Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Realistic View Is Needed

As Egypt moves closer to democracy, we are hearing the ritual expressions of terror that “Islamists” may be poised to take over Egypt. Religious parties are hardly unknown in the world. While many countries have some form of separation of church and state, many do not and few interpret that separation as broadly as the United States does. Israel, for instance, has prominent religious parties that play key roles in policy formation. And even here in the US, religion plays a powerful role in forming policy, both domestic and foreign.

But if a religious party is Muslim, images of al-Qaeda immediately rise up to be exploited for various purposes. It’s hard for Americans, Israelis, and others to hold a more nuanced view of political Islam because extremist (and usually ignorant of Islam in many ways) groups get the spotlight. But we can no longer afford that luxury.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been suppressed in Egypt for decades. There is no doubt that they would play a significant role in a democratized Egypt, but because of the suppression, it is impossible to know how significant it would be. But in any case, it behooves us to have a deeper understanding of the MB, because the fearmongers are already coming out in force.

The Egyptian MB is not a reactionary, violent group. In fact, although there was a period in their history decades ago where a strain that embraced violence held sway in the group, they have since repeatedly and explicitly renounced violence as a means to their ends and have stuck to that despite the violence they faced from the Egyptian government. Their association with the birth of Hamas is going to be a commonly heard refrain, but it says a lot more about what Hamas was when it was first created (a social and religious network which Israel actually wanted to see grow because they thought that they would be like the MB, a religious counterweight to the secular PLO but less inclined toward armed struggle than the PLO and its Fatah leadership at the time. Little did they know…) than it does about where either Hamas or MB are now.

Indeed, due to the repression of decades, it’s hard to know where the MB stands now. They certainly represent conservative religious values, and, like any opposition group whether religious or secular, their openness to true inclusive democracy may or may not withstand the actual acquisition of power. It’s certain that MB will not favor the sort of cooperation with Israel and the US that has characterized Egyptian policy for 35 years, but how far they would break from the past is unknown (for example, I rather doubt they would really want abrogate the treaty with Israel, while at the same time they are certain to push hard to end the cooperation, on all levels, with the siege of Gaza).

MB may not end up being all that prominent in a new Egypt, or it might end up being the dominant political force. In either case, it will be important that we have a deeper understanding of who they are. To help with this, I offer a selection of articles and links here so that we can understand who MB is in Egypt (it’s an international organization, and its character varies in different countries).

The Men of Qasr al-Aini Street by Helena Cobban

Interview with Dr. Abdel Monem Abul-Futouh by Helena Cobban

Interview with Dr. Nathan Brown by Justin Elliott

Nathan Brown, more extensively on the MB (pdf file)

What Islamists Need to be Clear AboutThe Case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood By Amr Hamzawy, Marina Ottaway, and Nathan Brown

Reuters has a pretty decent Factbox on MB

The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood by Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke (short summary in Foreign Affairs)

Marwan Muasher debates Robert Satloff on the Charlie Rose Show about MB (video)

 

10 thoughts on “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Realistic View Is Needed

  1. Mitch, you imply that we fear a Muslim religious government only because of our bias.

    We have the example of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    We have the religious party in action in Algeria.

    We see the blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the murder of the Punjabi governor for opposing them.

    Then there’s the cartoon crisis riots.
    Is it wrong to be concerned?

    Even if the party is elected democratically there is no guarantee that it will guarantee individual liberties or be non-belligerent.

    The key points in your article don’t provide solid support for an optimistic view.

    Violence
    – Egyptian MB is not a reactionary, violent group.
    – they repeatedly and explicitly renounced violence and have stuck to that despite the violence they faced from the Egyptian government.
    – however, it’s hard to know where the MB stands now

    Democracy
    – their openness to true inclusive democracy may or may not withstand the actual acquisition of power.

    The Importance of MG
    – MB may not end up being prominent or it might end up being the dominant political force.

    Israel
    – doubt they would abrogate the treaty with Israel
    – they are certain not to cooperate with the siege of Gaza

  2. Gibson,
    You left out the BJP’s violence in India, the long history of church-connected European governments, the stances of orthdox Jewish parties in Israel…

    I’d be concerned about any religious party of any religion holding power. As Nathan Brown said in one of the articles I linked to: “We’ve got a big headache in Egypt. The regime in its current form is toast. Our regional policy has been based on a very close working relationship with the Egyptian government since 1974, so we’ve got fundamental rethinking to do. The Brotherhood is part of that headache. It’s not the biggest part. Is there cause for concern? Yes. Is there cause for fearful reaction? Absolutely not.”

    Arabs initially had secular governments but those have failed them. Many in the Arab world would prefer to keep trying secular government, many have reasonably decided that, given the many years of failure and sellouts by secular leadership, it might be worth giving religious leadership a chance. A free, fair and transparent election will decide which of these strains is dominant (I believe in Egypt it will be the secular, but in the wake of so much government repression of opposition, it is unpredictable).

  3. http://en.rian.ru/world/20110203/162433368.html

    Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood movement has unveiled its plans to scrap a peace treaty with Israel if it comes to power, a deputy leader said in an interview with NHK TV.

    Rashad al-Bayoumi said the peace treaty with Israel will be abolished after a provisional government is formed by the movement and other Egypt’s opposition parties.

    “After President Mubarak steps down and a provisional government is formed, there is a need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel,” al-Bayoumi said.

  4. Thanks for your reply, Mitch.

    http://bit.ly/fF1Avv – Chief Minister of Gujarat under investigation for massacre

    In India, politicians in one province got involved in an ongoing battle by Hindus and Muslims over a bit of holy ground but one gets the impression that India’s national government is secular and that it is not dangerous for a modern person to live there. Am I wrong about that?

    Likewise, the influence of religious parties on Israel’s marriage laws is unfortunate but Israel is clearly a modern, secular country.

    And, religion in the western world has been thoroughly domesticated by modernity so I don’t think that a party like the Christian Democrats in Germany is even relevant to this discussion.

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