Muslim Brotherhood Speaks Out On Egypt

Egypt's popular Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood says it will not take a dominant role in the formation of Egypt's next government. But many in the U.S. are curious about what the Brotherhood believes. Host Michel Martin speaks with Essam el-Errian senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to our Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about how faith and spirituality connect and often how faith and policy connect. Today, we talk with a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group formed in 1928, but has been a banned organization in Egypt for more than 50 years.

Now, while members of the group do not claim credit for the events that led to the oust of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, which was celebrated today by hundreds of thousands in Cairo's streets. Members of the Brotherhood clearly played key roles in that protest movement.

Now leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have repeatedly said that the group will not take a dominant role in the formation of Egypt's next government and will not put forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for September.

But that being the case, many in the United States are curious about what the Muslim Brothers believe. So we've asked one of its senior figures to join us. He's Essam el-Errian. He serves as spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He's a member of the guidance counselor or their guardian council and he joins us by phone from Cairo. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ESSAM EL-ERRIAN (Spokesperson, Muslim Brotherhood): Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we get into sort of the core views, do you mind if I ask you what you felt and what went through your mind last week when President Mubarak did agree to step down? Will you just tell us what you were experiencing?

Mr. EL-ERRIAN: Happiness is all over the country. We feel that it is a very huge (unintelligible) to build a democratic system because we are an aesthetic country, according to the majority of the population and the culture, of the whole Egyptian culture. So the people make history here in Egypt. And then succeed to build a democratic system in our country.

MARTIN: Well, I would like to talk more about that. You recently wrote a piece in The New York Times and we will have a link to it on our site so that people who did not have the opportunity to read it may do so. But as your nation heads toward liberty, you say you disagree with the claims that the only options in Egypt are a purely secular liberal democracy or an authoritarian theocracy. Can you give us a sense of what democracy in Egypt would look like in your hopes and dreams and those of the people who follow your group?

Mr. EL-ERRIAN: Democracy is built on (unintelligible), which is universal, humanitarian. Human dignity, development, equality, freedom. All of these principles are the point of Islam. And so, Islam is compatible with democracy. Our democracy will be unique because it joined a morality, worship and also we can add to this democracy our Islamic spirit.

MARTIN: You feel that democracy in Egypt will be unique. I still would like to understand more about what you hope for. For example, in Turkey, it's a Muslim country but it's very secular in the functioning of its government. On the other hand, there are other models. Like, Egypt already has a system where Sharia law applies in matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, the custody of children. But, otherwise, a legal system is a secular one. What do you envision? Do you envision it in that mode continuing? What would be different?

Mr. EL-ERRIAN: Egypt is a moderate country, tolerant country. It is a religious country since more than 5,000 years. And we have many, many civilizations come and go. So I hope that the democracy in Egypt will be unique, as I said. This will be not simulating that in Turkey or that in U.K. or that in the United States of America.

MARTIN: Can I try one more question and ask whether - do you envision something like the Guardian Council in Iran, where religious scholars evaluate the laws based on whether they follow Islamic tenets? You don't endorse that concept.

Mr. AL-ARIAN: Absolutely not, because Iran is Shiite and we are Sunni. Iran was a revolution lead(ph) headed by Khomeini Ayatollah. It was an Islamic revolution. Of course some communists, some nationalists joined it. But in Egypt it was Egyptian revolution without any ideological background, without any leadership. So it succeeded to overcome all possibilities done by the regime of Mubarak and his intelligent forces.

So I hope that the international community can see in the near future a new democracy in Egypt different than that in Iran and different than that in Turkey.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Essam Al-Arian. He is one of the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He's with us by phone from Cairo.

May I ask about the status of religious minorities in Egypt? As you pointed out, it is a majority Muslim country. But people who do not follow Islam do live in Egypt now and are citizens of the country. How do you envision religious minorities being treated in the new Egypt?

Mr. AL-ARIAN: In Egypt there is no minority. All our citizens equal in duties and rights (unintelligible) as a culture and civilization made by all citizens in the Islamic world and in Egypt, of course. Now we are endorsing a constitution that gives all citizens equal rights and the duties(ph).

MARTIN: May I ask you a question that is of particular interest to many in the United States? And that is the issue of head covering for women, particularly. You know, as you know, in Turkey, women are not permitted to engage in certain activities with their heads covered. Like, for example, they cannot be in parliament with their heads covered.

In other countries, Muslim countries, women must wear head coverings in certain activities. So there are - both things are true. Do you know what you envision for Egypt?

Mr. AL-ARIAN: In Egypt, it is volunteer. But (unintelligible) very astonishing phenomena, that majority of women are covering their heads voluntarily because they are convinced(ph) - and I think this is a very important thing, because behavior, according to the faith, is most powerful than the law, which is supervised or monitored by police or by the citizen.

MARTIN: I see. Essam Al-Arian is a member of a guidance council of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Cairo. If you want to read the piece that he wrote for The New York Times, we will link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org. Click on the Programs page, then on TELL ME MORE. The piece is titled "What the Muslim Brothers Want." Essam al-Arian, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. AL-ARIAN: Thank you.

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