CAIRO: It was one of the most detailed pieces of legislation ever proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood: A ban on alcohol in Egypt, setting down a punishment of 30 lashes and tough fines for importers or producers and 20 lashes for those who operate drinking establishments.
The bill, put forward by Brotherhood lawmaker Hussein Mohammed four years ago, was defeated, but it was emblematic of the group’s Islamic fundamentalist agenda, an attempt to purge Egypt of any contradiction to Islamic Sharia law.
In Egypt’s outgoing parliament, the small but outspoken band of Brotherhood lawmakers known as the “Group of 15, has waged a noisy campaign against immorality. They have pushed to ban books, rid state television of racy music videos and allow female TV presenters to wear the veil.
Now the Brotherhood has increased its power in parliament more than fivefold, forming an opposition bloc that is not only bigger, but more vigorous and energized.
Secular-minded Egyptians, Christians and women fear that means the Islamist lawmakers will try to step up their morals campaign, putting restrictions on personal rights, and even go beyond that to try to enshrine Islamic rule in the biggest nation in the Arab world.
Brotherhood members, surprised by their own showing,are eager to use their new strength.
“Before,any proposal we presented was immediately crushed by the hundreds of hands of (ruling party) lawmakers raised up. Now our proposals will find their way out, God willing, said Ali Laban,a re-elected Brotherhood member of parliament who in past sessions has railed against sex education programs carried out by non-governmental organizations in Egypt.
The Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammed Habib, wrote last week in an editorial that the movement would like to change Egypt’s constitution, empowering courts to ensure that laws conform with Sharia – though he acknowledged that was a long-term goal,not on the immediate horizon.
Egypt’s constitution calls Sharia “the principle source of legislation, but aside from rules on divorce, inheritance and other family issues, the country’s laws are mainly secular. Alcohol is legal, “Islamic punishments like lashing and beheading, as occur in Saudi Arabia, are unheard of.
Egyptian society is conservative, with most women wearing headscarves or veils. But veiling is not mandatory, women have broader rights and mix with men far more freely than in Saudi Arabia and many Gulf countries, for example, and there is a degree of debate over religion and society in the arts and media.
For now, the Brotherhood doesn’t have the numbers to cause profound changes.
Following Wednesday’s runoff in the final stage of Egypt’s three-round parliament vote, the Brotherhood has captured 88 seats.
While the Brotherhood has enjoyed a monumental increase in parliament, more than five times the 15 seats it controlled in the outgoing body, President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party still holds an overwhelming majority.
Flush with their newfound power, Brotherhood leaders say their legislative priorities for the time do not include enforcement of morals or Sharia law.
Instead, “at the top of our agenda are political reforms, the economy and fighting unemployment and corruption, Mohammed, who is returning to parliament, told The Associated Press.
Even Laban, one of the movement’s most hard-line legislators, said the Brotherhood isn’t looking for a clash with the ruling party. “We are rubbing its shoulders and kissing its head because we are all sailing in one boat, he said.
That moderate tone may reflect the Brotherhood’s recognition of political realities: Many who voted for the group’s candidates did so not to support its Islamist agenda but to protest corruption and enduring poverty under Mubarak’s nearly quarter-century rule.
But many opponents are not convinced.
“They say one thing, but do something else. They lie, and people believe them, Abdel Fattah Askar, an Islamic scholar and veteran researcher of Brotherhood affairs, told AP.
Opponents say the Brotherhood has long adopted two different tones depending on its audience: a radical one when addressing pious followers and a more moderate one for the outside world and its traditional domestic foes like Egypt’s Christian minority and secularists.
Even as it seeks acceptance as a moderate Islamic force, some Brotherhood members push a fundamentalist agenda. Last month, Brotherhood heavyweight Hazem Abu Ismail said the group wanted to push harder to ban alcohol and gambling, which is allowed in hotel casinos. The Group of 15 has already shown that Brotherhood strength exceeds what the numbers suggest.
In 2001, they campaigned in parliament against three novels they deemed anti-Islamic. They didn’t have the support to pass any bills against them, but the uproar they caused was sufficient to cause the culture minister to ban the books and fire ministry officials involved in publishing them.
The Group of 15 also railed against music videos shown on state television that they deemed salacious, and they spoke out in support of female television presenters who were removed from on-air positions after they took on the veil.
With greater numbers, their influence may grow even stronger in such cultural issues, where the government is vulnerable to popular pressure, tightening the margin of freedom of expression that Egyptians have in their arts and media.
“Taking Islam as a framework for ethics and arts is very dangerous, warned writer Sulieman Gouda in his column in the independent daily Al- Masry Al-Youm.
“Any conflict or controversy over creativity, art or literature will be considered a controversy over a divine rule. Opponents will always be simply labeled “infidels, he warned.
Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority also fears mounting Brotherhood power, pointing to the organization’s stern Islamic positions in the past and fearing its attempt to look moderate now is nothing but a smokescreen.
In his editorial last week in the pan-Arab Asharq Al Awsat paper, deputy leader Habib described Christians as “partners of this nation, its decisions and its destiny, who therefore enjoy full rights to hold any post except the head of the state.
But Christians point to the words of the Brotherhood’s former supreme leader, Mustafa Mashhour,who called for excluding Copts from the army because they would threaten the country’s safety if confronted with a Christian enemy.
He also advocated forcing Christians to pay “jizya, a tax called for in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, on Christians and Jews who do not renounce their faith and convert to Islam. -AP