The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament
Sitting on a comfortable fake leather couch in the lobby of Cairo’s four-star Ma‘adi Hotel on a spring evening, we watch tourists mill around. Asian, European and Sudanese businessmen and holidaymakers casually eat a buffet dinner or browse in the souvenir shop selling knockoff pharaonic trinkets. The hotel staff is neatly dressed in cheap, white button-down shirts and black trousers. The manager is cordial and chain-smoking. Bored-looking tourist police sit beside the metal detector at the entrance. Security here is nonchalant, unlike at the Ma‘adi’s five-star counterparts in this city of 20 million.
Around 9 pm a group of men -- most of them clean-shaven -- check in at reception. They enter in groups of twos and fours, each carrying the same light brown briefcase. They collect their room keys and head for the elevator. Some return to the lobby for tea and conversation; others have turned in for the night. This is the end of a day’s work for members of Egypt’s most active parliamentary bloc -- the 88 deputies associated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
We ask the manager if our interviewee has arrived. He barely looks up from his list while asking, “Which governorate?” He has not. The spokesman for the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Hamdi Hasan from Alexandria, greets us warmly. Our interviewee is “on his way. The session lasted longer than expected.” A little while later, Akram al-Sha‘ar arrives, apologizing for being late. The November-December 2005 parliamentary elections have catapulted the Brotherhood into its most visible -- and most scrutinized -- position ever.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an officially banned Islamist organization that long ago settled on a strategy of political participation. Brotherhood-affiliated candidates have run as independents in local and parliamentary elections since 1984, with increasing success, despite various state stratagems for keeping them out of Parliament. In 2005, tactics of voter intimidation and ballot stuffing failed to stop the Brotherhood affiliates from winning a historic 88 seats in the legislature.
At dinner parties around the capital, members of the secular elite speculate that the Brotherhood’s electoral gains will embolden the organization to impose an intolerant interpretation of Islam upon Egypt, repressing women and the country’s Coptic Christian minority. The conclusion for many of these elites: tacit support for a regime for which they otherwise have little affection. A sense of security returns to the table when, nearly unanimously, the dinner companions agree that since the Muslim Brothers are only 88 out of 454 members of a body still dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), they cannot pass legislation.
The state was also unnerved by the Brotherhood’s success at the polls, and it was not long before Egyptian security forces resumed arbitrary arrests of Brotherhood members, partly in an attempt to keep the new deputies in line. The government has not released a figure, but the Brotherhood’s deputy guide, Muhammad Habib, claims over 700 detainees since the crackdown began in March 2006. Yet, even as the crackdown on its Brothers outside the legislature proceeds, the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc is being noticed in Egypt for its work across ideological lines to serve constituents and increase its collective knowledge of local, national and international affairs. Moreover, the delegation has not pursued an agenda focused on banning books and legislating the length of skirts. It has pursued an agenda of political reform. In addition, the bloc’s political practice -- its proactive study of political issues and use of parliamentary procedure to hold the government’s feet to the fire -- has the potential to strengthen permanently the institution of Parliament vis-à-vis the executive led by President Husni Mubarak. Whether this will happen remains up to the executive. The experiences of the Brothers’ parliamentary bloc are certainly contributing to the group’s internal development, however. The Brotherhood’s electoral victory has transformed the group into, among other things, the nation’s only real political party.
Banding the Brothers
The 88 Brothers hailing from 21 of Egypt’s 26 governorates became approximately 20 percent of Parliament as a result of meticulous preparation. Yet the mood was not festive at the Intercontinental Hotel in Heliopolis four days after the elections’ final round, when Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akif introduced the new bloc to the press corps. In many ways, the large contingent was a fresh organizational challenge for the Brotherhood. Many of the new MPs were complete strangers to each other until they met under the parliamentary rotunda. Complicating matters, Brotherhood MPs make a point of living in their districts to continue working in their jobs, provide social services and maintain their constituents’ trust.
