Muslim Brotherhood Tightens Grip on the New Egypt As the U.S. Resumes Aid

Patrick Goodenough | March 26, 2012 | 5:23am EDT
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Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie speaks to reporters in this file photo. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

( – Two days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved resuming military funding to Egypt, expressing optimism in its “significant progress toward democracy,”  Islamists cemented their control over another element of the country’s transition, stacking a body that will draft a new constitution.

Between them, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour party control roughly 70 of the 100 seats on the new constituent assembly announced Sunday. Half of the 100 seats are set aside for lawmakers, while the remaining 50 are earmarked for non-parliamentary figures ranging from academics to clerics. Members or supporters of the two Islamist parties dominate both groups.

Eight non-Islamist members of the assembly resigned immediately to protest the Islamist domination. The effect will not be helpful for their cause, however: members who resign are replaced by people on a substitutes’ list, and most of those are Islamists too.

Already the two Islamist parties enjoy a majority in both the lower and upper legislatures, and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) controls key committees.

The constituent assembly will begin their work on Wednesday, drawing up a new document to replace one promulgated in 1971. With Islamists driving the drafting process, shari’a is expected to feature prominently.

Temporary amendments made to the old constitution following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last February retained a clause declaring Islam to be the state religion and shari’a to be “the principal source of legislation” – a sensitive matter for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

As Egypt moves towards presidential elections two months away, the MB looks ever more likely to play a primary role in determining the nature of post-Mubarak Egypt.

An earlier pledge not to field a candidate for the presidency is being reconsidered, increasing the likelihood that when the ruling military council hands over power in June it will do so to a government whose executive and legislative branches are Islamist.

Egypt is among the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, including “foreign military financing,” and the Obama administration this year faced a new hurdle to continuing that aid – a congressional requirement linking the military aid to democratic norms.

That aid, valued at some $1.3 billion a year, appeared to be in jeopardy over Egypt’s crackdown on U.S.-funded democracy-promoting groups – a crackdown that was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some of the U.S. citizens involved were banned from leaving the country until Egypt relented at the beginning of March, although the criminal case against the non-governmental organizations is continuing.

On Friday Clinton announced she was waiving restrictions on the military aid, citing national security interests.

A State Department statement declared that “Egypt has made significant progress toward democracy in the last 15 months” but acknowledged that its “transition to democracy is not yet complete, and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who wrote the legislation imposing conditions on the aid, said he disagreed with Clinton’s decision.

“Waiving the new conditions on democracy and human rights is regrettable, and handing over the entire $1.3 billion at once to the Egyptian military compounds the mistake by dissipating our future leverage,” he said in a statement.

“Using this waiver authority, at this time, sends a contradictory message,” he said. “The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy.”

During a congressional hearing last Tuesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah to provide detailed written answers to questions regarding future aid to Egypt.

Among her questions: “What is the justification for the provision of any U.S. assistance to an Egyptian government potentially dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated extremists? Do you agree that no U.S. assistance should be provided, directly or indirectly, to the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated extremists?”

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