Egypt’s Sisi signals shift toward Muslim Brotherhood

By Sahar Aziz
The Conversation

During what was otherwise an ordinary diplomatic visit to the United Kingdom at the beginning of November, Egypt’s President Sisi signaled a significant shift in Egyptian domestic policy and regional politics.

After an aggressive three-year crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi publicly stated that the Muslim Brotherhood “are part of Egypt and so the Egyptian people must decide what role they can play.”

While skeptics may dismiss this turnaround as a mere deflection from Sisi’s human rights violations against the Muslim Brotherhood and secular youth activists, a better explanation lies in the seismic political changes under way in the region.

With the rise of the Islamic State as the self-proclaimed defender of Sunni Muslims in a region under the hold of sectarian violence, the Gulf countries and their Western allies need a moderate Sunni counterweight.

The Muslim Brotherhood fits that bill.

Since the January 25 2011 Egyptian revolution-turned-uprisings, I have been researching political developments in Egypt and their impact on the democratization of the region. When Egypt’s democratically elected Mohammed Morsi was ousted from the presidency by the military on July 3 2013, it emboldened terrorist groups’ claims that violence was the only means for regime change. In turn, Sisi accused the Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating violence committed by other groups. So what caused Sisi to signal a willingness to retreat from his campaign to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

Rattled by the rise of ISIS

The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), with its medieval violence and expansionist agenda, has rattled Middle East regimes. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has grown wary of the group’s increasing credibility as the guardians of Sunni Muslims in a vicious sectarian conflict with Shi’ite Muslims.

As Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for regional hegemony, they are deploying Shi’ite and Sunni militias as proxies to fight in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Lurking in the background is a broader strategy by the Gulf nations to shuffle regional power centers in the Middle East. Under this strategy, Saudi Arabia – not Egypt – has become the West’s most influential ally working to bring Syria and Iraq into their sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, Bashar Al Assad of Syria, a Shi’ite Alawi, has managed to stay in power after four years of a bloody civil war. In large part, his success is due to funding from Iran and recent Russian military support. The Syrian groups opposed to the Assad regime, most of whom are Sunnis, have received financial and military support from Gulf countries and the United States. The result is a fierce sectarian proxy war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and produced millions of refugees.

What started out as a populist revolution inspired by the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war has now converged with the sectarian violence that has destablized Iraq since the American occupation in 2003.

After suffering decades of brutal oppression from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominatedregime, Iraqi Shi’ites leveraged their majority status to take control of the country. In turn, Iraq has moved closer into Iran’s sphere of influence.

The result: a protracted sectarian regional conflict with Saudi Arabia funding the Sunni camp and Iran funding the Shi’ite camp.

While Iran and Saudi Arabia agree on little, they both view ISIS as a threat. Through barbaric violence, ISIS targets the Shi’ite as infidels. They attack the Sunnis who refuse to pledge allegiance to the group.

Unlike al-Qaeda’s insurgency strategy that attacked high-profile targets and then retreated into mountains and caves, ISIS is building its own state by occupying land. ISIS has taken over entire cities, subjecting residents to its warped interpretations of Islamic law.

Longer-term, ISIS has set its sights on the Gulf monarchies, which it sees as lackeys of Western nations. This has rattled Saudi Arabia, whose domestic legitimacy is vulnerable to growing discontent by its majority Sunni citizens and subordinated Shi’ite minority.

A Sunni counterweight

Saudi Arabia and its allies, therefore, need a Sunni counterweight to discredit ISIS’ claims that it is the defender of Sunni Muslims against the aggression of Shi’ites and oppression of Sunni dictators. This role has been hard to fill. The Free Syrian Army fighters are now fighting against each other. The Kurds’ primary goal is to be independent of the Arabs and Turks. The Iraqi Sunnis are fractured.