The Brotherhood’s small parliamentary office in Cairo’s al-Manyal neighborhood no longer affords enough space for the deputies to meet collectively, given the fivefold increase in their numbers. So all of the Brotherhood MPs stay in the Ma‘adi Hotel when Parliament is in session. “When Parliament meets, we forget our houses,” says ‘Ali Fath al-Bab, the only one of the deputies elected three times. “We take our suitcases -- even those who live in Cairo -- and stay in the hotel.”  The MPs room and eat together, and discuss the following day’s agenda in the hotel’s conference halls. They also chat informally and attend plenary lectures by speakers from outside the Brotherhood on topics related to those they are tackling in the People’s Assembly.
Yet the Ma‘adi Hotel also performs a more basic function: giving the MPs a place to stay so they can attend parliamentary sessions regularly. Fath al-Bab notes the difference from the 1995–2000 term, his first, when he was the only Brotherhood MP. Nominally, half of the MPs, or 228, must be present to constitute a quorum. Should the number fall below 228, however, the session is still considered lawful, as only a simple majority of those present are needed to pass legislation. Recalling his first term, Fath al-Bab explains, “By the end of the night, there might be 30 NDP MPs left and they would still be passing legislation.” But the Brothers’ regular attendance is changing that: “The NDP now has to have 100 people in Parliament at all times to maintain their majority.” Other Brotherhood MPs say the size of the Brotherhood’s bloc changes the dynamics of the legislature in other ways as well. As Husayn Muhammad Ibrahim, vice chairman of the bloc and a twice-elected MP, notes, “Our presence has had an effect. The NDP MPs are forced to be more critical toward the government and better prepared. It has changed how they act, but not how they vote.” The quasi-official daily al-Ahram concurs that the “Islamic trend” is playing a “noticeable and distinguished role that cannot be denied” in legislative sessions.  Because of the Brothers, these sessions are more serious than previously in Mubarak’s tenure.
While the Brotherhood MPs cannot pass or block legislation by themselves, the delegation’s attitude of taking Parliament seriously speaks to a wider Brotherhood goal. Brotherhood MPs work under the guiding principle that Parliament must be the engine of political reform in Egypt. As Ibrahim states, “We believe that parliamentary reform is the only way for complete reform to happen…. We want people to see Parliament as a place where steps can happen…. Before, the MPs were asleep.” Agrees Hazim Farouq Mansour, a newly elected Brotherhood parliamentarian from Cairo’s Shubra neighborhood, “We want to reform the country from top to bottom by working within the existing institutions -- be they Parliament, laws, civil society or the constitution. We are updating what’s already there…to empower the people, not by trying to bring in foreign investment. Bringing about reform requires freedom, freedom, freedom.”
Egypt’s parliament has a reputation for being a rubber stamp for the regime. This remains the case. Yet the Brotherhood MPs are showing that flawed political institutions can be revived when not simply dismissed.
In the Kitchen
According to several Brotherhood MPs, being a parliamentarian is not all it is cracked up to be. As Ibrahim gripes, “Egyptian MPs are masakin (downtrodden). There is not enough time for our legislative duties, our role as government’s watchdog and the demands for constituent services.” In order to permit Brotherhood MPs to fill their multiple roles, especially those of legislating and keeping the government accountable, the group created an organ that is part research arm and part think tank.
This “parliamentary kitchen,” as the Brothers call it, is divided into specialized teams that gather information about issues the MPs deal with in the Assembly. “In Parliament, you have access to a library and a central information office,” explains Ibrahim. “Neither is useful. A kitchen is a necessity and all the blocs need one. The kitchen consists of people with knowledge and experience…. Its job is to use civil society and consult experts to organize information we use in Parliament.” The parliamentary kitchen has been around since 2000, when 17 Muslim Brothers were elected to the People’s Assembly. But as the size of the bloc has increased, the kitchen has been forced to expand the scope of its activities. The result is that Brotherhood MPs are better prepared and informed about the issues. As Mansour argues, “The parliamentary kitchen gives us better tools to do our jobs.”
The parliamentary kitchen also has a second, and in many ways more important, function. Whether researching public health, judicial matters or environmental problems, the kitchen reaches out to society at large when gathering information. “We think that anyone who has knowledge is approachable,” Fath al-Bab states. “We don’t just rely on Brotherhood sources.” The kitchen is responsible for organizing the MPs’ seminar series, which has featured non-Brotherhood speakers such as Diaa Rashwan of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, NDP Higher Policy Council member Hala Mustafa and the chairman of Cairo University’s Political Science Department, Hasan Nafa‘a. While this outreach benefits Brotherhood MPs first and foremost, it also encourages civil society activists, who the regime and ruling party ignore at best and smother at worst, simply by providing an attentive audience.
