Two Cheers for the Brotherhood

Since it's likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a key role in Egypt's post-Mubarak future, it's important to address this hysteria. The Brotherhood has moved on from its origins, even if the neocons have not.
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In the latest news out of Egypt, where people power is confronting regime rigidity, President-for-life Hosni Mubarak is doing what he can to maintain his perch. He has named a new cabinet, deployed more troops in the cities, and blocked Al Jazeera broadcasts. The opposition, meanwhile, hopes to bring a million people into Cairo's streets to give the regime a final boot.

Mubarak has a fallback plan. His new prime minister, Omar Suleiman, had headed up the intelligence services since 1993. As Jane Mayer points out in the New Yorker, Suleiman was "the CIA's point man in Egypt for renditions -- the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances." He could take over as our new man in Cairo if Mubarak takes the next plane out of town (for the latest on this breaking news, visit the FPIF blog).

The opposition is crafting a transition plan. Former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has emerged as the leading candidate to manage the transition to democratic rule. In an important political coup, he has obtained the support of Egypt's main opposition movement: the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those two words strike fear into the hearts of many in the West. The "Muslim Brotherhood" conjures up images of radical Islamists turning Egypt into Iran or Afghanistan. As the ever-predictable John Bolton told Fox News, "The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care about democracy, if they get into power you're not going to have free and fair elections either." Andrew McCarthy agrees over at The National Review, "our see-no-Islamic-evil foreign-policy establishment blathers on about the Brotherhood's purported renunciation of violence -- and never you mind that, with or without violence, its commitment 'conquer America' and 'conquer Europe.'"

Since it's likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a key role in Egypt's post-Mubarak future, it's important to address this hysteria. The Brotherhood has moved on, even if Bolton and McCarthy have not.

The Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna to combine "a Salafiyya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organization, an athletic group, a cultural-educational union, an economic company, and a social idea." The organization did indeed embrace violence in the first part of its history. In fact, the United States was more than happy to encourage the Brotherhood's violent tendencies. As Robert Dreyfuss points out in his book Devil's Game, the Brotherhood was a useful tool to use against those nationalists who threatened U.S. interests, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. In 1953,Washington even brought over Said Ramadan, al-Banna's son-in-law, for a couple confabs in the United States.

The Brotherhood is probably the most influential Islamist organization, with chapters all over the world. It has renounced its earlier support of violence and now prefers to acquire power politically. "The Brotherhood is a collection of national groups with different outlooks, and the various factions disagree about how best to advance its mission," write Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article. "But all reject global jihad while embracing elections and other features of democracy. There is also a current within the Brotherhood willing to engage with the United States." The French scholar Gilles Kepel has compared the Brotherhood to the Eurocommunists of the 1970s, who broke with Soviet orthodoxy to participate in democratic elections and stake out a more neutral foreign policy.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in the Muslim world felt warm and fuzzy about the Brotherhood's shift. "Al-Qaeda's leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, started their political lives affiliated with the Brotherhood, but both have denounced it for decades as too soft and a cat's paw of Mubarak and America," writes former CIA officer Bruce Reidel at The Daily Beast.

That al-Qaeda despises the Brotherhood for precisely this moderation is good enough reason for even some far right-wingers to urge the United States to curry the organization's favor once again. "Many Israelis and their American supporters may rise in horror contemplating replacing peace-treaty-signing dictators with fundamentalists who may partly build a democratic consensus on anti-Zionism," writes the former American Enterprise Institute staffer Reuel Marc Gerecht in his book The Islamic Paradox. "But down this uneasy path lies an end to bin Ladenism and the specter of an American city attacked with weapons of mass destruction."

British authorities translated this dictum of backing the Brotherhood against extremists into very practical policy. In 2005, the authorities worked with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a Western offshoot of the Brotherhood, to take over the Finsbury Park mosque from the followers of Abu Hamza, an extremist Egyptian cleric. Robert Lambert, the former head of the Muslim Contact Unit in the London Metropolitan Police and one of the masterminds of the MAB's takeover of the Finsbury Park mosque, "believes that only groups like MAB and even nonviolent Salafis have the street credibility to challenge the narrative of al-Qaeda and influence young Muslims," writes Lorenzo Vidino in The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

Credibility is the salient point, whether in Britain or in Egypt. The Brotherhood has long worked to democratize Egypt. It gained 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in the 2005 elections. Yet in the elections last November, it failed to win a single seat, leading to widespread charges of vote-rigging by the government. Still, the Brotherhood's performance in the November election might indicate waning influence regardless of manipulation.

Technology expert Philip Howard thinks, for instance, that Egypt's on-line civil society has become a more powerful force, creating virtually what they could not legally pull together in person.

Even before the recent demonstrations, Egypt's on-line society proved that it could make things happen. A New Year's Day suicide bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria killed 23 people brought thousands to the streets. "We see the violence that took place," Islam specialist John Esposito says in a Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) interview. "What we don't necessarily see is the large sector of Egyptian society that was so appalled at the violence that they began to speak out and take a public stand. They started talking about one Egypt. The government didn't allow civil society leaders to respond in a systematic way, so people took to the Internet and mobilized thousands of Muslims to show up on January 6 to form vigils outside Coptic churches to show support and be human shields."

The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has been relatively quiet in Egypt since its dismal performance in the last election. It "abstained from the January 25 demonstrations, but belatedly endorsed the January 28 demonstrations," writes Joel Beinin in Foreign Policy. "Perhaps as a result of this waffling there has been almost no Islamic content to the demonstrations. The tone has mostly been nationalist and secular."

The Brotherhood might have been caught off guard. Or, given how wrought-up Washington gets by the prospect of Islamists taking power, the Brotherhood might simply be acting tactically. And indeed, there has been a policy shift in the Obama administration in the last few days. The State Department is no longer emphasizing stability - i.e., long live Mubarak! - and has instead begun to call for an "orderly transition."

The Brotherhood will play a role in that transition. It "brings a lot to the table in its potential to help peacefully establish a consensus government that could supervise elections that the majority of Egyptians would see as legitimate," writes Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman. The Brotherhood has a track record and it speaks the language of justice that many Egyptians, from the poor to the middle class, want to hear.

"Two Cheers for Democracy," the British novelist E. M. Forster once wrote, "one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three." The same can be said of the Brotherhood. It sustained criticism of the dictatorship in Egypt for many decades and has suffered mightily for that criticism. It's an essential part of what will be a more diverse politics in the country. For its strains of homophobia and anti-Semitism, the Brotherhood wouldn't get my vote. For its fight against both religious extremism and secular authoritarianism, however, it gets my respect. For the same reason, the Obama administration should give the Muslim Brotherhood two cheers as well.

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