Dr. Essam al-Erian, vice-president for the Muslim Brotherhood established Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), officially commenced party activity in a conference in Shubra, Cairo. The location was specifically chosen, he stated, due to the fact it was an area long neglected and marginalized by the former regime. The FJP wishes to see Egypt become completely independent of all foreign powers, especially economically, so that all, especially the poor, may benefit.
Also in attendance were Dr. Mohamed al-Beltagi and Mr. Gamal Shehata of the Muslim Brotherhood, each of whom also gave speeches. They were joined by the Egyptian poet Mohamed Goudah and artist Wagih al-Arabi, as well as Dr. Duaa’ Maghazi, a Muslim sister. Dr. Rafik Habib, the Egyptian Christian researcher and vice-president of the FJP was listed among the presenters, but was not in attendance.
Al-Erian railed against the long scope of foreign interference in the Egyptian economy, stretching back to the British occupation, the monastic period of King Farouk, the Free Officers led by President Jamal Abdel Nasser, and culminating in President Mubarak. Each allowed foreign powers to profit off the Egyptian people. Al-Erian insisted that any current loans accepted by the Egyptian state must be completely absent of conditions.
Al-Erian was also critical of the current security situation in Egypt. He made a parallel to the failures of officers in 1973, during which their ranks were purged to remove incapable or corrupt figures. He wondered why this has not yet been done among police following the revolution, when many have been involved in torture and used live ammunition against protestors.
Yet while he was critical of the police, al-Erian offered praise and thanks to the military. First and foremost this was for their role in protecting the people during the revolution, contrary to their orders to fire upon them. He also praised the army for its promise to surrender authority to a civilian, elected government, and awaited its fulfillment in time, with full confidence.
At the same time, al-Erian denied there was an agreement between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, stating the FJP would not hesitate to criticize the military if it diverged from its revolutionary mandate. So far, however, their mistakes have been minor.
Speaking to the fears of an Islamist dominated government, al-Erian stated the FJP was not looking for a parliamentary majority. In fact, the party aim is to capture between 30-35% of the seats. Recalling cooperation during the revolution, he stated that the Muslim Brotherhood, nor any other group, would have been able to overthrow Mubarak on its own. The common interests of all political parties are substantial, and they should work together to craft a national unity government. The political system needs strong and diverse parties, reiterating the FJP desires a civil state based on the law.
Al-Erian spoke briefly about foreign policy, urging the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, and NATO to cease operations in Libya. The Libyan people are capable to rid themselves of Gaddafi on their own, and NATO strikes only serve to demolish the country and its infrastructure.
Al-Erian closed by assuring the audience the FJP, due to the skills gained by the Muslim Brotherhood, was capable to undertake its political responsibilities and participate in rebuilding Egypt. The party welcomed all in this task, Muslims and Christians, men and women, workers and farmers, the young and the old. Furthermore, it was dedicated to serving the interests of this entire constituency.
There were approximately 800-1000 people in attendance, seated in a tent erected in a central square of Shubra under the evening sky. Most people appeared to be of lower middle class economic status.
While no space was given for questions and answers, in subsequent research we would like to probe further the relationships between the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi movement. Specifically:
- What is the relationship between the FJP and the Brotherhood? According to reports it is to be independent in administration and finance, yet its leaders are all Brotherhood veterans, appointed by the group. How will the political party function in practice?
- What is the role of the FJP headquarters in Manial, Cairo? By appearance this is a small office on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building. Yet inside was a caretaker, with his bed set up near the conference table, with a direct line to al-Erian. The Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, meanwhile, are an impressive stand alone multi-story building recently constructed on a major road in Muqattam, Cairo. Does this suggest a practical subjection of party to greater Brotherhood leadership?
- To what degree does the FJP include Muslim Brotherhood youth? These are depicted in the media of having disagreements with the traditional Brotherhood leadership. Is this a reality?
- What is the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas? Several years ago al-Erian was heavily involved in supplying Gaza with medical supplies through the doctors’ syndicate, utilizing Hamas connections. Do official links between the movements exist? Is their coordination or funding involved? However sympathetic with the plight of Gaza, does the Muslim Brotherhood approve of Hamas’ tactics?
- What relationships exist between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council? Through personal conversations between Cornelis Hulsman and Osama Farid, a Muslim Brotherhood senior figure, the group maintains a direct line with senior military officers. What is the extent of their communication? Does it differ from that between the military council and other political or social groups?
- What links exist between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups? Will there be political cooperation between the FJP and Salafi parties? Some Brotherhood members have criticized the Salafis, while others have hosted conferences between the two groups. Is there an official stance?
- What are the different trends among Salafis, who generally are not an organized presence in society? What are their methods of propagation? From where does their funding originate? Do they serve foreign or transnational agendas? Does the Muslim Brotherhood?
Many people, both in Egypt and the west, are asking these questions right now. While both the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood are working hard to demonstrate they are a moderate, centrist political and social force, their answers to questions like these will go a long way in demonstrating their credibility.
One final note concerning the historical reality of the Muslim Brotherhood, highlighted by Badran, a resident of Shubra and a Brotherhood supporter: in 1948 the Muslim Brotherhood first began conversations with the Egyptian armed forces, which were repeated in 1952. This opened the political space for them, but by 1954 they suffered repression. In 1970 President Sadat, a military official, once again engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, giving wide space for operation, but by 1980 began repression once again.
This pattern is undoubtedly known and feared by the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless of conspiracy theories which posit military favor for the group, it is certain that once again the Brotherhood has approval to operate openly. This may be one reason behind the constant reassertions of their civil, democratic, moderate intentions. If true, there is no need for repression. Yet it may be asked if they also wonder if their window of opportunity is now open, and that they intend to consolidate power before they are repressed once again.
The political future of Egypt is wide open. May all participants operate from integrity and concern for the nation. The short term horizon will be very interesting, and perhaps foundational. May peace, stability, freedom, and justice mark what is to come, Islamist or otherwise.
 From a personal conversation several years ago between al-Erian and Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab West Report.