensive reform program. Some of the religious issues it has raised, for instance, —such as the right of veiled women to be hired for government-funded television channels—have been linked to freedom of expression and religious belief. On other issues, such as torture and the rights of the press, the Brotherhood has used its religious and moral priorities to defend political freedoms and human rights.
Yet while the remarkably active Muslim Brotherhood bloc has dealt with these moral and religious issues since 2000, social, economic and political legislation have been at the core of its platform and activities, both in terms of oversight and legislative attempts. The prioritization of these issues has often come at the cost of the Brotherhood’s moral and religious platform, which enjoyed a formative role in the movement’s parliamentary participation before 2000. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s moral and religious platform has been reduced to illiberal stances on women’s issues and scattered calls for the application of Shari'a provisions. The relative marginalization of the Brotherhood’s moral and religious platform in parliament has posed a serious challenge for the movement: How can it pursue social, economic and political reform in parliament while still sustaining its ”Islamic” credentials geared toward its religious constituencies? While the Brotherhood has been blocked from forming a political party, one strategy for dealing with the tension between its broad political and specific religious agenda has been to formalize political operations under a functionally separate institutional structure. And indeed, in recent years, it is possible to detect a functional separation between the parliamentary bloc, which addresses reform issues, and the leadership of the movement—the General Guide and the Guidance Office—which prioritizes moral and religious concerns in official pronouncements, media statements and other activities.
A second and equally serious challenge has emerged from the limited outcome of the Brotherhood’s participation in parliament. In the eyes of many Brotherhood constituents and activists, the movement’s pursuit of reform issues in parliament has simply not paid off; the de-emphasis of moral and religious issues has proven vain and unfruitful. And the Brotherhood’s participation in parliament, they argue, has not opened Egypt’s political sphere. Increasingly, the Brotherhood’s leadership has felt the need to account for this negative balance and offer explanations for its priorities to the rank and file. Discussion and debate surrounding this issue in recent years has thrown the value of political participation as a strategic objective into question, especially in comparison to the success of wider social and religious activities. One of the outcomes of this growing tension has been a changing balance of power within the movement’s leadership between advocates of political participation and those concerned with the Brotherhood’s social and religious role.