CAIRO: Egypt’s State Security Prosecution has uncovered what it claims to be a special women’s unit within the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The prosecution says this group is led by the Brotherhood’s deputy chairman Mahmoud Ezzat, who was arrested with 15 other Muslim Brotherhood members on Feb. 8.
According to the charge sheet, the Brotherhood is wooing women into the organization to act as go-betweens and convey messages among members of the illegal organization, without being detected by the Egyptian security forces.
The so-called secret sisterhood is being compared to a group led in the 1960s by Zeinab Al-Ghazali, who helped imprisoned Brotherhood members communicate with their peers outside of jail.
The accusations come at a sensitive time for the Egyptian regime as politicians gear up for the November 2010 legislative elections, and presidential elections in 2011.
Some experts have suggested the charges are linked to government efforts to weaken the movement and discourage their running in the upcoming elections, and that allegations regarding the secret women’s organization have been raised purely for political purposes.
“There’s a Muslim sisters organization and that’s nothing new, Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, told The Media Line. “It’s important to note that even though the Muslim sisters can’t technically be members of the formal Brotherhood organization, they still participate in its activities in a sense that the Brotherhood runs women candidates at different levels.
“We’re seeing levels of repression [against the Muslim Brotherhood] that are unprecedented in the post-Nasser period, Hamid explained. “Things have been getting considerably worse in the last two or three years as the government has been intensifying its crackdown on the Brotherhood. It’s a product of the Brotherhood’s growing strength since 2005, when it won 88 seats [in the legislative elections] and demonstrated it was the only real alternative to the regime and the status quo.
Jihan Al-Halafawi, a female Islamist who contended for a seat in the National Assembly in 2002, told Al-Arabiyya that the accusations of a subversive female contingent in the Muslim Brotherhood were unfounded.
“The women’s division has developed in the same way that the Muslim Brotherhood has developed over the years and it’s not secretive, she said. “The Brotherhood is engaged in politics publicly, even though it has no official recognition from the state but they have a lot of presence on the Egyptian street.
“At this point, the female contingent of the Muslim Brotherhood has an educational agenda, she added. “They aren’t given any special assignments from the larger organization and their only mission in the organization is educational.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt since 1954 but the movement enjoys significant popularity and is tolerated to varying degrees by the government.
Though the organization was banned from running in the 2005 legislative elections, it ran candidates as independents and won a fifth of the seats.
“The regime is a bit unsettled and worried because of the upcoming succession, and they’re not willing to take any chances on that, Hamid said. “They realize that the Brotherhood is the one force in the Egyptian polity that might be able to challenge that course of events.
Analysts have pointed out that Islamist parties often benefit from quotas set for women’s seats, and that the current 66 seat quota for women in the upcoming elections will work in favor of such parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and further erode the performance of the ruling National Democratic Party.
The Muslim Brotherhood moved towards a more conservative and hardline leadership following the December internal elections for its 16-member executive branch.
Dr Gamal Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, said one possible impetus for the recent crackdown could be the changes in the Brotherhood’s leadership.
“It seems that the policy is not to allow the Brotherhood to rest under their current leadership and to keep them under pressure, Soltan said.
“The current developments within the Brotherhood are not assuring for the rest of the community, he said. “The majority of the people who have been elected for leadership positions in the organization belong to the less liberal and non-reformist factions within the Brotherhood, and in a sense they are no longer enjoying the same sympathy of the broader political community that they used to receive.
Soltan implied that the accusations of a covert women’s organization appeared to be a weak argument, since it is not new.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a secret organization and is not transparent, so talking about a secret women’s organization per se is not a surprise, Soltan, said.
“In the past they had a women’s organization and that has continued, he said. “There are different accusations you can raise against the Brotherhood, and the police and the government chose this accusation this time. They have always had women’s organizations.