Allah and Viagra

The current issue of The Economist has a nifty pair of articles about politics in Egypt and the spread of an Islamist party that originated in Egypt and may be set to come to power.

From the first story, we learn that getting out voters for a recent referendum was a bear. State-sponsored clerics “issued fatwas commanding the faithful to vote” and, reportedly, one rich supporter of the ruling NDP party “offered a Viagra tablet to every voter,” but the government only claims 53 percent turnout — and even that figure appears stuffed.

That should be a shocking figure, seeing as the people were voting to allow more than one candidate to run for president in the Egyptian elections. The reason for the low turnout was that the legislature tweaked the measure before handing it off to the people, giving itself “virtual veto power” over any candidates who might run against President Hosni Mubarak.

It was meant to keep out certain Islamist factions, who retaliated by boycotting the election. One of those parties, and the subject of the second article, is the Muslim Brotherhood. The fears that the Brothers might win in an unfixed contest are not nuts. The technically illegal Brothers have managed to win 17 “independent” seats in Parliament and both presidential and parliamentary elections are in the offing for later this year.

With a possible upset in mind, the second article turns to the history of the Brotherhood — labeled both “the mean old granddaddy of Islamist terror” and a “harmless and doddery uncle.” The author explains:

The Society of the Muslim Brothers is certainly the oldest of modern Islamist movements. Founded in Egypt in 1928, its membership had swollen to half a million by 1949. Sadly, the more eager of them tended to violence, which led to successive waves of arrests, followed by the torture and execution of top leaders. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, some 20,000 Brothers languished in Egyptian jails.

But the simple ideas of the society’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, proved infectious nonetheless. In brief, those ideas are that Sunni Islam provides a blueprint for politics as well as worship, that the solution to social ills is a return to the pure faith, and that Islam faces enemies, be they outsiders or bad Muslim governments, who seek to thwart this renaissance.

Far from stifling such notions, persecution in Egypt and elsewhere enhanced the Brothers’ mystique, and radicalized subsequent generations of like-minded activists. Starting in 1946 with the opening of a branch in Syria, sister organizations sprouted across the globe. Algerian acolytes fought in the liberation war against the French, and later led movements to re-Arabise and Islamise Algeria. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian fellow-traveller who was jailed when Gaza was under Egyptian control, went on to found the Palestinians’ Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its acronym, Hamas.

And the “harmless and doddery” bit? Well, nowadays the movement “proclaims non-violence, excepting a right of jihad in what it sees as cases of infidel intrusion into Muslim land, ie Palestine and Iraq.”

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