The organizational focus served up by the kitchen is sharpened by the bloc’s internal organization. Brotherhood MPs serve on two or three of the bloc’s 19 committees, which cover a range of issues such as education, health, economics and the environment. The range of the MPs’ professional expertise -- the Brotherhood has historically drawn many of its members from the professions -- gives the bloc in-house specialists to rely upon when Parliament takes up technical issues. Brotherhood MPs include, among others, doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers, scientists, academics and legal experts. According to Ibrahim, “As 88, we have specialists from all fields and we are better able to support one another and facilitate cooperation. In the 2000–2005 parliament, the Brothers had no lawyers or legal specialists.”
The increased numerical strength of the Brothers in Parliament was unmistakably felt when the government published its annual Government Statement on budgetary and policy priorities in February. Fath al-Bab describes the process: “MPs only get five minutes each to respond to the Statement. This is a document that includes [among other matters] economic, agricultural, social, foreign, domestic and youth affairs. So we decided to write and publish a response. Our response was 300 pages.” While the Statement passed in Parliament with the NDP’s safe majority, for the first time a few NDP MPs voted against it, revealing the influence of the Brothers’ bloc.
The Brotherhood parliamentary bloc’s discipline in attending sessions and researching topics under discussion is bolstering the institution of Parliament. The change is not necessarily permanent or irreversible. Yet the Brotherhood’s example does emphasize that Egypt’s political underdevelopment is overwhelmingly the regime’s fault. If elected MPs were allowed to act freely in doing the nation’s work, the weak legislative institution could counterbalance the executive, mitigating its authoritarian character.
Not in Lockstep
Many governments, journalists and academics view the Brotherhood with an unfounded amount of suspicion. The front page of the independent weekly al-Fajr on November 21, 2005 -- in the middle of the parliamentary elections -- depicted the group’s supreme guide dressed in a Nazi uniform. As the elections proceeded, observers repeated clichés implying the Brothers’ dubious commitment to democracy. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations argued: “They’ve clearly embraced the procedures of democracy, but it’s unclear that they have internalized the principles of democracy.”  ‘Adil Hammouda, editor-in-chief of al-Fajr, went much further, saying: “The next step after the Brothers reach Parliament is the cancellation of democracy.”  While a healthy dose of skepticism toward any political organization is prudent, commentary on the Brotherhood frequently leaps to unsubstantiated conclusions that paint the group as a monolith bent on oppression and rule by force in the future.
Hence, the argument about Brotherhood MPs is that they take orders from the group’s Cairo headquarters, as mere servants beholden to the whims of ‘Akif and the Guidance Council. The way the Brothers have acted in Parliament belies this image. Second-term MP Akram al-Sha‘ar, from Port Said, contends, “Our priorities and strategies are from the same model as the group’s. But the Brothers sent us as MPs, not toys…. We do not do everything they tell us, and we do not tell them everything we do.”
Subhi Salih, a freshman Alexandrian MP, says the primary point of contact between the Brotherhood headquarters and the MPs is the parliamentary department, headed by former MP and Guidance Council member Muhammad Mursi. Hence, while it is reasonable to think that the Guidance Council oversees Mursi’s parliamentary department, there is no evidence that MPs take orders and act accordingly. As Salih tells it, “We are all in agreement over our principles and strategy but there are rules that govern our disagreements. In Parliament, we disagree and vote differently among ourselves all the time.” Salih’s example is that Brotherhood MPs voted differently on consumer protection legislation during a session in May. While the Brotherhood bloc stuck together on major issues, opposing the extension of the emergency law, judicial authority law and press legislation, this example indicates that Brotherhood MPs do not necessarily march in lockstep.
