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Muslim Brotherhood’s cohesion is also its pitfall

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 11:46 p.m. CST
Caption
(AP photo)
Mohammed Rantisi, 55, prays June 24 al Fajr "early morning" prayer behind the Imam at a mosque in Gaza City. On the day of his induction, Baraa, Mohammed's son, was told to wait near a mosque. A white car drove up. Secret passwords were exchanged. And then he was sworn into the Muslim Brotherhood, an exclusive movement that sees itself on a divine mission to establish Islamic rule.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – On the day of his induction, Baraa Rantisi was told to wait near a mosque.

At the appointed time, a white car drove up. Baraa and the driver exchanged passwords – the name and nickname of an early Muslim leader – and Baraa got in.

Then a man in a sparsely furnished room instructed Baraa and two other recruits on the values of Islam. Baraa placed his hand on the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and swore “unwavering loyalty and obedience.”

With that oath 10 years ago, Baraa joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an exclusive movement that sees itself on a divine mission to establish Islamic rule.

The story of Baraa, 24, and his extended family shows how the Brotherhood’s cohesion and discipline have built it up into a successful movement that seized power in the Arab Spring. But some argue that the same closeness and authoritarian nature has worked against the Brotherhood, which now faces challenges in Egypt, Gaza and Tunisia.

“They fail to make the transition from a closed organization into an open and broad-based transparent government,” said Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics. “They behaved, while in government, exactly as they behave internally.”

Over several months, AP reporters had rare access to the Rantisis, a Brotherhood family that is perhaps the closest thing to a political dynasty in the movement in Gaza. Baraa’s father, Mohammed, his mother, Kifah, and some of his siblings, uncles and cousins are Brotherhood members.

The movement forms the core of their lives.

It was the Brotherhood that selected devout Kifah from a wealthy family to marry Mohammed, now 55. It also gave him $2,000 to set up a clinic. In return, the orthopedic surgeon treated patients for free at a local mosque and paid 2.5 percent of his salary in monthly dues.

The Rantisis reflect the basic recruitment principles of the Brotherhood: family and religion.

The neighborhood mosque serves as a base. From there, Brothers coach football, organize trips and tutor students for free while scrutinizing potential recruits, said Baraa’s uncle Nabhan, 58, a former recruitment chief.

Smokers and slackers are disqualified. The most dedicated mosque regulars are offered tryouts, where they must perform their five daily prayers at the mosque and discuss religious books assigned to them. They must also score at least 70 out of 100 on written and oral exams: Nabhan said the failure rate during his tenure was 10 percent. Probation is up to three years.

Baraa’s uncle Salah, 52, a gynecologist, is a supervisor in charge of about 500 Brothers, who decides how to spend the monthly membership dues. One member recently got $84 toward his university tuition, and another $200 toward wedding expenses.

Hamas, the Brotherhood branch that has ruled Gaza since 2007, is unique in the global movement because of its violent struggle against Israel, but it adheres to the organization’s principles.

As in Egypt, the Brothers in Gaza have built a network of clinics, kindergartens, schools and welfare programs. The Brotherhood extends from North America to Bangladesh. Brothers in Qatar, Turkey, Malaysia and other countries offer scholarships to Gaza students, such as Salah’s son Mohammed, who is studying medicine in Tunisia.

Despite its close-knit nature, the Brotherhood – along with the Rantisi household – is now split over direction, amid a crisis of power in Egypt and its spillover into Gaza.

Former president and Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi of Egypt was ousted in a July coup. Hamas, meanwhile, is losing millions because Egypt’s military has largely closed smuggling routes to Gaza.

For embattled Brothers, the biggest question is how tolerant they should be in power.

Hardliners hold sway in Gaza. But the Brotherhood is finding that power has not translated into popularity.

An internal Hamas poll in February showed 70 percent of Gazans have a negative view of the government’s campaign to collect revenues, Baraa said, after years of anarchy without paying bills.

An independent poll in September showed only 21 percent in Gaza had a positive view of their government, down from 36 percent three months earlier. More than half of 1,200 respondents said conditions are bad or very bad.

One reason may be the financial squeeze. Hamas has only paid partial salaries to government employees for three months, and some ministries have slashed budgets by 80 percent.

In Egypt, the backlash against the Brothers grew in response to their attempts to entrench Islamic rule. Gaza, a conservative Muslim society of 1.7 million, often goes along, but has pushed back at times.

In April, even some Hamas members protested when police rounded up more than two dozen young men who wore low-waist pants or gel-styled spiky hair, and shaved the heads of several.

Baraa criticized the head-shaving policemen on Facebook. His uncle Salah said police acted properly. And his mother came down somewhere in between: She opposed the police crackdown, but said personal choice has its limits. With her two grown daughters, the debate is not over whether to wear Western clothes, but over how loose or tailored their Islamic robes should be.

Hamas has cracked down hard on women. Few dare appear in public without a headscarf, and Hamas police has stopped young couples in the streets, demanding to see a marriage license.

There is some protest, even within the Brotherhood, where women have a separate organization and are mostly involved in social work rather than politics. During a recent meeting, Kifah said, one participant demanded to know how much longer women would be kept out of the top decision-making body, the 15-member political bureau.

Yet the Brothers consider themselves moderate, particularly when compared to Salafis, who preach an ultraconservative form of Islam.

Baraa embodies both the tradition and the modern pressures within the movement. The strict tone of the Rantisi household was set by Kifah, 47, one of the first Gaza women in the 1980s to veil her face. Kifah is the highest-ranking Rantisi in the movement, among just five women in Gaza’s 51-person Shura advisory council.

Baraa, stylish with Ray-Ban sunglasses, slim-fit khakis and beige moccasins, has challenged his mother’s contention that music is a gateway to sin.

“From fifth grade, I had hot discussions with her,” said Baraa, who writes poems and downloads opera and rap from YouTube. “She’d say, ‘someone needs to break your head,’ and I told her, even if they did, it wouldn’t change my views.”

But he has also embraced the Brotherhood way.

As a child, he learned the Quran by heart. In his early teens, he once stole his school principal’s keys to get into locked classrooms to distribute the Hamas student magazine. He was accepted into the movement at 14, instead of the usual 17.

Two years ago, Baraa asked his mother to find a bride from a respected Brotherhood family, with fair skin and soft hair. After visiting seven families, his mother settled on Abrar, daughter of a founder of the Hamas military wing.

Baraa and Abrar, 21, married eight months later. They live in the same building as Baraa’s parents with their 10-month-old son, Mohammed.

“I am very happy with her,” Baraa said. “My first present for her was a face veil. My wife is mine. No one else should see her face.”

Baraa says the Brotherhood gives his life meaning but goes astray when it imposes its views on others, especially while in power.

“I believe Hamas is for its members,” Baraa said, “But the government is the mother of all.”

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