Mohammed Elmenshawy, the editor of the DC-based Arabic news site Taqrir Washington, published an article in the Christian Science Monitor declaring that the draft political party platform of the Muslim Brotherhood revealed its "true face." Elmenshawy repeats the conventional wisdom in Egyptian circles about the disastrous nature of the draft platform. The platform includes a controversial proposal for a Higher Ulema Council, which by the worst reading would create an Iranian style religious authority with power over laws. It also refuses to allow women or Christians to serve as head of state. Those three points have overshadowed everything else in the platform, and have been taken as a major setback in the MB's efforts to reassure Egyptians of their democratic intentions. For their critics - egged on by the Mubarak regime - this is the "true face" of the Muslim Brotherhood: Iranian style religious despotism and chauvinism.
Elmenshawy and the other Egyptian critics of the Brotherhood's draft platform are right, but not in quite the way he meant. Rather than revealing the "true face" of the Brotherhood, the development of the party platform offers a fascinating glimpse of a divided organization struggling to figure out how to respond to a changing political environment. How those internal battles are resolved will tell us - in the West and in Egypt - a lot about the future of Egyptian Islamism and of Egyptian politics.
As I wrote the other day, I was as taken aback by the platform as were many of these Egyptian critics - enough so that I actually postponed publishing a nearly-finished article in order to try to find out what was going on. So during my conversations with the MB leaders I asked a lot of questions about it. Most of the people I spoke with complained that it had been misinterpreted, probably willfully by hostile critics determined to make the MB look bad). But that didn't stop many of them from them going on to say that it was, in fact, a terrible idea and shouldn't have been included.
The defense of the Higher Ulema Council idea boiled down to the claim that it wasn't as new or as important as the critics claimed. Several of the Brotherhood leaders pointed to language within the platform which, they argued, clearly makes the elected Parliament the soveriegn authority and the Constitutional Court the arbiter. The proposed Higher Ulema Council, they argued, would simply provide expert advice to Parliament, the way that specialized committees on agriculture, engineering, finance (or whatever) already do. Whether this is what the MB *really* meant by the HUC proposal or whether it is a hasty retreat to a more acceptable ground, I do not know. But that's what they are now saying.
For them, the point of the HUC was not to create a new religious authority but to contest the current role of al-Azhar. In the eyes of the MB, al-Azhar has become so subservient to the government that it no longer plays an independent or useful role. The HUC would be elected and independent, thereby rescuing religious advice from governmental domination. Would that be a good thing? Presumably they expect that a freely elected HUC would take positions closer to Brotherhood views than does the current system, which elevates the views of the determinedly pro-regime Shaykh of al-Azhar. Right now, the MB is recapturing its mojo a bit by going after the Shaykh of al-Azhar, Mohamed al-Tantawy, for his ridiculous declaration that journalists spreading rumors should be punished with 80 lashes. With the Shaykh of al-Azhar taking the government's side in one of its most transparently despotic moves, the MB perhaps looks on stronger ground here. But from what I can tell after studying the platform, it remains quite vague on how the HUC would be elected, who would be eligible for election, and such details. I also failed, despite repeated and very pointed questions, to elicit any clear positions on what would happen if the Egyptian government passed laws which the HUC deemed counter to Sharia - a point of obvious and great importance which really can't be fudged.
The broader point that I want to make here, though, is that the controversy over the party platform reveals as much about the "true face" of the Brotherhood as does the platform itself. Since its release, a range of major Brotherhood figures have publicly criticized the Higher Ulema Council idea and the ban on a female or Christian President. Abd al-Monem Abou el-Fattouh, Essam el-Erian and Gamal Hishmet are some of the most prominent MB figures to publicly denounce the platform, while a slew of activist MB bloggers such as Abd al-Monem Mahmoud, Mohamed Hamza, and Abdel Rahman Rashwan, have opened up fascinating public debates and revealed a diversity of views inside the MB.
Essam el-Erian recently told al-Masry al-Youm that the platform would be reviewed by a committee headed by Deputy Supreme Guide Mohamed Habib. In our conversation, Habib told me that the review would take into account all of the internal and external criticisms. If the final version of the platform nevertheless stays the same, then this will vindicate skeptics such as Abd al-Monem Said, Khalil el-Anani, and Elmenshawy and reveal that the conservative trend in the MB is currently dominant and the reformers in retreat. If the platform changes upon review, it will reveal that the reformers still have a strong position within the organization and are willing to fight in defense of their pragmatic views. For anyone interested in the future of Egyptian politics and Islamist movements, this should be watched carefully.