With presidential elections due to be held at the end of May, the first exercise of democratic sovereignty in post-Mubarak Egypt will come to an end. These have been preceded by the parliamentary (People’s Assembly) and senate (Shura Council) elections held between the end of November and mid-February. Both have been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group founded in 1928 which has been characterised by secrecy and ambiguity due to its frequent persecution on behalf of the various dictatorships which have ruled Egypt since 1952.
Mohammed Morsy, the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, is one of the four favourites to win the presidential race. Securing the presidential post does not have solely a symbolic meaning: the president gets to choose half of the members of the Shura Council (only the first half is elected). This means that if Mohammed Morsy should win, the Brotherhood would secure all three political posts. Many, both within and outside Egypt, are worried about this prospect. And they should be.
The main preoccupation with the Brotherhood stems not from the fact that they are an Islamist group, more because of their secrecy and ambiguity. This has manifested in recent months by various contradictory decisions the party has taken. For instance, at first the Brotherhood had dictated that it would not field a candidate for the presidential elections. It went as far as to suspend its long-time member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh after he announced in May 2011 his intention of running regardless of the group’s prohibition. But several months later, having witnessed how much public support it attracted at the parliamentary elections, the Islamist group not only signed up Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood’s main source of income, but once it heard about his probable disqualification, it fielded a further one, namely Mohammed Morsy.
Such acts only add to the suspicion of many that the group is not, as it professes, a group whose sole interest is the modest and pious devotion to religious principles. Rather, the Brotherhood has been perceived for some time now as a pragmatic political group just like any other, with the addition of the fact that almost nobody knows how it works and the real extent of its influence in Egypt and abroad. One factor which attests to the Muslim Brotherood’s voluntary choice for secrecy is the long and arduous process prospective members have to go through in order to be accepted as full members.
Secrecy and democracy do not go well together. In fact, they are to a large extent mutually exclusive. An essential element in a genuine democracy is publicity. That is, the knowledge the citizens have of what fundamental principles are being employed by the ruling class to make political decisions and justify their actions.
This knowledge has two main consequences. Firstly, publicity gives citizens a sense of security stemming from the fact that they feel they can, so to speak, predict how the governing body will act in particular situations. Furthermore, social institutions shape the kind of people we are. The most obvious example is education. If the principles which are at the base of these institutions are not made public then citizens do not know what kind of external influences are moulding their behaviour. Most importantly, if they are made public citizens can scrutinise these principles and choose to change them through democratic procedures such as electing a different government.
Secondly, and as a consequence of the preceding reasons, transparency implies that citizens know what social justice is and thus know that their own or somebody else’s actions will have certain specific results. This translates in increasing the citizens’ willingness to cooperate both with the ruling body and with other citizens. Without such publicity citizens feel they can trust neither the policy-making class nor the citizens who support this class, an obvious recipe for social discontent and disobedience, not to mention full-blown rebellion.
This is how the failure in March of setting up a panel bestowed with the responsibility of drafting the new constitution is to be read. The panel is composed of 50 members from both the People’s Assembly and Shura Council and 50 public figures. This means that whoever has a majority in these two political posts can have a major influence in deciding who will draft the new constitution and thus the way the constitution will look like. After the members were revealed to be mainly from an Islamist background, most of the other members walked out in sign of protest. Such “surprises” are precisely the outcome of secrecy.
The Muslim Brotherhood needs to choose between being a key player in the Egyptian political arena and keeping its internal structure hidden. It cannot have both. In fact, if in July the Security Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will truly cede power to a new president then the Muslim Brotherhood should have nothing to fear in opening up. With the years of political persecution finally over, the group should feel that it can disclose its mysterious organisation. On the contrary, if it continues to hide it, and thus its intentions, it will only gain more enemies and create a social atmosphere which will asphyxiate the so much sought after Egyptian democracy.