Nor is the bloc dependent on one powerful personality. On May 18, security services beat and arrested Muhammad Mursi, who was protesting in solidarity with Mahmoud Makki and Hisham al-Bastawisi, two pro-reform judges who were dragged in front of a disciplinary hearing after they criticized election fraud. The bloc insisted that its activities were unaffected. Says deputy Muhammad al-Fadl, “The Brotherhood is an organization and an institution. There is no effect. If Muhammad goes to jail, then someone takes his place.”
For these reasons, the Brothers can be described as Egypt’s only operating political party. They have further impressed political analysts and observers in Egypt, many of whom expected the Brotherhood deputies simply to deliver bombastic speeches from the floor, with their professionalism and action on issues of substance.
When the first Egyptian cases of H5N1 virus, also known as bird flu, were reported in mid-February 2006, rumors akin to collective hysteria spread throughout the country. One rumor claimed that the nation’s drinking water was contaminated because dead and infected chickens had been thrown into the Nile. As the government could not convince the public otherwise, the $2.9 billion Egyptian poultry industry, which employs upward of 2.5 million Egyptians, faced devastation.
Health experts, the media and the opposition roundly criticized the Egyptian government for underestimating the threat of avian flu, being insufficiently prepared and mishandling the crisis.  The Brotherhood MPs, meanwhile, applied immediate pressure on the government to devote greater attention to avian flu in order to lessen the impact on the nation’s economy. Drawing on the group’s organizational resources, the Islamist parliamentarians spearheaded a nationwide campaign to inform Egyptians about bird flu, calming nerves and dispelling rumors about the disease. Days after the first Egyptian bird flu case was announced, dozens of Brotherhood MPs stood outside Parliament eating grilled chicken while photographers snapped pictures. 
On February 26, more than 500 angry poultry farmers and traders demonstrated in front of the state Radio and Television Building to protest their losses, as well as newspaper reports of government plans to import frozen chickens and continue culling local birds. Poultry farmers also demonstrated in front of Parliament. When Brotherhood MPs learned of the protest, a number of them left the morning’s session to meet with the farmers. The MPs listened to their concerns and arranged for them to present their complaints to the People’s Assembly. Afterward, according to MP Hamdi Hasan, a group of his peers invited the poultry farmers to the Assembly’s garden, where they lunched on chicken while discussing the crisis.
In addition to eating chicken and eggs and drinking tap water in front of the cameras to allay public fears, the MPs visited poultry-producing areas and met with representatives from the poultry industry in Daqhaliyya, Dumyat, Sharqiyya, Gharbiyya, Cairo, Minya, Port Said and other governorates. Brotherhood parliamentarians held press conferences and public meetings about the disease. The Brotherhood campaign, which drew on the services of public health experts, microbiologists, doctors, veterinarians and other specialists, presented medically supported facts about bird flu in addition to explaining how to cook chicken properly so as to avoid the disease. The group also distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets about bird flu throughout the country.
Despite all efforts, six people died and 13 others were infected with the virus by May 2006. Two months earlier, at the height of the crisis, al-Ahram Weekly reported that the poultry industry had lost $217 million and that a million people had lost their jobs. “Poultry exports have collapsed,” the paper reported, “and 35 percent of poultry farms have closed down as the industry faces losses of up to 10 million Egyptian pounds [$1.7 million] a day.” _7_
Inside the Chamber
Egyptians have lived under emergency law since 1981. The law grants the executive and security forces wide-ranging powers to limit freedom of assembly, dissent and political activity. Emergency rule also permits the detention of individuals without trial and the arbitrary closure of newspapers. Although the law was set to expire at the end of May 2006, several weeks before this date Mubarak hinted at the possibility of extending the law for an additional two years. Nine months earlier, during the country’s first multi-candidate presidential election, the president had promised voters that, if reelected, he would replace the despised law with anti-terrorism legislation.
Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians mobilized to preempt an attempt at renewal of the politically stifling legislation. Beginning in mid-April, Brotherhood MPs initiated a “network of parliamentarians” opposed to the emergency law and encouraged fellow legislators to join it. On April 19, the front page of the independent daily al-Misri al-Yawm reported on the newly formed network’s first meeting in the People’s Assembly. The group, “Representatives Against the Emergency Law,” totaled 113 members and consisted of all 88 Muslim Brotherhood MPs and three ruling party deputies, as well as other independent and opposition party parliamentarians. In addition to signing a petition against the renewal of the law, the group declared its intention to work with all trends in Egyptian society opposed to emergency rule. The network specifically mentioned the street protest movement Kifaya, as well as university professors. 
