A leftist lawmaker dropped a bombshell earlier this week in the Islamist-dominated Parliament by filing a request to question the government over the “illegal” status of the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s primary civilian political player in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt.
Sanaa al-Said, a legislator representing the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, argues in her interpellation request that that the country’s oldest Islamist organization is operating without legal status.
"Why is there a laxity in enforcing the law on the Muslim Brotherhood?" asks Said, referring to the non-governmental organizations law, which requires any group of more than 10 people to obtain a license from the government and have activities and finances regularly monitored.
“[The Muslim Brotherhood] has to be legalized and subject to scrutiny,” the Assiut-based lawmaker told Egypt Independent in a phone interview. “Nobody should be above the law.”
Said finds it “impermissible” for such an influential group whose political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, already holds more than 40 percent of the parliamentary seats and is expected to have a significant influence on the next cabinet, to remain outside the law.
In 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood society in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia. The organization enjoyed an official status under the legal provisions of the monarchial era until the government dissolved it in 1948, for the involvement of its members in violent acts. The organization appealed the decision in the same year, but the court did not rule in its favor until 1951.
In 1954, the Free Officers’ regime ordered the dissolution of the organization for the second time as the last stint of their plan to silence all political parties and groups. Throughout President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s tenure, the Brothers were constantly harassed, jailed and tortured. When Anwar Sadat came to power in 1971, he released and empowered them, hoping they would counterbalance his socialist foes. Yet he never granted the group official legal status. Mubarak inherited his predecessor’s schizophrenic attitude toward the group. He allowed them to run for student unions, syndicate boards and Parliament, while his state-run media dubbed them “the outlawed organization.” Under the now-deposed president, group members were subject to sporadic waves of arrests and the freezing of their assets on grounds of belonging to an “illegal organization” and “plotting to topple the regime.”
Under this paradoxical setting, the Brothers held all information about the group’s internal politics, its size and financial resources secret for fear that disclosure might facilitate any potential attempt at a major crackdown.
With her interpellation, Said is hitting a sensitive nerve with the group’s leaders, who are still reluctant to legalize their status.
When Mubarak stepped down last year, many observers argued that the nation's largest socio-political group should relinquish its underground mode of operation, apply for legal status as a civil society organization and ultimately emerge as a transparent association. The Brothers declined to heed such calls and were content to seek official approval only for their political wing, the FJP.
Mahmoud Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general, dismisses Said's motion “as an attempt to distort the image of the Muslim Brotherhood and to make it look as if it were an outlawed organization.”
He added that the group had assigned a commission to investigate its legal status in the wake of the revolution.
“The commission said that we have had a legal status since 1928,” Hussein told Egypt Independent in a phone interview. He claimed that Nasser had only given verbal orders to dissolve the group and never issued an official communiqué.
But even if the group had official status before the 1952 coup, it is still required to register under the current regulations, argued Sameh al-Barqy, a former Muslim Brotherhood member.
Barqy said that senior members refrain from pursuing official status and hence being forced to publicize organizational details because they fear that such transparency could facilitate their eradication in the event that post-Mubarak political freedoms are reversed.
"They have been attacked and their assets were confiscated many times in the past. It is true that there is freedom now, but who knows what may happen in the future," said Barqy, who was dismissed from the group in September for refusing to join the FJP and co-founding al-Tayyar al-Masry Party along with other young brothers.
Parliamentary elections suggest that the Brothers are the legitimate representatives of the largest segment of Egyptian voters, but the group is not expected to govern independently from the well-established intelligence and military elite. These bodies have long shown hostility to Islamists, but, since the revolution a détente has emerged. Still, Brotherhood leaders sometimes express fears that the organization could be targeted if it antagonizes these institutions.
“But fear does not justify the act of violating the law,” said 37-year-old Barqy, who disagrees with the group’s reluctance to legalize its status.
He insists that the group should be more transparent and that the government should monitor its activities as it does for other civil society organizations.
"There is no respectable state that could allow a gigantic organization with money and people to operate illegally and with no oversight from the society," he contended.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s exact size remains unknown. In 2009, a group leader claimed that the organization had 10 million members, a figure that some observers said was exaggerated.
A year earlier, a well-established expert on Islamist groups wrote that the group has between 50,000 and 60,000 registered members, with an additional 400,000 to 500,000 sympathizers and supporters.Barqy, who was a brother for almost 18 years, does not know the exact figure, but estimates the group has nearly 1 million members, each of whom is expected to pay 8 percent of his monthly income in membership fees.
Barqy recounted that he had once tried to calculate the organization's annual revenues, assuming an average annual member income of LE12,000. He concluded that the group collects annually almost LE1 billion, saying that although his math is not necessarily accurate, it is “indicative” of the group’s finances.
"Such a sum of money is being circulated in the country annually. It comes from legitimate sources and it is being spent on legitimate activities, but the state has the right to monitor it," said Barqy.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a deeply-rooted organization in the Egyptian society. Since its inception in the 1920s, it has performed a plethora of social, religious and political activities.
"The group's structure and its mode of operation make it closer to the NGO model," argued Barqy. But the Brotherhood leadership does not agree with this line of thinking. According to Sobhi Saleh, an FJP lawmaker, the group is more than an NGO.
"We are more of a comprehensive Islamic paradigm that covers many fields. Each field is regulated by a different law. We cannot register all of the group's activities with one [government] body," Saleh said.
"Our charities are registered with the Ministry [of Social Solidarity]. Our political activities are performed through the party and anyone who performs a commercial activity has his own commercial registry," added Saleh, one of the group’s prominent lawyers.
Hussein, the secretary general, opposed the idea that his organization should apply for legal status as an NGO.
“The NGO law gives the social solidarity minister the right to dissolve any NGO, hence the Muslim Brotherhood cannot operate in light of this law,” he said. “When laws are amended and purified form all traits of despotism, we can think about registering the organization [as an NGO].”
Said’s legal challenge comes amid a recent crackdown on foreign-funded organizations. Earlier this month, prosecutors referred 43 NGO employees to criminal court on grounds of running unlicensed civil society organizations, receiving foreign funds and conducting illegal activities.
“If [the government] decides to enforce the NGO law strictly, all the members of the Guidance Bureau [the Brotherhood’s highest governing body] shall be interrogated. But law enforcement is selective in Egypt,” argued Adel Ramadan, a human rights lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, stressing that the group has been operating for decades without official approval.
But from a human rights perspective, the Islamist organization and any other group should have the right to form their own associations freely and without state intervention, argued Ramadan, whose organization is spearheading a campaign to amend NGO regulations inherited from Mubarak’s times. Under international conventions, a government does not have the right to monitor NGO finances as long as an organization is privately funded, added Ramadan.
“I have no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood staying as it is now. But if we allow a group with a particular objective to exist and operate without being registered or monitored by the government, we should give that right to all other segments in society.”
Ramadan hopes the Muslim Brotherhood will deploy its parliamentary weight to lift oppressive restrictions on NGOs and then legalize their own status under the new law.