Muslim Brotherhood push for ultimate power

A protester faces up to security forces near the Egyptian Interior Ministry in Cairo earlier this month

A protester faces up to security forces near the Egyptian Interior Ministry in Cairo earlier this month

Three weeks after the swearing in of the Islamist-dominated Egyptian Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood has begun asserting its new-found power.

Over the past few days, representatives of the Brotherhood's parliamentary wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, have called on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - the group of generals that still hold the reins of power in Egypt - to sack the current military-appointed government of Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri and appoint a new administration headed by a Muslim Brotherhood representative.

The Freedom and Justice Party has also demanded that the generals begin preparing for a transition of power away from the military to the newly elected civilian legislators.

The Brotherhood is trying to take advantage of the multiple crises hitting the Ganzouri government. The football riot in Suez on February 1, in which 74 people were killed, was followed by clashes with security forces in which another 20 died. The riots prompted the army to deploy troops in a number of cities to back up the failing police and security forces. And a general strike last weekend has further destabilised the security situation and battered Egypt's weak economy.

On top of this, the country's relationship with its major source of foreign aid, the United States, has been jeopardised due to the arrest of a number of American NGO workers. The refusal of the Egyptian courts and security services to cancel the charges against the US nationals has led to calls in Washington to block the $1.3 billion that the administration annually gives Egypt. The threat could materialise into another crushing blow for the economy, and greatly diminish US influence over the country.

This is the first open bid by the Brotherhood for ultimate power. In the past, the movement stated that it was not interested in leading the country but only in acting as a partner in a coalition. In recent weeks, there have been reports of plans by the Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate, having insisted throughout last year that they would not compete in the presidential elections, which have not yet been scheduled.

These latest statements demonstrate that the Brotherhood is at a turning point. So far, its leaders have been reluctant to assume responsibility for leading Egypt, in part so as not to provoke the generals into clamping down on its activities and in part to avoid being blamed for the country's desperate economic situation.

Many opposition politicians in Cairo still believe that the Brotherhood is in league with SCAF to perpetuate a power-sharing system between the Islamists and the army.

Although the Brotherhood has promised to defend Egypt's Coptic-Christian minority, they have done nothing to stop hardline Salafi Islamists from attacking a Copt Neighbourhood near Alexandria and the eviction of 62 Christian families. Another sign of growing religious extremism was the sentencing of a veteran comedian to three years in prison for "insulting Islam" in a number of sketches. The judge accepted the accusations levelled against him by an Islamist lawyer.

Last updated: 1:29pm, February 16 2012