Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest opposition group running in the country’s parliamentary elections this week, but don’t expect to see its name on the ballot: the movement is banned and its candidates run as independents. In 2005 the group swept 20 percent of the seats, but a repeat performance seems unlikely. Hundreds of members have been arrested in recent weeks. Mohammad Badie, 67, a trained veterinarian who has spent more than 12 years in jail, was chosen to lead the group at the beginning of the year. He faces strong pressure from outside as well as internal dissent. He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Babak Dehghanpisheh in Cairo. Excerpts:
Why did you decide to participate in the elections? The only way to achieve peaceful change is through the ballot box. Because of the bad performance of the National Democratic Party, many things are deteriorating in Egypt. Everybody wants change, and this is the only way to reach people.
How did the members of the movement decide to participate? We do this through an election. Ninety-eight percent agreed to participate, and 2 percent had reservations or said no.
Some analysts say you haven’t achieved much in the past five years. When the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood go to different ministries to ask for services for their constituents, the ministries have instructions not to provide the services because the government is afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood will gain popularity. I heard this from one of the ministers directly.
Some think your ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. [Laughing softly] This is an intentionally inaccurate image. We want a civilian state with civilian people—not religious people—but with a Muslim background.
Does the movement have plans for the 2011 presidential election? We will not nominate anyone for the presidential election. We decided to monitor these parliamentary elections because it’s the Parliament that will vote to accept the president. And when we challenge any violations, this will have its impact on the presidential election.
More than 600 members of your group have been arrested since the beginning of October. What can you do about this? It’s 1,200 members now. Every time we are persecuted, the media comes and asks us what are we going to do. But you never ask [the government], “Why are you doing this?” We always [operate under] the law no matter what happens.
Have you received any personal threats since you announced you would be running in the elections? The biggest attack was on our Parliament bloc leader, Saad Katatni. They attacked him with machetes. His car was destroyed; his driver and all the people in the procession were wounded. Any harm to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood is harm to me personally.
Since 2005 judicial oversight of elections has been stricken from the books, and the government has refused to allow international observers. Do you think this election will be free and fair? These moves indicate that it’s not going to be, that there is an intention to rig [the results]. Nevertheless it’s the Egyptian people who should defend their vote. And we will face the danger with them.
Is there any role that the United States can play in these elections? American administrations keep supporting regimes that are undemocratic. This is what gains them the hatred of the people in the street—even though their interests lie with the people. The governments will come and go, but it’s the people who stay. The Statue of Liberty can’t be divided into different parts. You can’t defend the freedom of one people in one place and not of another people in another place.