Transitions

Talking with the Brotherhood

Earlier this week, the first democratically elected parliament in Egypt in sixty years held its opening session in Cairo. Just under half of the lawmakers belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is set to exercise power in the country for the first time since it was founded 84 years ago. Inna Lazareva speaks with Dr. ...

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Earlier this week, the first democratically elected parliament in Egypt in sixty years held its opening session in Cairo. Just under half of the lawmakers belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is set to exercise power in the country for the first time since it was founded 84 years ago. Inna Lazareva speaks with Dr. Mohammed Ghanem (pictured above), the Brotherhood’s spokesman in London.

Foreign Policy: It’s been a year since President Mubarak’s resignation, and his appointees in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are still in power. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has become the strongest force in Parliament, how will you manage relations with the SCAF?

Mohammed Ghanem: This first parliament in Egypt is critical. The Muslim Brotherhood will not be able to exclude the SCAF or its influence, at least during this initial term. Equally, the Supreme Council will not simply give up its privileges. The military has an interest in politics and it has a very strong involvement in the economy, which sometimes contradicts their job of protecting the country. But eventually I hope that democracy will enable us to reach a good balance and to emulate models such as the United Kingdom. The SCAF will be given due respect for protecting the country. It will be impossible to deny them political participation, but we realize the need to restrict them from heavily influencing political decisions as before. We know that we have to be very delicate in balancing the power. Compromise is a good policy to adapt and, although people on the street will not always appreciate this compromise, there is simply no other way.

FP: There has been much speculation about the 1979 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on this?

MG: This is not a straightforward matter. In the Qur’an, Israelites are a people descended from the respected King Daoud (King David). We also distinguish between the Jewish people and the Zionist movement. Lastly, we always look at the issues of Palestine and human rights legally. If someone takes someone else’s land, this should not be tolerated. At the same time, no figure in the Muslim Brotherhood will take a decisive stand on the issue of Israel for the whole of Egypt. Such matters require the full political process to reflect the will of the people and will be decided in parliament.

FP: Egypt’s economy is suffering from corruption, an inflated public sector, and the government’s subsidy policy. What are your priorities for getting the economy back on track?

MG: I can assure you that all the politicians in the Brotherhood understand that subsidies are bad. But the high rates of unemployment and poverty make the question of dealing with subsidies very awkward in Egypt. There has to be a balance between solving the problem and managing the consequences, which could be disastrous. Subsidies will have to be phased out gradually, and a well-regulated market should eventually be given the mechanism to determine prices. How long this will take, and how this will be dealt with politically, depends on the harmony of the parliament. We have to find a way to convince the Egyptian people that they have been indulged in subsidies against their own interest and for the benefit of the rich. This is difficult, as many people don’t fully understand the negative effects the subsidies have on the economy.

The priority for now is to form the new parliament, agree on a constitution, elect a president, and decide on how authority between parliament and the president is divided. Nobody can predict an outcome yet.

Over the past five or ten years, the public sector experienced a highly corrupt change in ownership. Businesses have been demolished, destroyed, sold at a loss to Mubarak’s gangs. When you steal from the poor who are already poor, the effect is disastrous. As an economist, I think that the whole international financial system is a farce at the moment. I predict that the next international revolution will be against the banking institutions. This has already begun with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the attacks on the private houses of bank managers is a new phenomenon which should not be ignored. You can’t have justice in a human society without economic justice.

FP: The Salafist, ultra conservative al-Nour party has won 24 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and will now be your partners in Parliament. Some of their policies, such as pledges not to accept a Christian president and reforming people’s lives according to the Qur’an, are considered by many to be extreme. There is a worry that al-Nour will push the Muslim Brotherhood toward a harder line. How would you respond to that?

MG: We will not become more hard-line. We will work together with all the parties in the government to find a compromise. After the revolution, one of the most important outcomes was that political Islam became more than just a singular view. Before, al-Nour refused to engage in politics. Now they are developing their own policies. There is greater political participation and more plurality.

Actually, Al Noor’s performance was also good for the Muslim Brotherhood. If they hadn’t been there, their votes may have gone to us. We did not want this. We intentionally fielded only 50 percent of our candidates. Whether the power should be with the Brotherhood or not does not bother us:  we don’t aim for a political position like Western politicians. Instead we would like to have a democracy which gives the people a wider range of policy options. Political Islam is broad enough to hold more than one opinion. At the same time, "extreme" is not in our vocabulary. Islam is generally a middle way. You can’t be a Muslim and be extreme. Fanaticism is not a virtue.

On the subject of a Christian president, I personally have no problem if the Egyptian people elect a Coptic Christian as their leader. I believe that the leadership of a society has to be by the consent of the people. The only problems between the Christians and Muslims in Egypt are created by a dictatorship in order to detract attention from itself.

FP: What about the political role of women in Egypt?

MG: Women have a stronger position in the Qur’an and Islamic principles than men. If a woman is elected President in Egypt, I would not stand against it. If a woman shows the ability to run the country, why not? The Qur’an contains a story of a strong and good woman leader: Bilquis, the Queen of Sheeba. At the same time, women are not as mentally alert as men — they cannot be, because they give birth to children, look after them, suffer monthly periods, and so on. All this takes the concentration of ten men. Their mental status is not constant and they can’t have the same duties as a man.

FP: So does this mean that you think women’s political rights should be curtailed?

MG: Women should share in every aspect of life. But due to the different nature of men and women, in order to reach equality you have to allocate men and women different jobs. This is actually a condition for equality. I would never say that women should not participate in something. If they are qualified to do so, and it is legal, then they can.

FP: What is the Brotherhood’s position on gay rights?

MG: We’ve never had a public issue on this particular problem .Most of the laws in Muslim countries consider it as illegal. Culturally, Muslims don’t like it. Legally speaking, I don’t think there have been any problematic cases. The people simply refuse it.

FP: So would an attack on a gay person in Egypt not be considered a crime?

MG: The Muslim Brotherhood will use the current law. It is not up to us to change it unilaterally. Margaret Thatcher voted three times to re-introduce the death penalty in the UK, but did not succeed. Her beliefs did not mean that they were applied to her people. We are the same. We may try and introduce certain laws, but the decision will be left to the Egyptian people. Until it changes, we respect the law as it stands.

Inna Lazareva is a researcher with the Legatum Institute in London.

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