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In its first meeting since 1995, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council on Saturday announced the leaders of its would-be political party and pledged not to run for more than half the parliamentary seats in Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s legislative body appointed Mohamed Morsy as president of the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam al-Erian as vice president and Saad al-Katatny as secretary general.
Speaking to reporters in the backyard of the group’s new six-story headquarters on the hill of Moqattam, the appointees affirmed the independence of their political party from the mother organization - a plea constantly reiterated by observers and the group’s reformist voices.
To prove the party’s autonomy, the Shura Council required the three leaders to relinquish their positions in the Guidance Bureau, the Muslim Brotherhood’s executive structure, according to a statement given out to journalists.
The same document uses a vague language to envisage possible “coordination” between the party and the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that achieves “national interests.”
“Any party that ignores the coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood, given its historical role and geographical expansion, threatens its own chances,” Erian told reporters at a news conference after the Shura Council had adjourned its two-day meeting.
“All parties coordinate with the Muslim Brotherhood, so how could the Freedom and Justice Party not do so?” he asked.
Yet such arguments fall short of convincing some of the group’s young people who have recently become vocal in demanding a complete divorce between the group’s proselytizing entities and its new political party. Claiming that the party is autonomous is “a paradox," said Mohamed al-Qassas, a 35-year-old Muslim Brotherhood youth leader.
“How could the party be independent if the Shura Council had already selected its leaders and decided on its platform and bylaws?” Qassas asked rhetorically.
Entrusting Morsy, a former parliamentarian known for his rigid outlook, is another disappointment to some of the group’s youths.
“Dr. Morsy is known for his administrative and organizational abilities, but he has no political skills,” Mohamed Affan, a 30-year-old brother, told Al-Masry Al-Youm in a phone interview.
Last month, Qassas and Affan were among hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood youths who convened in public - against Morsy's will - to discuss prospects for democratizing the group, ensuring better representation of women and youths within the highest power structures and developing a sophisticated political outlook.
The Shura Council’s decisions were enough to discourage both young brothers from joining the party.
“I am still in the group but I am opposed to its political activities. I want to join a professional political party that offers a distinguished political platform,” said Affan, an assistant professor at Ain Shams University’s Medical School.
He contended that the Freedom and Justice Party platform remains steeped in political ideology and fails to offer practical solutions to the nation’s most urgent problems. Yet remaining a brother and joining a different political party would be unacceptable.
“As said before, the group decided that none of its members can join a party other than the group’s party,” Mahmoud Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary-general said.
Shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would form a political party. Since then, political salons have swarmed with questions over the political outlook of the party and its relationship with the 83-year-old organization, which holds under its fold missionary, social and educational as well as political entities.
The brothers’ assurances that the party will be open to non-Muslims and non-Islamists failed to diffuse the fears of secularists and Copts who remain weary that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to establish a religious state that would contradict liberal democracy and jeopardize individual freedom.
Earlier this month, such concerns intensified after a hawkish Muslim Brotherhood leader implied the possibility of enforcing Islamic capital punishment in the future.
But Morsy affirmed that his party does not envision a theocracy and conforms to a recently-passed legislation that bans religious parties.
“The party will be civil in all senses with an Islamic frame of reference. The Islamic frame of reference does not contradict the law nor the constitution,” said Morsy.
Earlier Muslim Brotherhood leaders had argued that using Islam as a vantage point for politics does not contradict Egypt’s constitution, which stipulates that the Islamic sharia is the primary source of legislation.
The group had also decided to compete for a maximum of 50 percent of the parliamentary contested seats in September poll. This decision contradicts earlier statements made by several group leaders affirming that the organization would not contest more than 30 percent of the People’s Assembly seats.
To explain the discrepancy, Katatny said: “All statements made earlier were just personal speculations. Only the Shura Council has the right to decide on the matter.”
Nevertheless, such arguments might not necessarily protect the group’s credibility.
“This will threaten the group’s credibility,” said Qassas. “The Shura council should explain why it has raised the number. The matter should be clearly justified to the media, the brothers and group’s youths.”
Yet the group maintained its word on refraining from fielding a presidential candidate.
“We believe the atmosphere is not convenient for that and the mission of the new president is going to be difficult,” Hussein told reporters.
In the meantime, the group affirmed that it would not support any brother who decides to compete for the state’s highest executive office, in reference to prominent reformist Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, who had previously announced he might run for president. This announcement had exacerbated tension between the 60-year-old doctor and the group’s leadership.
Since last year, Abouel Fotouh had been sidelined by hardliners for his relatively liberal views on democracy, women and minorities. In recent weeks, Abouel Fotouh has voiced ruthless criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, contending that the organization should remain aloof from partisan politics.
Although he is officially a Shura Council member, Abouel Fotouh did not attend this historic meeting - an absence that indicates further tensions.
This is the first time the 109-member Shura Council has convened since 1995, when former President Hosni Mubarak’s police had raided its meeting, arresting scores of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and referring them to military tribunals.
The 83-year-old organization has been officially banned since the late 1940s. Under Mubarak, the organization remained outlawed but its engagement in parliamentary, student union and syndicate elections was tolerated.
In the meantime, the brothers had to live with systematic waves of arrests and resilient smear campaigns in state-owned media. The group claims that tens of thousands of its members were jailed under Mubarak, usually on grounds of plotting to topple the regime.