Bashing the Muslim Brothers

Aug 30th 2007 | CAIRO
Egypt's rulers are giving their Islamist compatriots an even worse time than usual

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THERE are understandable reasons not to love the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist group did eschew violence in the 1970s, and now proclaims a belief in freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Yet the Brothers still declare that death in the cause of God is a wonderful thing. Their enthusiasm for violent jihad and their constant framing of Islam as a faith threatened by vicious enemies have helped spawn more radical Islamist groups, from Hamas in Palestine to the suicidal mass-killing zealots of Iraq.

This is why quite a few Egyptians nodded agreement when their president, Hosni Mubarak, recently chided the Brothers for “hiding behind religion to turn back the clock”. Some have even applauded the past few months' heavy crackdown on the group, which has resulted in some 600 arrests. But even staunch secularists found their credibility strained when another top official charged the Brothers with spreading “rumours” of torture by Egypt's police, in order to undermine the state.

The trouble is that the tales of human-rights abuse, endured not just by Islamist agitators but by ordinary citizens, smell a bit stronger than rumour. A report earlier this month by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, a secular-leaning lobby, details some 567 cases of police torture in the past 14 years, of which 167 led to the victim's death. Noting that these were merely the rare cases it could document thoroughly, the group concluded that torture is practised systematically in every place of detention in every part of Egypt, “from Alexandria to Aswan”.

In the past month alone, some shocking allegations have been aired. The family of a 13-year-old boy in the Nile Delta claims their emaciated child was found dumped in the street after a week in the local police station, covered in burns, cuts and bruises, and died four days later. A citizen in the oasis of Siwa insists that policemen trying to force him to confess to a robbery drenched him in kerosene and set him alight. In Cairo, the wife of a man who had tried to press charges against a policeman for stealing his mobile phone says that fellow officers took revenge by bursting into their fourth-floor flat, beating her husband to death, then hurling him from the window. Police say he jumped.

With its interior ministry employing, by some estimates, 1.4m people, from uniformed patrolmen to the more powerful but less accountable plain-clothes officers of the State Security Investigations branch, Egypt is one of the world's most heavily policed countries. Its 75m people enjoy relative freedom from crime. But recent years have seen growing public discomfort with the force, which is widely seen as more concerned with squashing dissent and easing the passage of official motorcades than with protecting citizens.

So the current campaign against the Brotherhood, which remains officially outlawed despite members having won a fifth of seats in the last parliamentary elections as independents, has brought the group widespread sympathy. Aside from the mass arrests, the crackdown has included the transfer of some 40 leaders to trial before military courts, bans on travel for other leaders, confiscation of personal assets, and harassment of Brotherhood-affiliated schools, summer camps and clinics.

Such punishment has several causes. Many cite the erosion of pressure for democratic reform from Egypt's key ally, the United States, along with fears generated by the electoral success of groups elsewhere such as Hamas. More immediately pressing, however, are local concerns, such as the Brotherhood's declared intention to challenge a recently imposed constitutional ban on religiously based political parties, by issuing a full-fledged legislative platform. The document's preliminary versions suggest that the group wants to capitalise not only on Egypt's strong and growing religious conservatism but also on public anger at the government's perceived indifference to the country's myriad social ills.

Another common explanation for the squeeze on the Brothers is the regime's wish to secure its hold in the lead-up to the eventual departure of Mr Mubarak, who has ruled for the past 26 of his 79 years. A long-standing rumour is that the ground is being prepared for his 44-year-old son, Gamal, an avowed free-market moderniser, to succeed him. A more recent whisper is that the senior Mubarak, whose public appearances have grown markedly less frequent, is unwell. But those are real rumours, fanned by millions of irreverent text messages, not pretend ones.

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