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Egypt: Islam by profession.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic fundamentalists are not legally permitted to organise politically in Egypt. But they have other means of making their influence felt through officially recognised institutions, Scott Mattoon reports from Cairo. They have effectively taken over the opposition Socialist Labour party, which is authorised by the regime. But far more significant is their penetration of professional syndicates, the latest of which to fall under their influence is the lawyers' association.

ON AN ELECTORAL field littered with popular apathy, factional intrigue and party ineptness, political Islam has proven itself the preeminent opposition movement in Egypt. Constitutionally banned from forming a party based on religious ideology, excluded from political life by a regime uninterested in dialogue, Egyptian fundamentalists have nevertheless won control of the Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate, Egypt's oldest and most powerful professional syndicate.

Results at the Bar Association's 11 September elections were by far a greater blow to Egypt's opposition parties than to the government. "This is a big defeat for the liberals, nationalists and leftists among Egypt's intelligentsia," says Mustafa Kamil al Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "The elections show the relative strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and the relative weakness of the opposition groups, which is mirrored in the country as a whole."

In firm control of the once moribund Socialist Labour party, Islamists possess what is now Egypt's largest opposition formation. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, banned since Nasser's days but officially tolerated, has successfully competed in union politics, the only political arena open to it. And after this most recent acquisition, it now holds what has been the major platform of dissent and opposition in Egyptian society for the last eight decades.

The toppling of the Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate to a coalition of 15 Muslim Brotherhood and independent Islamists (joined by two more independent candidates declaring alignment the day results were announced) was as stunning as it was unexpected. Lawyers polled on the eve and day of the elections agreed that the Islamists would win at least a few seats on the 24-seat Executive Committee, yet none - save the coalition members themselves - predicted total victory.

"We have an 80% chance of winning a majority," Khalid Badawy, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, told The Middle East the day before the elections. But, he continued, there was a 20% chance the elections would be stolen.

The elections were, in fact, honest and fair. Judicial observers guaranteed voting and ballot counting would be free of interference and tampering. But results many had taken for granted evaporated at the polls, a casualty to the politicisation of the syndicate and unravelling of traditional alignments and affiliations.

Recent years had plunged the membership into divisive infighting. Factions split and a series of lawsuits ensued, leaving the membership embittered and the syndicate ripe for takeover by any motivated and united front. Election results, giving more evidence of apathy and protest votes than active support for the Islamists, provided evidence of an electorate clearly exhausted with the discredited parties.

Less than 10% of the syndicate's 140,000 members participated in the elections. Only about 50,000 had paid their annual dues to allow them the right to vote, of whom some 12,000 cast ballots. One-third of the ballots were uncompleted, however, a deliberate self-disqualification from the final count.

Although Ahmed al Khawaga, an accomplished veteran in the syndicate's politics, returned as president of the Lawyers' Syndicate, only two of the list of 24 candidates he endorsed won seats on the Executive Committee. About half the vote, dispersed amongst a total field of 124 candidates, was captured by the Islamist ticket.

Al Shaab, published by the Socialist Labour party, denied any protest vote, arguing that 10% is the usual turnout for syndicate elections. However, credible sources report that up to 3,000 lawyers paid their syndicate dues shortly before the elections, recipients, it is believed, of Islamist monies. If true, it would suggest two things: that again, the Islamists were the only organised group contesting the elections; and that the electorate would have otherwise been about 25% smaller than usual, demonstrating even greater discontent with the established parties.

The Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate is the most recent major professional organisation to fall under the fundamentalist sway. The physicians, pharmacists and engineers syndicates had long ago been conquered by Islamists, and many of Egypt's university professors clubs have also fallen to their influence. Many interpreted this newest development as a fundamentalist lock on the intermediary institutions representing some of Egypt's best educated professionals. Some predicted absolute disaster.

In a derisive front page editorial published the day after the elections, the pro-government Akhbar al Yom drew parallels with Iran, Algeria, the Sudan and Tunisia, and urged the "party of the majority," a clear reference to the governing National Democratic Party (NDP), to take efforts to forestall a similar disaster in the 3 November local government elections.

It is difficult to distinguish between hysteria and cynicism. Unlike its predecessors, which adopted confrontationist policies towards the syndicates, the Mubarak regime has allowed the syndicates a good measure of autonomy and freedom. It was not unusual, then, for the government to remain uninvolved in the Lawyers' Syndicate's elections. But few could seriously imagine it would surrender the extraordinary privileges and advantages it already holds in the general or local elections. "We already know what the results of the November elections are," one political commentator said as early as mid-September.