This leaves the Muslim Brotherhood as the only organization with the political experience, organizational cohesiveness and transnational influence to serve the need for a moderate, Sunni counterweight. That the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to work within the political sphere also makes it an attractive alternative.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt and has its strongest base there. Any attempt to prop up the organization as an ideological counter to ISIS needs the support of the Egyptian group.

But any warming of relations with the Muslim Brotherhood is an option of last resort for both Saudi and Egypt.

After deposing Morsi in July 2013 with Saudi Arabia’s blessing, Sisi and the military held him at an undisclosed location for over three months as they violently quashed the Muslim Brotherhood.

This was not the first time an Arab president cracked down on the organization. Several Middle East regimes have banned the Muslim Brotherhood or manipulated elections to constrain its growing political influence. Indeed, when the Muslim Brotherhood won the majority of seats in Egypt’s 2012 parliamentary elections and Morsi won the presidency, Arab regimes panicked that their domestic Muslim Brotherhood groups would eventually oust them too.

But if the choice is between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter is far less threatening.

For these reasons, Sisi is likely to give in to pressure to stop his scorched earth strategy against the Muslim Brotherhood and normalize relations.

Sisi desperately needs Saudi aid to keep the Egyptian economy afloat, particularly after the alleged bombing of a Russian plane in Sharm Al Sheikh that decimated what little tourism Egypt had left after the 2011 uprisings.

Sisi also needs American and European military aid. That could have been stopped based on his regime’s poor human rights record, but continues in exchange for Egypt’s cooperation on US counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East.

If Sisi’s statements in the UK are indeed a signal of a change in the political winds, the question remains whether the Muslim Brotherhood will cooperate. With death sentences and criminalization as the alternative, this may be a deal they can’t refuse.

Editor’s note: Sahar Aziz is an Associate Professor of Law, Texas A&M University. Her views are her own. This article originally appeared in and is reprinted here with permission.


Malaysian Polygamy Club Draws Criticism

By Liz Gooch, New York Times

Mohamad Ikram Ashaari and his four wives and children at his home in Kuala Lumpur.      Palani Mohan for International Herald Tributne.

KUALA LUMPUR — Rohaya Mohamad, 44, is an articulate, bespectacled medical doctor who studied at a university in Wales. Juhaidah Yusof, 41, is a shy Islamic studies teacher and mother of eight. Kartini Maarof, 41, is a divorce lawyer and Rubaizah Rejab, a youthful-looking 30-year-old woman, teaches Arabic at a private college.

The lives of these four women are closely entwined — they take care of each others’ children, cook for each other and share a home on weekends.

They also share a husband.

The man at the center of this matrimonial arrangement is Mohamad Ikram Ashaari, the 43-year-old stepson of Hatijah Aam, 54, a Malaysian woman who in August established a club to promote polygamy.

“Men are by nature polygamous,” said Dr. Rohaya, Mr. Ikram’s third wife, flanked by the other three women and Mr. Ikram for an interview on a recent morning. The women were dressed in ankle-length skirts, their hair covered by tudungs, the Malaysian term for headscarf. “We hear of many men having the ‘other woman,’ affairs and prostitution because for men, one woman is not enough. Polygamy is a way to overcome social ills such as this.”

The Ikhwan Polygamy Club is managed by Global Ikhwan, a company whose businesses include bread and noodle factories, a chicken-processing plant, pharmacies, cafes and supermarkets. Mr. Ikram is a director of the company.

While polygamy is legal in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the club has come under fire from the government and religious leaders, who suspect it may be an attempt to revive Al-Arqam, a defunct Islamic movement headed by Mrs. Hatijah’s husband, Mr. Ashaari Mohamad, who is the founder and owner of Global Ikhwan. Al-Arqam was banned in 1994 for “deviant” religious teachings.

The club denies allegations that it is trying to revive Al-Arqam, and says that the aim of the club is to help single mothers and women past “marrying age” find husbands.

