Will the Muslim Brotherhood “Islamize” Egypt? by Sharanbir Grewal

On August 12, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi effectively ended 50 years of military rule over the country. In a series of bold moves that included firing the head of the military council, Morsi finally secured full executive powers, over 40 days after taking the presidential oath.

Yet his moves also entailed usurping legislative powers until new parliamentary elections take place this fall. As Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, this power grab has stirred fear of Brotherhood domination of the state and specifically of a supposed agenda of “Islamization.” Egyptian philosopher Murad Wahba, for instance, warned that “if the army returns to the military bases, and the Muslim Brotherhood takes over the state institutions, it will mean the Islamization of the country and of society.”

Yet these fears of Islamization are manifestly ill-founded and are largely based on out-of-context statements by individual members of the Brotherhood speaking on their own behalf. Instead of these sound bites, a more accurate prediction of what the Brotherhood will do with its new power can be derived from what it did while in control of this year’s parliament. While holding the largest parliamentary bloc and maintaining control of the parliamentary speaker and 11 of the 19 committee chairmenships, the Muslim Brotherhood directed much of the activity in the 2012 People’s Assembly. The actions of that Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament thus provide one of the best available predictions of the Brotherhood’s plan for Egypt. And the record shows that parliament did not attempt to “Islamize” Egypt; rather, it tried to tackle the nation’s political and economic crises.

Last week, I met with Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, an academic-turned-parliamentarian for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Luxor. He noted that the priorities of Brotherhood members of parliament stemmed from the two values in their party’s name: first, to institutionalize freedom, and second, to make social justice a reality.

And their track record in the parliament supports this claim. The majority of the dozen laws passed or approved in principle in the MPs’ five short months in parliament concern freedom and social justice. In terms of institutionalizing freedom, the Brotherhood-dominated parliament ended the president’s power to refer civilians to military trials, combated rigging and forgery in the presidential election, banned high-level remnants of the former regime from political participation, and pursued security sector reform.

As for social justice, the parliament’s first law was to increase compensation given to the families of martyrs killed in Tahrir Square; subsequent laws capped the maximum wage at 35 times the minimum, allocated greater funding to female heads of households, and moved 750,000 temporary government workers to full-time, permanent contracts. Based on the Brotherhood’s parliamentary showing, it is evident that political and economic issues are at the forefront of its agenda.

Of course, this is not to say that religious issues were not discussed by Brotherhood MPs—only that they were not their priority. A number of abhorrent, religiously inspired bills were raised by the ultra-conservative Salafis and independent Islamists. MPs from the Salafi Nour party introduced bills promoting female genital mutilation and implementing strict Islamic criminal punishments (explicitly including cutting one arm and one leg from opposite sides of the culprit’s body in the case of theft), while independent Islamist Mohamed al-Omda attempted to scale back divorce rights for women. Not only were all of these issues raised by non-Brotherhood MPs, but they were also all raised in the Proposals and Complaints committee, where the Brotherhood held neither the post of chairman nor deputy chairman, suggesting that their sponsors knew that these types of issues were not the Brotherhood’s priority. And without Brotherhood support, none of these bills made it out of the committee.

However, the Brotherhood did introduce one potentially “Islamizing” bill soon before the parliament was dissolved: boosting Islamic finance (or banks that do not charge interest on loans). Indeed, this issue will likely make its way onto Morsi’s presidential agenda as well, says Dr. Hussein El Kazzaz, a member of the five-person steering committee of the Brotherhood’s Nahda (Renaissance) project and a newly-appointed presidential advisor.

“A huge element of the Nahda project is how to finance it,” El Kazzaz told me. “Our view is we are not going to replace the traditional financing mechanisms that are in society now. We are going to beef up the Islamic financing that is [already] there, make it play a bigger role, but next to the traditional financing, not taking its place.”

Beyond this moderate take on Islamic finance, however, it is clear that religious issues are not the priority. While there may be other reasons to fear the Muslim Brotherhood, concerns over a supposed agenda of “Islamization” are unsubstantiated.

Update: The original version of the article referred to the author of a bill to scale back divorce rates for women as "independent Islamist Yasser al-Qady". However, the correct name of the legislator is Mohamed al-Omda.

Sharanbir Grewal is a senior in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has recently returned from a research trip to Egypt during which he conducted interviews with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. His trip was funded by a Horace Porter travel grant from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.