The Muslim Brotherhood and the Future of Egypt
In his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the sea-change that occurred in the Middle East thirty years ago when “The biggest Arab state, the one that led wars against Israel, made peace with us, and that created a new space in the region, for us and Egypt”. Netanyahu then went on to express the fear that radical Islamists (the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) may well piggy-back on the recent popular uprising in Egypt in an effort to gain political control. Former British Prime Minister and current Middle East Quartet peace envoy Tony Blair also echoed these fears: ‘You don’t just have a government and a movement for democracy. You also have others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, would take this in a different direction. We need to be anxious to meet the aspirations of the people, but do it in a way that produces something better’.
At face value there is much to fear in terms of the origins and ideology driving the Brothers. First, formed in 1928, by Hassan al-Banna the Muslim Brotherhood set itself two goals: to expel foreign influence from Egypt and to reconstitute Egypt as an Islamic state ruled by shar’ia law. Far from being a homogenous entity, it could be argued in terms of its twin goals, that there were tensions between nationalism and Islamism amongst its members. This ideological lack of clarity resulted in their adopting contradictory positions. Whilst attempting to occupy the moral high ground, the Muslim Brotherhood allied itself with Nazi Germany. Over the years, the Brothers vacillated between a violent enmity towards the Egyptian state and co-option. Whilst believing in the purity of their vision of an Islamist nirvana, the Brothers were not averse to affecting political compromises with secularists in the Wafd and Liberal Parties in the 1980s. Whilst denouncing the repression of the Mubarak regime in the 1990s, its Supreme Guide Mustafa Mashour declared that Coptic Christians should not be trusted to serve in the armed forces, demanded a poll tax to be levelled against non-Muslims, argued that the media be cleansed of everything which disagrees with Islamic tenets, and that women should only hold the kinds of posts ‘that would preserve their virtue’. This clearly was a vision for an Islamist dictatorship.
Even at this current juncture, whilst some Muslim Brothers were negotiating with Mohamed El Baradei and other secular leaders to form a government of national unity, others like Muhamed Ghanem demanded that the Suez Canal be closed immediately and that ‘the people should be prepared for war against Israel.’ In the light of these developments, what does the future portend for Egypt and how does the international community positively impact on developments on the ground?
The first point to recognise is that this 2011 revolution in Egypt is not about Islam, it is not about Washington or Israel. It is about the declining lot of the ordinary Egyptian whilst a corrupt political elite grows ever more rapacious. It is about three decades of repressive rule which became ever more draconian as seen in the stolen November 2010 elections. It is about the attempt at dynastic rule from father Hosni to son Gamal. This was not a revolution which was Muslim Brotherhood led or inspired. Certainly they will make political capital from the current state of affairs, but their relative influence in Egyptian society and politics will be dependent on the actions of a number of external and internal role-players.
Externally, policy-makers from Washington, London, Brussels and Israel will need to recognise that the Muslim Brotherhood (largely on account of their social welfare programmes) do have a domestic constituency and retains popular support. According to former CIA official Emile Nakhleh, the Muslim Brotherhood’s support base consists of a quarter of the Egyptian population. This cannot be wished away. This then raises the point by Tony Blair on how is the international community to recognise the aspirations of the Egyptian street whilst at the same time ensuring that the Mubarak dictatorship is not exchanged for an Islamist one. Here, a two-pronged strategy should be pursued. First, do engage with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not such a radical suggestion. After all Washington was having unofficial contact with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1990s and these became more frequent after its members were elected to the Egyptian Parliament in 2005. It is clear that the reality of engagement has finally dawned in Washington given this week’s call by the White House that a new government in Egypt should also include non-secular actors. However, engagement with the Brothers should understand the differences between the more pragmatic and more radical elements and should serve to strengthen the more pragmatic strands within the Brotherhood. Second, the international community also needs to engage with the broad Egyptian opposition in such a way that secular, liberal and democratic forces are strengthened.
The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood could also be checked internally by the Egyptian military – the most respected of institutions in Egyptian society. In this way, the Egyptian armed forces will play the same role that Turkeys’ had until recently been playing – as a bastion of secularism and bulwark against the Islamists.
This engagement certainly carries inherent dangers but does constitute a better alternative than support for an octogenarian dictator whose regime is past its sell by date. Managing this political transition is far better a strategy than assuming that the crumbling ancient regime of Mubarak and the National Democratic Party will last forever.