Since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s departure in February, the Muslim Brothers in Egypt quickly formed their own political party, pledging not to dominate the parliament or submit a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. Many may see this declaration of restraint as a positive sign: The Muslim Brothers now embrace democracy and pluralism in a nation that has suffered under authoritarianism for over 40 years.
But if you look closer, this analysis paints too rosy a picture. The Muslim Brothers may have become more tolerant of different beliefs in their official statements, but their actions since Mubarak’s fall still maintain a conscious and deliberate ambivalence toward freedom of opinion.
On July 29th, tens of thousands of Egyptians once again poured into Tahrir Square to protest the slow pace of reform from the military government. Billed as a “Friday of Unity and the People’s Will,” the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists took over protests, silencing secularists, monopolizing demands, and prompting complaints of bigotry and discrimination.
The Brotherhood’s new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, now permits membership to both Christians and females. Indeed, earlier this month all Guidance Bureau members unanimously approved a Coptic member, Rafiq Habib. Nevertheless the Muslim Brothers have yet to explicitly explain how religious minorities will meaningfully contribute in the party or, more broadly, in Egypt’s new government. Nor do they explain how these minorities will be protected if the country is to adopt sharia law, as planned.
Coptic Christians (who represent 10% of the population), minority sects, and even secularists should regard the Brotherhood's continued ambiguity over religious freedom with unease. Until the organization guarantees full protection for minorities in a binding governmental document, we cannot trust its claims of democratic pluralism.
Hesitation clearly exists in Brotherhood ranks to permit a diversity of opinion. With their voluntary restraint in upcoming elections, the Muslim Brothers cannot ever have full reign over legislation. They do not have come clean about civil rights stances if they do not have to fully implement their plans. Their pledge not to dominate should not be seen as a noble act of good faith, but one that shows the political apprehension of the modern Muslim Brothers in a time of profound transition.
It is a step in the right direction, then, that a Gallup survey released in June indicates that Egyptians are relatively cautious about allowing religious leaders to take top roles in the new government. Only 14% wanted religious leaders to be granted full authority while 67% wanted a provision for freedom of religion. For democracy to fully take hold in the region, Egypt cannot allow its citizens to fear discrimination from their own government.
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