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Muslim Brotherhood - Sources of Support

Reasons for their popularity were many; among them were perceptions that they are not corrupt, they are the only real political opposition to the government and ruling National Democratic Party, and that they had an effective organization and disciplined membership. Public outreach to organizations and individuals increased Brotherhood popularity, which was strongest among the poor. But they were not universally respected. Intellectuals - whether secular or religious - mistrusted the group and questioned its political viability in a democracy and its religious credentials. Detractors claimed there was corruption within Brotherhood ranks and continued to suspect that it had a capacity for violence.

In an era of perceived vast corruption, high unemployment, unequal distribution of wealth and privileges, and of economic downturn, the Brotherhood gained ground. Many Egyptians sympathized with the simple, direct message, "Islam is the solution," as well as with the images it projects regarding its purity of religious values and the provision of social services. According to its leaders, the Brotherhood advocate stronger Islamic influence in society and social justice. Interested in the common welfare of the average Egyptian, they project themselves and were perceived by many as the antithesis of a corrupt, wealthy, secular ruling elite.

While many, particularly among the poorest, believe the Brotherhood sincere in its objectives, many Islamist and secular intellectuals believe the simplicity of their message conceals a policy vacuum at best, or nefarious intentions at worst. Anti-Brotherhood intellectuals claimed that the organization was poised at any opportune moment to use violence to achieve its objectives. Too little was known about the organization's structure and politics. For instance, who were the members of the Brotherhood governing board and what decisions are they making? Little was known about the size and composition of its membership and less about their strategy for spreading Brotherhood influence and ideas in Egyptian society.

The Brotherhood's influence was amplified by the lack of a secular opposition political movement in Egypt which constituted a credible political alternative to the ruling party at election time. Academics estimated the politically active sector of this society ranged between 2-8%, depending upon the time (e.g. Elections) and the issue (e.g. Corruption). In the fall 2000 PA elections, Brotherhood candidates captured the popular tide of votes against the (ruling) NDP in the small number of districts where they fielded candidates. Despite many arrests, harsh treatment of Brotherhood members and sympathizers and its status as an illegal party, the 40 Brotherhood candidates running as "independents" managed to win 17 PA seats.

Muslim Brothers' outreach was directed towards the poor, but their services were not limited only to the poor. They were actively delivering education, health care and legal services to those who can afford it. They were involved in all the professional associations (syndicates) and were the backbone of the Egyptian medical and teachers' syndicates. Within the syndicates they reached out to a broad audience, by for instance, offering members reduced price medical coverage. In the journalists' syndicate, the Brotherhood helped members to get increased benefits including subsidized housing and credit cards (with a us$1,500 limit), a benefit viewed very positively even by anti-Brotherhood journalists.

Doctors and nurses provided inexpensive, sometimes free medical care to the poor for whom there were no or insufficient government services. While the Brotherhood sometimes operated medical clinics at mosques, the lack of information about who is actually a Brotherhood member sometimes resulted in beneficiaries thinking the Brotherhood had helped them when it had not. The Brotherhood-dominated doctors' syndicate made it possible for members of all syndicates to obtain reasonably priced health insurance. The Brotherhood reportedly provided stipends, covering living and book expenses, to poor Brotherhood students at universities. Brotherhood shop owners provided subsidized, sometimes free, food and clothing to the needy in impoverished areas. The Brotherhood was filling gaps in a society with few government services and poor administration of those that exist.

Many known Muslim Brother leaders were from educated, sometimes wealthy family backgrounds. The leaders were involved in most aspects of professional and commercial life in Egypt: medicine, law, engineering, education, and business, from small stores and basic services to heading large companies. A large amount of their financing was thought to come from abroad, principally from Saudi sources, interested in promoting a more conservative religious trend in Egypt.

The Brotherhood's popular image was not without controversy. When the bar syndicate was judicially sequestered in 1996, it was on the basis of a complaint by non-Brotherhood lawyers that Brotherhood syndical leaders were dispensing the syndicate's contracts and loans to Brotherhood supporters, channeling employment opportunities and profits to Brotherhood companies. (In this way, their operations mirrored that of the ruling party.) Nonetheless, they were broadly perceived as more honest than the ruling NDP.

Critics said their popularity rested on a slogan, and that they have no answers, no solutions to Egypt's very real problems (particularly) the economic crisis - the most serious of Egypt's problems. Analysis of Brotherhood activities in the PA supports the claim that the Brotherhood had no solutions. The Brotherhood is absorbed with parochial, religious issues rather than issues of national consequence. Brotherhood PA members were completely ignorant of parliamentary procedures, consequently wasting a great deal of the assembly's time.

Regional politics bolstered the Brotherhood's image. Rising discontent over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and what was perceived as a half-hearted response by Arab leaders strengthened the Brotherhood, who made a name for themselves as staunch supporters of the Palestinians. They were the main instigators of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel/US demonstrations on the campuses and at the syndicates, and were the beneficiaries of popular anger over the al-Aqsa Intifada. The Brotherhood rode the tide of popular concerns: anti-corruption, pro-Palestine, anti-Israel and the peace process. They used these hot issues to penetrate" student unions and professional syndicates. The Brotherhood had no strategy per se other than gaining power.

To continue to grow beyond its current supporters, the Brotherhood depended on unrest in the region, popular discontent over government mismanagement of the economy, corruption and unemployment. The average Egyptian believes that things can't really get much worse were the Brotherhood more influential. They might even give something back to the people. The middle class just "wants to get by" without interference from the government or religious types. Intellectuals tend to be stridently anti-Brotherhood. As an NDP politician and journalist commented, "if only 6 percent of Egyptians are politicized, a large percentage of them are pro-Brotherhood." However, the Brotherhood were not so popular nor is their base of support so significant that they could take over the reins of power in the very near future. While the Brotherhood had an opportunity to resume a place on the political spectrum, their power and influence remain limited. State security forces maintained the Brotherhood in a tight vise since the bar syndicate elections and have made it clear that they will win no more power officially for the time being. It was not capable of seizing power and many of its younger members seemed to favor political advancement through elections. In the continued absence of secular opposition political parties the Brotherhood would continue to represent for many the only viable political opposition.

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