Brotherhood MPs vowed to publicize the names of parliamentarians who voted in favor of renewing the unpopular legislation. They also encouraged citizens to convey their views about the emergency law to their elected representatives -- a practice that had been unheard of in Egypt, where the primary function of an MP is thought to be helping constituents find jobs or secure services rather than representing their opinions. Despite the network’s efforts, it could not prevent extension of the law.
Egyptians had no idea on April 29 that the next morning Mubarak’s government would ask the People’s Assembly to extend emergency rule for an additional two years. But Brotherhood MPs learned from reporters that high-ranking NDP parliamentarians and government officials were secretly preparing this maneuver. “It was a surprise,” recalls MP Muhammad Saad al-Kitatni. “The agenda that came for that day was different, and had to do with farming and the Ministry of Agriculture.”
On April 30, nearly 100 parliamentarians -- not just Brotherhood MPs -- walked into the Assembly and donned black sashes that read “No to Emergency.” The prime minister and the interior minister, who rarely attend parliamentary sessions, were present in the chamber. The first order of business was the government’s request to renew the emergency law. Only seven opposition MPs were allowed to speak against the proposal—three of whom were from the Brotherhood. Twenty NDP parliamentarians, by contrast, spoke on behalf of renewing the legislation. Each speaker was allotted just three minutes.
Al-Kitatni complained about the limited time allotted for discussion. Sometimes relatively minor issues are debated for hours in Parliament, he says. “When Parliament took up the price of sugar, for example, debate lasted more than four hours.” Confronted with the extension’s inevitability, the Brotherhood bloc relied on parliamentary procedure to ensure a degree of transparency.
The bloc presented a petition signed by 20 MPs requesting that the vote be taken individually as opposed to the usual “yea” or “nay” collective vote. This measure required the speaker to go through the entire list of MPs and register individual votes publicly. While the vote was taking place, Brotherhood MP al-Sha‘ar spotted an NDP MP trying to record a “yea” vote for an absent colleague (who was in Syria at the time) as well as the incorrect recording of another parliamentarian’s vote on the measure.  The final tally was 257 in favor and 91 opposed to renewing the emergency law.
Adventures with the Judiciary
Working with independents and other opposition party MPs, the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc led a charge against the much despised minister of justice, Mahmoud Abu al-Layl. Abu al-Layl served as the head of the Parliamentary Election Commission, considered responsible for much of the fraud that marred the 2005 legislative elections despite the supervision of Egypt’s well-respected judges. As minister of justice, he oversaw the referral of senior judges Mahmoud Makki and Hisham al-Bastawisi to an internal disciplinary hearing after they publicly criticized vote rigging and other irregularities. Al-Bastawisi and Makki became national heroes and came to personify the judiciary’s struggle for independence and reform.
To mark the hearing’s final two sessions -- on May 11 and 18 -- the Brotherhood rank and file, along with Kifaya supporters and others, protested in support of the two judges. Already for two weeks, semi-spontaneous protests had erupted around Cairo as Muslim Brothers and others gathered in solidarity with al-Bastawisi and Makki. Downtown Cairo was transformed into a military zone, with thousands of Central Security Forces and plainclothes security personnel deployed around the High Court, the Judges’ Club, the Press Syndicate and other buildings. The area was described as “under occupation” by the country’s independent and opposition press. Over 700 protesters were arrested between April 24 and May 18. The Brotherhood bore the brunt, as over 85 percent of the arrests came from their ranks, including such leading figures in the movement as the head of the political department, ‘Isam al-‘Iryan, and Muhammad Mursi.
