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