The Ikhwan Polygamy Club says it has 1,000 members across Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe. It recently started a branch in Bandung, Indonesia, and plans to open another one in Jakarta. Most of the members are employees of Global Ikwan or former members of Al-Arqam.

Members get together regularly for meetings and relationship counseling, which is given by senior members of the group.

Under Malaysian law, it is legal for Muslim men to marry as many as four wives, although they must obtain permission from an Islamic, or shariah, court to marry more than one. Women’s groups say it has become easier for men to obtain permission to take multiple wives in recent years, a development they say coincides with a rise in Islamic conservatism in Malaysia.

While some states require men to obtain the consent of their existing wives before seeking court permission to marry another wife, Sa’adiah Din, a family lawyer who practices in the shariah courts, said other states no longer required the wives’ consent.

In 2008, 1,791 men applied to the shariah courts, which apply only to the country’s Muslim population, for permission to take another wife, up from 1,694 in 2007. The government could not provide figures on the total number of polygamous marriages, but researchers including Norani Othman, a sociologist at the National University of Malaysia, said the number could be as high as 5 percent of all marriages.
Despite the growing number of polygamous marriages, the club’s effort to promote the practice has put it in the sights of the authorities.

The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, a government department that is responsible for the promotion and administration of Islam, is investigating the activities of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club and says it believes Mr. Ashaari and his family may be promoting teachings contrary to Islam. A spokeswoman would not provide further details, saying the investigation was continuing.

Al-Arqam had asserted that Mr. Ashaari had the power to forgive the sins of Muslims, an act Muslims believe can be done only by God. Some reports have suggested that the movement had as many as 10,000 members when it was banned.

A leading religious official, Harussani Bin Haji Zakaria, the mufti of Perak State, said followers of Al-Arqam had claimed that Mr. Ashaari had the power to send people to heaven or hell.

Mr. Harussani said he believed the polygamy club could be a front to resurrect Al-Arqam. “I think because they have been banned they want to attract people to come to him again,” he said, referring to Mr. Ashaari.

The club has also been criticized by women’s groups like Sisters in Islam, a nongovernmental organization based in Malaysia.

Ms. Norani, the sociologist, who is the lead researcher in a Sisters in Islam project investigating polygamy, said the practice could be harmful to women and children, particularly those born to first wives.

She and her fellow researchers have interviewed 2,000 men, women and adult children who have experienced polygamous marriage.

Although she stressed that her comments were based on preliminary observations, Ms. Norani said many of the first wives interviewed reported feelings of resentment and depression after their husbands took a second wife, and “a significant number” had considered divorce.

She said she knew some well-educated, financially independent women in Kuala Lumpur, including business executives and lawyers, who had chosen to become second or third wives.

“Usually they marry late, they do a second or third degree, they put off marriage until later and they find it difficult to find an unmarried man,” she said. “One of them said ‘all the good men are either married or gay.”’

With 17 children among them, ages 6 to 21, Mr. Ikram’s four wives all have their own homes near their workplaces, but on weekends they gather at the family’s five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Most of the older children are at boarding school or university, but the children of primary-school age stay at the family house, where they are usually cared for by the first wife, Juhaidah, during the week.

Mr. Ikram takes turns spending nights with each of his four wives. “It’s like one, two, three, four,” said Dr. Rohaya, pointing to each of the wives.

The wives usually meet Mr. Ikram at the family house but they say there is no strict arrangement, and Mr. Ikram sometimes comes to their individual homes during the week.

On weekends, at the family house, the women take turns doing the cooking.

“We share clothes,” Dr. Rohaya said. “We’re like sisters, really.”

None of the women grew up in polygamous families, and although they admit to having had some initial reservations, they all said they were happy and would recommend polygamous marriage to their daughters.

Mr. Ikram rejected suggestions from the women’s groups that polygamous marriages may benefit men while causing hardship for women.

“Actually, in a polygamous marriage it’s more of a burden to a man than to a woman because the husband has to face four different women, and that’s not easy,” he said, prompting laughter from his wives.