The Muslim Brotherhood, like other opposition groups in Egypt, is going through a period of repression. It is repressed more than any other organization because of the widespread popularity it enjoys. Hundreds of its members have been detained over the past few months and a severe media distortion campaign is run by state-owned press and TV channels, while security threats restrict independent media outlets from reporting an objective and balanced image of the group.
In spite of this, and in an unprecedented initiative, the Muslim Brotherhood sent a draft of its political manifesto a few weeks ago to be reviewed by a selected group of intellectuals and opposition leaders from different backgrounds (including seculars and critics of the Brotherhood), a definite sign of political openness, tolerance and confidence.
It also shows the Brotherhood s willingness to accept criticism, contrary to the repeated claim of several adversaries. There is a realization within the Brotherhood that there is nothing sacred about the political program; it is a man-made program that aims at achieving the objectives of Islam: justice, equality, peace, and compassion among all members of society. The draft was leaked to the media by some of the recipients and that triggered an intense debate far beyond the borders of Egypt.
One of the positive outcomes of this is that it revealed the Brotherhood s internal diversity, which is the norm in any large and long-running organization. Several researchers have previously pointed out this diversity as a sign of political maturity.
The draft was not put solely by group members, but rather utilized the experience and knowledge of a large number of intellectuals and academics, including women, Copts and secularists; three groups usually said to be skeptical of the Brotherhood if not actually repressed thereby, another clear sign of openness and transparency.
Brotherhood leaders clarified that the manifesto was the first step in a three-step process to form a civil political party autonomous from the group. No one expects the Egyptian regime to legitimize such a party soon, as it has already turned down legitimization appeals of strong political groups from different backgrounds.
Some issues brought up by the draft were viewed by some intellectuals as a setback for the Brotherhood, which has illustrated more moderate stances on these issues in its political activity over the past few years. The critics highlight that the draft excludes women and Copts from becoming president, and proposes an advisory council of scholars to review laws passed by the parliament.
As soon as the draft was released, several Brotherhood members spoke out against these points, as well as other aspects of the manifesto. These include some senior figures as well as junior members of the group. Furthermore, major worldwide Muslim Brotherhood figures also expressed opposition to these controversial points, including Sheikh Rashid Ghannoushi from Al-Nahda Movement in Tunisia, Ali Al-Bayanouni, leader of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and Abdulmajeed Al-Manasra from Algeria. This ongoing debate is a healthy sign that would contribute to political maturity within Islamist groups worldwide.
The manifesto does not deny women and Copts the right to run for presidency. It only states that the Muslim Brotherhood will not support them if they do. This is a view held by many within the group; yet other members – including myself – think it is not one s gender or religion that decides his or her eligibility to the presidency, but rather personal capacities and competence as well as political orientation.
Those who endorse the draft argue that it is based on the assessment of the status quo. The Brotherhood opts for a highly institutionalized state with sufficient checks and balances, where the president would not enjoy the power the current constitution affords Mubarak. In such a system, conditions for presidency should not be any different than those needed from a prime minister; a position the manifesto keeps open for all, including Copts and women.
Yet, having this clause is not as catastrophic as some critics tried to make out. Moderate Islamists will of course vote for the moderate Islamist in any election, just as leftists, liberals, secularists and others would vote for candidates from their respective political orientation. If there were no Islamists running, I would vote for the candidate I regard as being the most capable, regardless of gender or religion.
During Egypt s last (and first) presidential elections, I voted for Ayman Nour because I thought he was the best alternative, and his platform for reform was the closest to what I believed in. It is up to the people to choose their president, and it is up to each political group to support a candidate. The manifesto does not ban anyone from running for the presidency, and deciding which candidate the group will support has nothing to do with the democratic process in the country, since it is up to Egyptians, and not the Brotherhood, to decide on who becomes president, if there are free and fair elections.
The draft s proposed council of scholars, initially proposed by Rafik Habib, the renowned Coptic intellectual, is nothing like the Iranian theocracy, as some wished to melodramatically portray. It clearly states that absolute power lies in the hands of the people and their representatives in parliament. The council’s role is only advisory, and would not have any legislative or executive powers whatsoever.
It is important to understand that this manifesto was released at a time when a significant number of the group s influential leaders were kept behind bars by the regime including Khayrat El-Shater, deputy chief, Mohamed Ali Beshr, executive council member and Essam El-Erian the political bureau chief. Had those leaders and others participated in preparing the draft, the outcome may have been different.
The final version of the Muslim Brotherhood s manifesto has yet to be released. The group is awaiting feedback from recipients of the draft, and discussions will follow based on that feedback, and the draft may be amended accordingly.
The heated debate within Egypt and beyond over the manifesto s draft proves that repression will never succeed. Mubarak s regime crackdown has caused more people in Egypt to see the Brotherhood as the only feasible way out of the current climate of tyranny that runs the country.
Ibrahim El-Houdaiby is the administrator of the Mislim Brotherhood’s English website ikhwanweb.com. This article was first published by The Guardian.