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Squeezing Islam's moderates.

MOHAMMED AL MAAMOUN al Hodaiby slumped down into his chair. It was a surprising expression of relaxation, rather than of resignation, by the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman. Al Hodaiby had just described to The Middle East in near apocalyptic terms the consequences of recent government measures against the Islamist movement in Egypt. Yet his demeanour suggested anything but alarm.

"We are very concerned that our supporters may go over to the other side," Al Hodaiby exclaimed. This is not an oblique reference to the government. Rather, he is airing the possibility of an Islamist defection to the militant movements.

"If our supporters believe that we are not progressing in our causes, if they become frustrated with these setbacks, some may become radicalised," Al Hodaiby warns. Government actions, he says, may inadvertently contribute to a swelling of the militants' ranks.

Although technically banned, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to represent the largest opposition movement - legal or illegal - in Egyptian society. The Brotherhood controls a handful of key professional syndicates, and now dominates the once-moribund Socialist Labour party, today Egypt's largest parliamentary opposition party. Critics also point to a Brotherhood influence in the state-run media and educational system, and a gradual takeover of some non-governmental organisations. And the state, as well as many of Egypt's intellectuals, have reacted with varying gradations of alarm.

Yet concern is now raised that government moves against the Brotherhood will cause a dissipation of the middle ground. The disparity in wealth, corruption and casualties inflicted on innocents in the state's crackdown on terrorism remain largely unaddressed. Whether the discontents are drafted into the militants' camp or not, some say, depends very much on the existence of a moderate alternative.

"The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to peaceful, legal channels, but there is no telling what the younger generations will do," says Fahmy Huweidi, a prominent columnist and advocate of a legalised Muslim Brotherhood. Recent government measures, Huweidi argues, will create new pressures on the younger generation to take radical action against social ills.

It is not, of course, an argument all will concede. Some observers of Islamic fundamentalism counter that this is only a scare tactic. The Muslim Brotherhood, they say, has long used the same contention as part of its drive for legalisation.

The Brotherhood argument is indeed an old one. High ranking Muslim Brothers will readily explain how their presence in Assiut has diluted the militant movement there, and go on to say that its existence acts as the proper, guided channel for Muslim activists. Marginalising the Brotherhood, they imply, will mean an Islamist defection to the militants and an escalation of the violence.

"This is only a Muslim Brother tactic," answers Saadeddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo. "They have always said their presence cuts into the militants' numbers. But in truth, they have only been cutting into the moderates numbers."

But not all are quite so dismissive of their threats. "When the Brotherhood raises this threat, it is very much a propagandist ploy," agrees Muhammed Sid Ahmed, a senior Al Ahram political columnist. "But that doesn't mean it isn't true." And the threat, he later adds, could be a very legitimate one.

The split in opinion illustrates the difficulty of monitoring just what is happening in the Islamist circles. The numbers of any particular movement are guarded secrets, and true intentions are always suspect. The Brotherhood's renouncement of violence, and its recent condemnation of terrorism, have earned it some grudging applause, but some sections of Egypt's press continue to demand more concessions.

Brotherhood opposition to recent government measures will remain well within legal channels. Lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of February's syndicates law. The Brotherhood and other Islamists have meanwhile started to mobilise supporters to face upcoming elections in the syndicates.

But lawsuits can be thrown out of court. Syndicate elections can too easily go against the Brotherhood. The state-run media, some hope, is at last becoming more liberal, and small steps are being taken to combat fundamentalism in Egypt's school system.

Such setbacks leave the Muslim Brotherhood with little room for manoeuvre. Al Hodaiby insists that there is no dialogue between the Brotherhood and the government (although many observers believe some kind of contact is at least maintained between the state and Brotherhood supporters). Threats - real or exaggerated - of the radicalisation of Egypt's Islamists are, then, one of the few tactics left to the Brotherhood.
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Title Annotation:Egypt's moderate Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:739
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