Alastair Beach
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on : Tuesday, 15 Nov, 2011
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Freedom and Justice

Egypt Unwrapped

Interview with Dr. Mohammed Morsy, leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party.
Dr. Mohammed Morsy

Dr. Mohammed Morsy

The office of Professor Mohammed Morsy does not look like the lair of a man who will soon become one of Egypt’s premier political players.

About 10ft square with a pot plant in one corner and desultory views out onto nothing but a crumbling brick wall, the room belonging to the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing is humble, if not quite Spartan.

“The free market system is similar to the Islamic system.”It is probably befitting for a man whose party’s stance against fasaad, or corruption, has for decades attracted support from the dejected and down-at-heel.

“The Egyptian regime was very difficult under Hosni Mubarak,” explained Morsy. “Egyptians have been under one of the most unusual dictatorships in history. It punished people, as if all the time the regime wanted to drag the country back.”

The Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is widely expected to be the main winner in the three rounds of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on November 28.

Some have questioned how well the party will actually do, saying that the Brotherhood’s influence was exaggerated by analysts when it was a banned political movement under former President Hosni Mubarak.

Opinion polls conducted since February have shown the group’s approval ratings hovering around 15 per cent.

Yet given the group’s decades-old organisational structures, coupled with the goodwill and name-recognition garnered by Brotherhood-sponsored educational, healthcare and transport programmes over the years, few doubt that the Freedom and Justice Party will mobilise huge support.

The prospect has raised the hackles of some in the West, who lump the Muslim Brotherhood in with their broader fears about the spread of militant Islam.

Unsurprisingly it is a notion rejected by Morsy as “completely wrong”. Moreover, members of some of Egypt’s new liberal parties do not necessarily fear the Islamic slant of the Freedom and Justice Party per se, rather the electoral force of their apparently formidable opponent.

Egyptian voters – the vast majority of them Muslims who opinions polls suggest would like at least a modicum of Islamic influence to govern the country’s future – welcome the Koranic-inspired sweep of the Brothers’ political programme.

But how exactly would a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament govern? According to Morsy, the Freedom and Justice Party’s free market economic policies are inspired by Islamic doctrine.

“The free market system is similar to the Islamic system,” he said. “Under Islam, you need to make sure that poor people are sharing in the wealth of society. So when we talk about having a free market system, this is OK, but it needs to be somehow reformed.”

Under the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, corruption was rife and divisions between the richest and poorest in Egypt widened significantly. According to Morsy, an Islamic-inspired capitalism with a greater focus on “ethics” would go a long way towards healing the nation’s fiscal clefts.

“Besides a free market system you need to have ethical values for the society. This is what we are concerned about, as much as we are concerned about digging deep to have real investments.”

Some of Egypt’s secular parties would baulk at the notion that Islam is the sine qua non for eradicating Mubarak-era corruption. But given the Brotherhood’s decades-old reputation as the antipode of greasy, government cronyism, it is a concept that will no doubt ring true for many at the ballot box.

There are other concerns – often highlighted in the West – that women and Christians would be sidelined under a Freedom and Justice Party government.

Former Coptic Patriarch Kyrillos VI once said that Egyptians were “one people worshipping the same God in two different ways”. But that has not stopped some skeptics flagging-up previous statements from Brotherhood leaders which have suggested that hardliners within the group think otherwise.

“This is totally incorrect,” said Morsy. “We are obliged to respect Christians. If we don’t deal with our brother Christians or have equal rights for Muslims and non-Muslims then we are violating Islam.”

In recent years the group certainly mollified its tone on the Copts, declaring them to be “full citizens of Egypt” and also indicating they would abolish the church-building permit system once in power – a widely-loathed bugbear of many Christians. Nevertheless, though Egyptian women and Christian are free to join the Freedom and Justice Party, officials still do not deem them fit to be president.

Over the past few months the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, has received plenty of flak for its handling of the transitional period – most notably last month, when 27 protesters died after coming under attack from soldiers following a mainly- Christian demonstration in Cairo.

Morsy is careful not to be too critical of the ruling generals. “The military has played an important role to protect the revolution but not to stand in front of it,” he said – despite the fact that increasing numbers of Egypt’s activists and politicians are now saying the exact opposite.

He is more forthcoming when asked about Israel, articulating the kind of thumping critique of Tel Aviv which always plays well with the Arab street.

“The Palestinians are resisting the Israelis,” he said. “And they have a right to resist, and we are helping this resistance as much as we can, politically, morally and using medical supplies.”

He talked about having a more “balanced” relationship with Israel, an idea which generates large support across Egypt’s political spectrum after decades of close co-operation between Mubarak and his Israeli counterparts.

However, the unfashionable Brotherhood notion of a one-state solution is unlikely to develop much traction with Benjamin Netenyahu.

After the years of government repression which begun under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Muslim Brotherhood is still learning how to negotiate the prospect of actually having its hands on power.

Since the fall of Mubarak there have been splits, disagreements and bouts of infighting that were previously kept in check by the existence of a common foe.

Now it seems clear that by early January, when the third and final round of parliamentary balloting is completed, the group that for so long was ostracised under successive presidents will finally be in a position to execute its political program.

Egyptians – and The West – will be eager to see what happens next.

Alastair Beach

Alastair Beach

Alastair Beach is a freelance reporter based in Cairo who has worked for a variety of publications, including the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. He was previously based in Syria.

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  1. [...] Freedom and Justice (Majalla) “Assassinations of nuclear scientists, a sophisticated cyber-attack, and now, last weekend, a mysterious blast at a munitions base that has killed the ‘godfather’ of Iran’s ballistic missile programmer”: [...]

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