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Muslim Brotherhood Looks to Soften Stance on Women, Christians

[Cairo, Egypt] Party politics have always proven illusive for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. As a movement entangled in a tradition based on Islamic Shari’a, and founded as a pro-Palestinian, anti-American organization in the late 1920s, the more traditional factions within the modern structure are apprehensive of change.
But that appears to be changing as the movement’s leaders are currently discussing reforms to its platform that could see changes to the roles of women and Christians.
In October 2007, the banned Islamic group released its platform, surprising many over its conservative overtones, including barring women and Christians from holding the post of president.
At the time, the Brotherhood argued that Christians could not become president or prime minister because both posts have Islamic religious duties, so “non-Muslims are excused from holding this mission,” the 2007 version reads.
It also says the president cannot be a woman because the post’s religious and military duties "contradict with her nature, social and other humanitarian roles."
While the document attempts moderation, arguing that there is "equality between men and women in terms of their human dignity," it also warns against "burdening women with duties against their nature or role in the family.”
In February, the Egyptian newspaper Dar El Sharouk published a report that the Brotherhood was expected to announce a number of reforms to the platform, including the controversial issues surrounding women and Christians.
Essam El Arian, a leading member within the Brotherhood, and seen as a moderate, told The Media Line (TML) that a final decision had yet to be taken and “discussions are currently underway.”
He did not say whether there would be changes.
“We are debating these issues right now and it will be some time before conclusions are taken,” he said.
It is a view shared by a senior figure in the brotherhood Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. "We are still discussing these matters, he said. "The Brotherhood is a democratic institution and we take all care to keep these types of discussions serious in light of our structure. There is debate ongoing and when a concrete decision is made, it will be known to the public. All I can say is that these issues are currently being debated."
The report of alleged changes to the platform has lifted the spirits of the reform-minded Brotherhood bloggers who have long called for their elder leaders to move forward on changing the perception of the movement’s conservative nature.
One blogger, who asked not to be named due to the tension growing between the young bloggers – those young people who have continued to write on their blogs that the Brotherhood must reform itself if it is to create a true democratic movement – and the leadership, says that it is a “victory for the reformers and the bloggers.”
He argues that for the last few years, the blogging movement within the Brotherhood has continually called on its leadership to look at changing the status of women and Christians.
“These issues have always been contentious within the Brotherhood and with the outside community. It only makes sense that this is going to change. I hope that people see that the people calling for reform are doing what they can,” he adds.
Another blogger, Abdel-Rahman Ayyash, 18, writes, "I think that talking about this is a first step for the movement and especially for the young bloggers to know they are making a difference.
"It is hard to call for reform without the older generation getting upset, so we understand that this is a delicate process."
Arian and the moderate factions within the movement are unsure of when a decision will be made public as to the status of women and Christians, but the mood in opposition circles here is that the Brotherhood is recognizing that they need to change.
“It is time for them to look at dealing with these issues. When they first reported the platform, I was disappointed,” says Copt and opposition leader George Ishaq. “I had a great relationship with them [Brotherhood] and since the platform was published we have not been on good terms.”
Khalil Al Anani, a political analyst at the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, believes that in the end, it is not necessarily what is written in a platform that is important. Rather, he considers that as a movement, its actual beliefs and views on women and Christians will have a major impact on how Egyptians and the world view the group.
“It is not confirmed yet if they [the Brotherhood] will remove these controversial aspects of the platform,” Anani says, adding that people should look beyond an actual draft platform and into the views of the movement.
“I think the problem is not whether they will remove these articles or not, but more what they actually think about women and Copts. That’s the point.”
The young bloggers have been pushing for real change within the movement in order to spur on democratic reform in the country. Much of the leadership has been strongly against such changes to the movement, but Anani says this is vital to the Brotherhood gaining support within the organization and among the skeptics.
“Regardless of whether they issue a new platform without these two main issues or not, the problem is the Brotherhood is facing a real crisis in understanding democratic values. One of these values is equality. They haven’t developed a progressive vision for equality of people regardless of their religious or ethnic background,” he continues.
Despite the large press that the reformers within the Brotherhood has been receiving of late, the realities within the movement, Anani argues, remain on the fringes of the mainstream debate.
“Unfortunately, the people who are behind this [platform] are the conservatives and the opinion of the reformers is still weak,” Anani adds.
Those within the leadership, such as Arian and deputy Mohamed Habib, may see reform as key to increasing the movement’s democratic appeal, but like many Islamic movements worldwide, the Brotherhood is faced with diverging opinions regarding future strategy.
“We can only hope that these small victories will create a more democratic ideology that will push forward reforms and make the Brotherhood a viable opposition movement for all Egyptians,” the unnamed blogger adds.