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From 'Islam is the solution' to 'reform and change'

Muslim BrotherhoodBy Jamal Elshayyal

Anyone who follows Egyptian politics will know that the Muslim Brotherhood - the country's largest opposition group - have for a long time been a thorn in the government's side.

The decades old social/welfare turned political organisation is as much part of the fabric of Egyptian society as foul and falafel. In the past, the organisation has survived numerous widespread crackdowns, the execution of its leader, internal divisions and, on at least one occasion, been on the brink of total collapse.

To try and find out a bit more about the organisation, its members and supporters, I travelled to several of its strongholds. I also spoke with local analysts, university professors, government officials and members of the Brotherhood's "Guidance Committee" in the quest to find out the secret to its survival.

The grassroots

Unlike the other opposition parties in Egypt, and certainly unlike the ruling National Democratic Party, there is no doubt that the Brotherhood has a strong grassroots movement. At each of the rallies I have attended for the Brotherhood there have been thousands of people present. The NDP, on the other hand, can barely muster a few hundred for some of its most senior candidates.

Much of this support is due to the movement's social/welfare programmes, which include schools, orphanages, medical clinics and co-operative super markets - meaning that some of those who are in favour of the Brotherhood may not necessarily believe in its politics, but lend their support because it is the Muslim Brotherhood that provides for them.

And it's not only the parliamentary and presidential elections that are fiercely contested in Egypt. So too are the polls for student and workers' unions; and it is often the Muslim Brotherhood that wins. It begs the question, if the NDP did indeed have grassroots support reflective of its parliamentary majority, then why is this not manifested on the ground?

Thirty years of failure

It wasn't too long ago that Egypt was the Arab world's leading nation, a force to be reckoned with both regionally and internationally. It was only a few decades ago that hundreds of thousands of foreign students would flock to study at Al Azhar, Cairo and Alexandria universities. Many Egyptians say they still remember the days when poverty was not the norm, when you could walk down the street without the fear of being attacked, or when the only time you saw someone dealing drugs was in the cinema.

Thousands turn up at Brotherhood rally in northern city of Damanhour

Today, in the Arab world's most populous nation, in one of the world's oldest civilisations, possessing a military with the largest infantry in the region - Egypt is not even a shadow of what it once was.

Unemployment is at over 20 per cent, with many of those lucky enough to be employed earning less than $30 a month. The ancestors of arguably the greatest ancient civilisation have contributed little to the world of culture bar pop music and low budget films. In today's Egypt, four out of every five loaves of bread are imported from abroad - this from a country that was once upon a time not only self dependent but would export to its neighbours.

It is not unusual to walk in parts of Cairo or Alexandria and meet a dug abuser, in fact according to some statistics, up to one in five young people have tried marijuana - or bungo as its locally known.

For all these reasons, and many more, many believe the ruling NDP has failed Egypt and has failed Egyptians. These people look elsewhere, and it is often the Muslim Brotherhood that welcomes them with open arms. The Brotherhood is not necessarily concerned with whether these people are convinced by their politics or not, after all it is usually the disenfranchised that decide elections.

Stubborn persistence

For all the widespread crackdowns, mass detentions and arrests, the Brotherhood refuses to be defeated. In fact, arguably the biggest criticism that many "in the middle" have of the movement is also its biggest reason for survival. Throughout the years many have called on the Muslim Brotherhood to change its slogan, to try and be more appealing and "less religious" in its identity. Its something the movement has always rejected.

The thing is, as much as one may agree or disagree with their approach, for many they at least know what they're voting for when they choose the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike other parties and movements, the Brotherhood has remained stubbornly persistent in its slogan, and while this may have alienated many people, it has also made them renowned. There is no doubting that religion often works, particularly when there is economic and social instability.

 What's interesting this time round however, is that the Muslim Brotherhood has introduced a second slogan to its election campaign. The group still proclaims the "Islam is the solution" chant wherever and whenever possible; however Egyptians are now being introduced to the call of "together for reform and change".

Legislation introduced over the past few years has made it illegal for candidates to use religion, religious symbols or religious places in their campaign. (This, despite the NDP using both churches and mosques in Alexandria). So the Brotherhood introduced a new slogan - whether the people of Egypt will indeed heed their call is yet to be seen.

But one thing is for certain, these elections are unlikely to bring about any change or reform to Egypt.

Jamal Elshayyal is a news producer with a focus on Arab politics and Western/Arab relations.

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