Wednesday, March 5th, 2008
By Mona Eltahawy
NEW YORK — Khaled Hamza Salam and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. He is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement, which wants to turn Egypt into an Islamic state. I am a secular, liberal Egyptian woman for whom nothing would be worse than a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt.
He knew me because, as editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s English-language news website, he published — much to my surprise and chagrin — several of my articles in which I said I doubted the Brotherhood’s claim to believe in democracy. One, I had written in outrage after the group’s supreme guide had described me as “naked” during an interview — because I wasn’t wearing a headscarf.
Pluralism might have been too much for the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, but for Hamza — as he’s known — it seemed to be the raison d’etre of the website he helped found (www.ikwanweb.com).
So it makes no sense that the Egyptian regime rounded him up on February 20, as part of a sweep that put at least 400 Muslim Brothers behind bars in the past month. The arrests bring to 750 Brotherhood members currently in detention.
Thirty-three Brotherhood officials and businessmen, in custody since December 2006, are being tried in a military court on money-laundering and terrorism charges. A verdict is expected March 25.
The recent arrests, aimed at scuttling the Muslim Brotherhood’s chances in local council elections on April 8, are on the grounds that the men belong to an illegal organization.
But it is the same organization that won a fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament in 2005, when the regime was allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to openly contest early rounds of parliamentary elections. When the Brotherhood performed too well, riot police fired tear gas and pointed rifles full of rubber-coated bullets at Egyptians who had the temerity to try to vote in a bloody last round of elections.
The regime postponed local council elections — slated for 2006 — to this April for fear the Brotherhood would gain enough seats to endorse independent presidential candidates.
Hamza was arrested as an Islamist bogeyman. President Hosni Mubarak is one of many Muslim dictators who use Islamists as bogeymen to scare allies — western and domestic alike. After the 2005 elections, Mubarak pointed to the 88 seats the Brotherhood secured in parliament, making them the largest opposition bloc, and told his western allies “You see what happens when I open up? The Islamists will take over.” Washington stopped pressing for reform in Egypt.
Mubarak uses the same fear-mongering to scare secular and Christian Egyptians into supporting him against the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is disastrous for Egyptians to think they must choose between a dictator, who has ruled our country for 26 years without a vice president — and believed to be grooming his son to take over — and the Muslim Brotherhood, which hides behind vague slogans like “Islam is the solution” in lieu of a real platform.
The way to prevent an Islamist victory in Egypt isn’t to imprison Muslim Brothers who believe in pluralism. That will guarantee the stranglehold of the most hardline leaders on the movement. The way to prevent an Islamist victory is to open up the political space in Egypt and nurture opponents from across the political spectrum.
A Muslim Brother who publishes and engages the views of his opponents isn’t very useful for frightening your allies. Even worse, for the regime, Hamza has mentored young Muslim Brothers. One of them, Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, has said that “most Brotherhood ‘new generation’ bloggers, writers and activists acknowledge Hamza’s role in giving them the space they need, and lobbying to get their voices heard.”
When I wrote an essay for the Jewish Forward last year saying that as a democrat, I supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to take part in the political process in Egypt, but that I doubted they would extend me the same courtesy, Hamza published the article on the Brotherhood’s site. And Ibrahim replied, in The Forward, saying he supported my right and the right of every Egyptian to take part in politics; he even said it was wrong of the supreme guide to say I was “naked.”
I asked Abdel-Monem Mahmoud Ibrahim, another member of the “new generation” mentored by Hamza, why he blogged. On the homepage of his blog, “I am a Muslim Brother,” are banners calling for Hamza’s freedom and for the release of Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who was jailed on Dec. 3.
“I support everyone’s right to express themselves,” he wrote to me. “I blog so that people can get to know me: a young Muslim Brother. I’ve been interrogated by State Security tens of times and have been jailed a total of a year over the past four years and I was tortured by State Security for 13 days in 2003.
“But no one writes about the human behind the Muslim Brother, how he lives, how he spends his time in prison, about his dreams, his hobbies,” Abdel-Monem said. “I blog so that I can show my true self.”
Hamza and I will likely never agree on our visions for Egypt’s future. But I know that if he were a free man today he would publish everything I just wrote.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.
Copyright ©2008 Mona Eltahawy