For the first time since its founding in 1928, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood formally submitted a request to establish a political party on May 18, 2011. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) boasts some 9,000 founding members – well over the 5,000 member minimum required by the Political Parties Law, as amended after the January 25 Revolution. The Brotherhood’s establishment of a political party is a milestone in its history, and many questions have been raised about the party’s political platform, the selection of its leadership, and the extent to which a consensus exists within the Brotherhood about its future relationship with the FJP. 

While Islam remains ‎the party’s chief frame of reference, the FJP platform (Arabic) has introduced several amendments to the draft platform the Brotherhood unveiled in 2007. Perhaps the most prominent difference between the two platforms is the omission of the controversial provision giving clerics a formal role in politics and lawmaking. The Brotherhood’s 2007 program (Arabic) called for the formation of a committee of senior religious scholars, chosen in national elections, to advise parliament and the president, thereby creating a system which many found to be akin to the Iranian one.

The FJP also removed the article on the importance of the state’s religious functions, which had implicitly ruled out a Copt or other non-Muslim becoming head of state. The new platform does not rule out ‎the election of women to government, although Brotherhood members have recently said they consider women "unsuitable" ‎for the presidency. Overall, the Brotherhood has chosen to remain mum on controversial issues, hoping to dodge criticism from other political parties and segments of society.

Even though the FJP labels itself as a civil party, religion has a heavy presence throughout its platform. The party declares as its primary objective not to gain power, as one would expect of any civil party, but rather to “enhance Islamic morals, values, and concepts in individuals’ lives and society,” which are goals closer to that of a religious group than a political party.

Moreover, the FJP platform is ambiguous and inconsistent in the use of key terms. For instance, when discussing the nature of the state, the word “shura” (consultation) is used, as this is thought by Islamists to be a broader and more inclusive term than democracy. In other parts of the platform, “shura” and “democracy” are used interchangeably, an apparent reflection of the conflict between the party’s religious ideals and its political ambitions. This usage also reflects the party’s attempt to balance the discourse of the conservatives with that of the reformers in the Brotherhood, with “shura” being favored by the conservatives and “democracy” appealing to the reformers. 

In terms of its economic vision, the FJP now clearly embraces social liberalism, which shows that the Brotherhood’s economic ideology has come a long way since 2007. The platform backs the principles of economic freedom that achieve social justice and a redistribution of income, while also encouraging foreign and domestic investment. The 2007 draft platform, in sharp contrast, had been based on an Islamic economic system. 

The way the party was founded and its leaders were selected has also been controversial. Party leaders, including its chairman Mohamed Morsi, deputy chairman Essam El-Erian, and secretary-general Mohamed Saad El-Katatny, were not chosen through elections. Instead, the Brotherhood’s internal Shura Council chose the party’s leadership behind closed doors.  This move left many disgruntled, especially young Brotherhood members, who believe that the Brotherhood’s old guard has been trying to impose control over the FJP since its inception. Morsi has said, however, that his leadership is only temporary until a party conference can be held to organize internal elections. 

The FJP has been at pains to show that it is open to all Egyptians, taking on a Christian vice president (Rafiq Habib, a Copt who was a consultant for former Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef) and including nearly 1,000 female co-founders. But this diversity is belied by the fact that up to 70 percent of FJP founders are active members of the Brotherhood as well as the dearth of youth and women in leadership positions. In general, the FJP leadership is dominated by Brotherhood conservatives, with no representation for the reformists. The reformist leadership has been on the decline within the Brotherhood after the resignation of Ibrahim Zafarani and the announcement by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh that he was going to run for president of Egypt as an independent – news which was hardly welcomed by the Brotherhood’s leadership.

Indications so far suggest that the FJP will remain politically and ideologically subordinate to the Brotherhood while enjoying fiscal and administrative autonomy. The FJP is expected to be the Brotherhood’s political arm, unable to take independent political stances, becoming the Egyptian equivalent of the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front in Jordan. The FJP and the Brotherhood have gone to lengths to clarify their stances on women’s rights, minority rights, and the relation between religion and the state. The Brotherhood and FJP will need to clarify their relationship to each other, however, and give the party enough independence to facilitate its activities and decrease friction with non-Islamist sectors of society. They will also need to quell the concerns of the party’s youth, who feel sidelined in the current arrangement. 
Khalil al-Anani is an expert on political Islam and author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Old Age Struggling with Time (Dar el-Shurouq, 2007). Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.