By Michael Downey
Yesterday, Egypt's most influential opposition group — the officially banned but semi-tolerated Islamist party known as the Muslim Brotherhood — formally backed Mohamed ElBaradei, the secularist Nobel Laureate who has emerged as a leader of the revolutionary movement calling for an immediate end to the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But this alliance — which would have seemed unlikely prior to the mass protests that have rocked Cairo for the past week — has been developing for some time. Last summer, while I was studying at the American University of Cairo, I interviewed Khaled Hamza, the editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's official website. Hamza is considered a leading voice of moderation within the party, and is central to its youth-outreach efforts. (In a crackdown on the Brotherhood during the run-up to elections in 2008, Hamza was jailed for several weeks.)
When we spoke, it was difficult to imagine that, within months, Mubarak's decades-long rule would be under serious threat. Still, I was curious to know who Hamza thought could lead the country if Mubarak ever stepped aside or was forced out.
"It's a very hard question," he said. "But we now have cooperation with Dr. ElBaradei."
I knew that ElBaradei had been reaching out to opposition groups. But this was the first indication I had that the Brotherhood was formally participating in ElBaradei's efforts.
"He is a very good man," Hamza said of ElBaradei. "Maybe he is a secular man, but he respects the democratic option and he will leave the people to choose their president and Parliament. And maybe he'll help Egypt recover."
The Brotherhood was conspicuously absent when the street protests began last week. Last Monday, the very first day of the protests, I spoke again with Hamza and asked him what role, if any, the Brotherhood had played in launching them. He said that the Brotherhood, along with the other established parties, had been behind the curve, and that the protests had been the work of young people angry over the murder of a young man by police officers in Alexandria. "It wasn't until a couple of days later that political parties realized that this was really happening and started to take part in supporting it," he said.
Some observers argued that the secular nature of the nascent movement indicates that support for the Muslim Brotherhood is not as deep as conventionally believed. Yet the party is without a doubt a powerful force within Egyptian society, and would surely play an important role in a hypothetical post-Mubarak era. In my initial interview with Hamza, we discussed many of the issues that would prove most controversial should the Muslim Brotherhood ever become part of a post-Mubarak Egyptian government: Egypt's relationship with Israel and the Palestinians; the Brotherhood's view of women's role in politics and society; and the Brotherhood's conception of an Islamic state. What follows is an edited transcript of that first interview.
What role would the Muslim Brotherhood have in creating a new state if it participated in the political process?
We would take part in Parliament and run in the elections for it. [Under Mubarak's ban on the group, members of the Brotherhood must run for office as independents – Ed.) When people choose the Muslim Brotherhood, the West must understand that the people want it.
So the Brotherhood would support the maintenance of a secular government?
When the Muslim Brotherhood uses the word "secular," it does not mean no religion — we are talking about what we call a "civilized state."
What if an Egyptian extremist group like Islamic Jihad wanted to take part in the elections, would this be allowed?
No, if they want to make a terrorist operation against civilians we would jail them and stop them from participating in the elections. We will only accept the peaceful and democratic way in political life. If they use violence, we would jail them.
Do you support the establishment of sharia (Islamic law) in the way the government of Saudi Arabia has established it?
The Brotherhood does not agree with the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, because it is simply not democratic.
So you believe that there has to be a certain way to put sharia into place, but that establishing it through monarchy or by force is unacceptable?
Yes, democracy is the only way.
What about the Iranian model?
The Iranians follow the Ayatollah; we do not believe Islam requires a theocracy. In our view, the ulema (clergy) are only for teaching and education — they are out of the political sphere. Iran has some good things, such as elections, but we disagree with all the aggression. We disagree also with the human rights abuses from the government and attacks on the population.
What about groups that would seek to exclude or discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, sex or religion?
No, we are all united. There is no difference between Muslim, Christian, or whatever.
Should women be forced to wear the hijab, as they are in Iran?
No, they must choose. They should not be forced to wear hijab. We would never push the people to do something they don’t want to. But if a woman does not wish to wear hijab, there would be law to wear something respectable — not like a prostitute. Women must choose their way of Islam.
If the Brotherhood were in power in Egypt, what would be the rights of women to participate in politics? Could a woman serve in Parliament, or as President?
We believe in the complete participation of women in political life — except the presidency.
Except the presidency? Why is that?
Most ulema agree that the president must be a man. Women can run for any political office except president…In Islam there are ideas and options, and Islam says it is possible [for a woman to serve as President], but for now we choose the other option. We say it is a choice, from the religious thinkers or schools of thought. But there are other options and different choices. Some [Islamic] scholars say a woman can be President, but the Muslim Brotherhood, now, at this moment, does not agree with this. Maybe after some years they'd accept this. I think so. For myself, Khaled, I personally think a woman can be President, no problem.
What about relations with Israel? What would the Brotherhood do regarding the situation between Israel and Palestine?
We think Israel is an occupation force and is not fair to the Palestinians. We do not believe in negotiation with Israel. As the Muslim Brotherhood, we must resist all this. They are an occupation force and we must resist this. Did you see what they do in Gaza, on the flotilla? Israel is a very dangerous force and we must resist. Resistance is the only way, negotiation is not useful at all.
So would the Muslim Brotherhood, if in a position of government, help groups like Hamas?
Do you recognize Israel as a state?
What if Israel were to completely withdraw from the West Bank, a Palestinian state were established, and Jerusalem became a shared capitol. Then would you recognize Israel?
The political view of the Muslim Brotherhood on Palestine is one state [for] Jews, Muslims, Christians — let's have a democratic election and we will see….We can make something like a secular state and have elections and we can see.
Michael Downey is an undergraduate at Western Washington University, concentrating in Arabic, Islamic history and the Middle East.
[Above: Tahrir Square in Cairo during recent protests. Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English.]