If a replay of Algeria is recognised as impossible in the near future, then critics of the Islamists have been generous in describing a host of alternative scenarios. The spectre of Islamic law has been given particular attention. Others have warned of an alliance between the Islamist-controlled syndicates, and a domino-like tumbling of the smaller unions and syndicates.

Calmer voices have cautioned against exaggerating the importance of any such syndicate alliance. Egypt's unions and syndicates have neither the right to strike nor hold rallies. They hold no political power, and their legislative roles are restricted to making suggestions to the People's Assembly. Clearly, some question the significance the foreign and Egyptian press have accorded the Islamist takeover of the Bar Association.

"It is important to distinguish between 'religiosity' and 'fundamentalism'," says Kamal Abu al Magd, a distinguished attorney and former minister of information. Fundamentalism has a pejorative meaning, suggesting intolerance, coercion and violence. What this election represents, al Magd told The Middle East, is only the most recent manifestation of a move towards cultural traditionalism and religiosity by the Egyptian people. Reactionists' descriptions of calamity, says al Magd, "are symptoms of phobia and hysteria."

But "catastrophic" is how Said al Ashmawy, chief justice of Egypt's Supreme State Security Court and a prominent writer on political Islam, still interprets the Islamist takeover of the Lawyers' Syndicate. "They are lawyers, and they deal with judges and courts," he explains. "They know the laws. And law is the language of social communication."

With an Islamist-dominated Executive Committee, al Ashmawy argues, Sharia will be pushed as Egypt's sole source of law (it is now only one of its sources), courtroom attorneys will demand a more conservative interpretation of Egyptian law and challenge the right of Christian judges to make rulings over Muslims.

Control of the syndicate's treasury will allow them to recruit poorer attorneys with favours and jobs, al Ashmawy claims, creating a vanguard of Islamist attorneys to storm the courtrooms. Others, once they see the prevailing trend, will join the Islamists willingly. And judges nearing the mandatory retirement age of 60 will be more sympathetic to Islamist legal demands, in the hope of securing employment after leaving the bench. "If they affect the legal and magistrate system, that will be the end."

The Islamists have since claimed the two most important positions on the Executive Committee, those of secretary-general and treasurer. Members of the coalition have also confirmed that the legalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood is an immediate objective. Islamic law is an eventual goal, cooperation with the other Islamist controlled syndicates is envisioned, and control of the remaining unions and syndicates an implied future ambition.

But predictions of an aggressive push towards the Islamicisation of society, at least in the immediate future, are far too dramatic. The governing coalition, still new in the seat of power and quite aware that it won the elections through only a minority vote, would have little to gain by antagonising its membership and confronting the syndicate's still influential president, Ahmed al Khawaga.

Services and other issues sure to win popular backing are stated priorities with the Islamists. Mukhtar Nouh, a leading member of the coalition and the newly elected treasurer, told The Middle East that an immediate objective will be funding a new hospital for the syndicate's membership.

Human rights, legalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood and greater respect for lawyers in both court rooms and police stations are all concerns the new Executive Committee says it will pursue. More emotional issues, such as the situation of Muslims around the world, will also be raised. Islamist controlled syndicates have sponsored rallies in support of the Muslims in Bosnia-Hercegovina, for example, and the Lawyer's Syndicate can be expected to do the same.

Cynics say giving prominence to such secondary issues will serve Islamist interests. "It will obscure public debate in the country," says al Sayyid. By focussing on emotional issues, al Sayyid and others believe, the Islamists will detract attention away from their own limited platform concerning Egypt's more crucial problems.

But short-term gains for the Islamists will be hard won. Even the withdrawal of one of Egypt's leading opposition parties, the left-wing Tagammu, from the November elections did not represent any major change in the status quo. While the Tagammu boycott may have helped the Islamists capture more local councils, it did nothing to impede the NDP's landslide victory.

It is also very unlikely the Muslim Brotherhood will be legalised at any time soon. More probably, the regime will slow its steps towards democratisation. The Algerian scenario has become more vivid for the government and it is unlikely that it would introduce new legislation which could improve the opposition's chances of victory in Egypt's elections.

Any faltering in the move towards democratisation would be poorly received by Egypt's opposition, critics and intellectuals. Less unanimity is voiced on a continued ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. Kamal Abu al Magd argues the Muslim Brotherhood is made up of moderates, and its legalisation could help curb extremism. Others see lifting the ban as but one more concession made to a movement - in the words of one opponent - "tightening its grip on the regime."

As long as the ban remains in place, however, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will continue to concentrate on Egypt's secondary institutions, particularly the syndicates and unions, and run in the elections under another party's name. "The Islamists," says Fahmy Huweidi, an Al Ahram columnist, "are sending a message: We are a political and social fad. You are ignoring us, and you shouldn't be."
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Mattoon, Scott
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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