CAIRO: Few things better sum up Egypt’s uncharted future than the vague policy platform of the Muslim Brotherhood, a long-repressed Islamist movement poised to become a decisive force in mainstream politics.
With the country’s military rulers reluctant to push through major reforms without a popular mandate, all eyes are on the emerging political class set free by the overthrow in February of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak.
None is likely to mobilize as much grassroots support as the Brotherhood, which has won the sympathy of millions of poor Egyptians by railing against venal politicians and campaigning for an Islamic state free of corruption.
But with parliamentary elections looming, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has sketched only the broadest outline of a manifesto. A pledge to do nothing that might harm Egypt’s floundering economy has barely reassured nervous investors.
"The Brotherhood has always been unclear on all its policies … It makes people wonder what is its real goal, and what to believe," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a researcher in the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
The Brotherhood’s secular liberal enemies say the policy vacuum is understandable because telling the truth would betray an extremism that would make it unelectable.
They say it would quickly ban alcohol consumption, sending an already troubled tourism sector into a tailspin, reverse women’s rights and deepen tension with Egypt’s Christian minority by enforcing a strict Islamic code, the first step towards a Muslim theocracy.
Brotherhood leaders, mindful of a deep-rooted fear of social chaos, insist they would never force major change upon a country already struggling with the instability that followed Mubarak’s overthrow.
"Investors should not worry. We want to participate with other groups to achieve the best outcome for our country," said Osama Gado, a former parliamentarian and founding member of Freedom and Justice.
Gado refused to be drawn on whether the party, if elected, would try to ban the consumption of alcohol, which is illegal in Islam but a requirement for many foreign holidaymakers.
"This is an example of the minor details that are not up to the Brotherhood alone to decide on. It is something that will be decided upon by the parliament that is elected by the people and if the people want it," Gado said.
The Brotherhood is not the only group to be thin on concrete policy commitments.
Mubarak’s success in draining support for all but his National Democracy Party (NDP) weakened opponents to the point of irrelevance, sapped their maturity and left them with little incentive to present viable alternative governments.
"The Brotherhood and the other political parties are all depending on vague populist symbols that appeal to the people," said Abdel Fattah at the Al-Ahram Centre.
As if to show it takes image seriously, the Brotherhood has moved its headquarters from a pokey, crowded apartment in central Cairo to bright new offices in the suburbs.
The new offices are decorated in a French salon style, replacing the mock-Islamic arches of their former base.
The Brotherhood has slowly ratcheted up its political ambitions since it was freed to take part in politics, targeting half the seats in Parliament, up from a third previously.
It denies coveting the powerful presidency, but one of its number, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, considered a reformist, has been mooted to run as an independent.
With Mubarak gone, the Brotherhood has avoided challenging the military-backed interim government over its handling of Egypt’s economic crisis and opposed a wave of strikes during the uprising as bad for the economy.
The Brotherhood’s official message is that the key to Egypt’s future prosperity is not major policy change but making existing policy more effective by fighting corruption.
It backs a minimum wage and would not change state subsidies that help the poor, but wants improved government regulation of markets and an end to monopolies, said Gado.
He said the government needed to boost job creation by promoting labor intensive industries and agriculture in deprived regions of the mostly desert country.
"The impression I get is that they don’t have radical economic views," said Egyptian economist Mohamed Abu Basha. "I still need to know their tax policies or how they plan to raise the state’s growth rate or decrease the deficit."
For that, investors must probably wait until after the elections.
"The group sets general policies about everything in its programs but does not talk about small details as it does not seek to impose its opinions on the people," said Gado.
The Brotherhood’s non-committal official approach to policy contrasts with the more strident views of its most conservative members who demand the government follow a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law.
Abdel Hafez El-Sawy, an independent researcher and a Brotherhood veteran of 30 years, but not one of its senior officials, is calling for the introduction of zakat, a tax on the wealth of Muslims to help the needy.
The Quran states that all Muslims must pay part of their savings accumulated over a year to the poor.
He said that Christians and non-Muslims would be exempted from paying zakat but could be asked to pay a similar amount of money if their religions require it.
"This is what I think as an Islamist economist. I don’t know what the Brotherhood group would do in parliament," Sawy told Reuters. "I am suggesting this … to put an end to poverty, which affects 40 percent of Egypt’s population."
The Brotherhood has been torn over whether Egypt should scrap its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, precursor to economic ties that have included lucrative Egyptian gas exports.
Many rank and file members sympathize with Hamas, the Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza Strip and has vowed Israel’s destruction.
For now the Brotherhood’s officials are taking a more moderate line.
"We believe that all political and economic deals Egypt signed with other states should be kept as long as it benefits Egypt," Gado said.