The group’s MPs also got into the action, actively supporting Makki and al-Bastawisi, as well as the principle of judicial independence, on the streets and in Parliament, throughout the spring and early summer of 2006. When the disciplinary hearing concluded on May 18, over 20 Brotherhood parliamentarians stood outside the High Court in solidarity with the judges. Under the Cairo midday sun, the MPs stood wearing black sashes across their chests that read “The People’s Representatives with Egypt’s Judges.” Nearly four hours later, the disciplinary board found Makki innocent and slapped al-Bastawisi with a reprimand. Afterward, the Brotherhood parliamentarians walked several hundred meters, past thousands of security forces, to the Judges’ Club, where they received a round of applause from the Club’s membership. In early June, the Brotherhood bloc presented the Judges’ Club version of a new judicial authority law in Parliament (it was the ruling party’s version that passed later in the month).
The bloc’s mobilization against Abu al-Layl was not confined to showing solidarity with his targets among the judges. In late April, 102 members of Parliament, led by the Brotherhood bloc, called for a vote of no confidence in the justice minister because he was “abusing his position,” trying to subsume the judiciary under the executive. Long-time Assembly speaker and NDP parliamentarian Fathi Surour disallowed the vote, claiming that proper parliamentary procedure had not been followed. Surour argued that the parliamentarians relied on a law pertaining to a sitting minister’s criminal misconduct -- under which category “political matters” like Abu al-Layl’s interventions against the judges do not fit. He also stated that the law that the MPs attempted to use in bringing their vote of no confidence required that members of the court trying the minister hail from both the “southern” and the “northern” regions of the country.  When this law was passed in 1958, Egypt and Syria were nominally conjoined in the United Arab Republic -- an arrangement that ended in 1961.
Such legalistic machinations have not deterred the Brotherhood bloc’s attempts to inject seriousness into the legislature. The bloc is constantly lodging informational requests and interpellations, proposing legislation, responding to the state budget and criticizing government.  One researcher estimated that during the most recent parliamentary session, from December 2005 to July 2006, 80 percent of all parliamentary activity came from Brotherhood parliamentarians. 
Like any opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc has used the People’s Assembly in Egypt as a stage for criticizing the powers that be and as a vehicle for promoting their ideas. But they have also demonstrated that they take Parliament seriously as an institution. In fact, Brotherhood MPs take the institution more seriously than any other political force in the country -- including the ruling party. Their parliamentary bloc has demonstrated its seriousness through an unmatched record of attendance, boarding together at the Ma‘adi Hotel, the work of the “parliamentary kitchen” and activities inside the chamber. Brotherhood parliamentarians have committed themselves to learning about a range of important issues facing the nation, from maritime safety to avian flu and educational reform.
Their days as an effective parliamentary contingent may be numbered. NDP and government officials have hinted that a new electoral law will be devised to stop “banned organizations” from entering Parliament. Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif told the press: “Islamists who say they belong to an illegal organization have been able to go into Parliament and act in a format that would make them seem like a political party.… We need to think clearly about how to prevent this from happening.” 
For the time being, however, Brotherhood MPs are attempting to transform the Egyptian parliament into a real legislative body, as well as an institution that represents citizens and a mechanism that keeps government accountable. As the bloc takes its duties seriously, other parliamentarians take note. In the process, Egyptians may begin to view the People’s Assembly differently, not as the executive’s rubber stamp but as a venue for genuine political contestation. What impact the group’s parliamentary presence will have on the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization -- its sensitivity to public opinion, degree of transparency and level of internal democracy -- remains an open question.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes of Brotherhood deputies are from interviews conducted by the authors in Cairo in the spring of 2006.
 Al-Ahram, August 4, 2006.
 Sharon Otterman, “Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, December 1, 2005.
 Quoted in al-Misri al-Yawm, November 27, 2005.
 “Egypt: Health Activists Censor Government’s Bird Flu Response,” IRIN, February 23, 2006. Also see al-Ahram Weekly, April 13–19, 2006.
 Akhbar al-Kutla, January 1–March 1, 2006.
 Al-Ahram Weekly, February 23–March 1, 2006.
 Al-Misri al-Yawm, April 19, 2006.
 Al-Misri al-Yawm, May 1, 2006.
 Al-Ahram, May 1, 2006.
 Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12 and 17, 2006.
 Noha Antar, “Political Reform and Political Islam: The Case of Egypt,” paper presented at the World Congress for Middle East Studies, Amman, June 14, 2006.
 Reuters, May 20, 2006.