Muslim Brotherhood: As Egyptian as the Pyramids

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Muslim Brotherhood: As Egyptian as the Pyramids

Aref Assaf

First published in NJ Voices

Western politicians, shocked by what is emerging in the Arab Middle East, are having trouble ridding themselves of their black-and-white view of the Arab-Islamic world.

Egypt is at a turning point in its history. And other countries will soon follow. The era of the Arab despots, of old men and their clans, is coming to an end. It is an awakening that can certainly be compared with the events in Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This alone is reason enough to rejoice, even though the outcome of this experiment is still completely unknown. Will events lead to democracy or to a new form of bondage under different conditions? No one today can say where Egypt will be in a month, let alone in six months’ time. The protester’s message, however, is unequivocal: “We are the people.”

Most pundits and especially so-called Islamic experts are warning of the detrimental eventuality of the rise of the until-recently banned Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has been a constant opponent of the Egyptian regime leading to its banishment, and the jailing of many its leaders and members. However, the uprising in Egypt takes in all social strata, and it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, will be able to misuse the protests ideologically. Neither in Tunisia nor in Egypt nor elsewhere in the Arab-Islamic world are people likely to want to replace one dictatorship with another, be it of Islamist or any other hue.

As always when history is being written, nobody knows where the plot is headed. Will the military in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere be prepared to share their power with civil society? Will it be possible to overcome the predominant mentality of clan ties and nepotism – a mentality to be found at every turn, at both the top and the bottom of the hierarchy? How can “good governance” be introduced after decades of the powerful simply helping themselves to state funds? How can the education system be reformed, the population explosion stemmed? How can jobs and new prospects be created for young people?

The challenges and problems are immense. But the genie has been let out of the bottle; the clock can’t be turned back. All the more surprising then Western politicians are showing such restraint in their statements on developments in Tunisia and Egypt.

Instead of displaying solidarity with the people; instead of measuring their own decades-old rhetoric on the subject of democracy, freedom and human rights against reality, the primary emotion on display is a concern – concern about chaos and anarchy and above all about the question of whether the Islamists might now come to power.

That is likely to be difficult for them. While the Islamists in Tunisia carry little weight; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only half-way organized group there is. There are historical reasons for this, the main one being that it has always been too strong a force to be simply banned like all other parties and movements.

And that’s the paradox: the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, but nevertheless omnipresent as individuals in all state institutions – an outlet the ancien régime thought would channel public dissatisfaction at least a little.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood is a bulwark against the left wing. This comparatively “privileged” position also explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has found it so difficult to sanction the uprising in Egypt. It was only after the bandwagon picked up speed that they jumped on board.

It would be a grave mistake to minimize the grassroots supports the Brotherhood enjoys. Egyptians are by and large devout Sunni Muslims who believe in the centrality of the Quran and the Sharia in their lives. The Brotherhood is the strongest social nongovernmental organization in Egypt tending to the needs of the underprivileged and the needy. True, the vast majority of Egyptians are not members of the Brotherhood, but the group probably represents a healthy plurality of the country, and its strength goes beyond its popularity. The Brotherhood is highly organized and has street power, enabling it to out-organize or intimidate its weak potential rivals. In parts of the Middle East where relatively free elections have been held, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, this mix of popularity and superior organization has served Islamist parties well.

Western policy towards the Arab-Islamic world tends to rely on a black and white view of things. Either we have a strong, pro-West dictator like Mubarak or we face the imminent threat of an Islamic Republic.

As a rule of thumb in all Islamic states, the relative strength of Islamist groups is more an expression of dissatisfaction with the prevailing situation than the expression of religious Muslims’ desire for a theocracy. As soon as there are political alternatives, the Islamists become only one grouping among many. In order to avoid being politically marginalized, they then have to make an effort to recruit followers and can no longer rely on religious slogans.

To oversimplify slightly, where Islamist parties take their orientation from Saudi Arabia or Teheran, they lose support. Where they follow a similar path to the Turkish AKP, there is no reason for the West to fear them.

Another factor is that Islamist movements – and this applies to the Muslim Brotherhood as well – are not homogenous; they don’t constitute a monolithic block. Their ranks include both pragmatists and ideologists. And this best exemplified by the decision to enter into a dialogue with VP Suleiman while at the same time insisting on the end of Mubarak’s regime. Which faction comes out on top is ultimately down to the parameters and conditions around the movement in question. Hamas in the Gaza Strip, for example, has no reason to exercise moderation; the Muslim Brotherhood does.

The Western perception of Islam is predominantly driven by fear and hysteria, which leads to impulsive political decisions and distorted perception. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a movement one ought to consider capable of solving all of Egypt’s problems, nor is it because of doctrinal differences a puppet of Teheran.

The sky won’t fall in if the Muslim Brotherhood is represented in a future government. On the contrary, such participation would probably help de-mystify the organization. Moreover, in a democratic Arab society that offers its people genuine prospects, support for radical or even terrorist groupings dwindles.

Tunisia, Egypt and the states that follow in their footsteps have to reinvent themselves politically. Parties, trade unions, organizations of civil society barely exist in these countries and now have to start virtually from scratch. What they do have, however, is a powerful ally: the Internet.

There are no traditions of democracy in either country: The Army gave Egypt its only three presidents since 1952, Tunisia a mere two since 1956. It goes without saying that there will be setbacks.

We cannot rule out either fatal mistakes or rehashes of the old power structures, with political turncoats setting the tone or previous hierarchies continuing to exist in a new guise – rather like Russia, where the communists were followed by the oligarchs.

Yet it is not only Arab politics that will have to reinvent itself; the same goes for Western policy. The West cannot return to “business as usual”, and this also applies to its dealings with Israel, where the Netanyahu government is clinging blindly to Mubarak.

Considered by some to be a political alternative to Mubarak’s authoritarian regime: Nobel peace laureate Mohammad ElBaradei.

The Palestinian question cannot be solved by propagating a “peace process” that is no more than an empty phrase. Israel has shown absolutely no willingness to tolerate a Palestinian state capable of survival. The time has come for more than warm words from Washington if a breakthrough is to be made.

What is astonishing is that wars have been waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly to help democracy make a breakthrough in these countries. These wars cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Iraq and have seriously damaged any credibility the West may still have. Billions have been spent on them, much of which is money down the drain.

The Tunisian and Egyptian road is the better one. Yet politicians in the West are having problems acknowledging it. The worthiness of the Egyptian uprising must not be measured by how it may serve or affect the interests of Israel and US. I think this aspect is not even on the radar screen of the youth in Tahrir Square. We in the West must not repeat the debacle of the past. We must not be caught on the wrong side of a largely spontaneous people’s push for freedom and democracy. And the American public, as in a just released Gallup Poll, support the people of Egypt.

Aref Assaf, Ph.D., President of American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.