Throughout Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s many years in office, his most consistent argument for continued rule has been the warning that, should he leave, Egypt will fall into chaos at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is an Islamist political movement that was founded more than 80 years ago in Egypt and whose branches are now among the most powerful opposition groups in several Arab countries. It is formally banned but unofficially tolerated in Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood candidates (running as independents due to the movement’s illegality) won 88 seats in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, about 20 per cent of the total.
“Mubarak is a classic Egyptian secularist who hates religious extremism and interference in politics,” reports an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. “The Muslim Brothers represent the worst, as they challenge not only Mubarak’s power, but his view of Egyptian interests.” Another leaked American cable reports Mubarak condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as “dangerous” and duplicitous.
It was no surprise, then, that when a popular uprising calling for Mubarak to resign engulfed Cairo and other Egyptian cities, the president blamed the Muslim Brotherhood—despite the fact that the movement had little visible presence during the early days of mass demonstrations. Blaming the Brotherhood is a refrain Mubarak has repeated for decades. And it’s one that resonates in America, where successive presidents sympathized with his stand against Islamic fundamentalism and rewarded the stability he has imposed with more aid money than any other country but Israel receives.
But now the Muslim Brotherhood’s fortunes in Egypt appear to be changing. It has gradually increased its presence among protesters in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And on Sunday, its members were among the opposition leaders invited to meet with Mubarak’s vice-president, Omar Suleiman. Such official recognition suggests the Muslim Brotherhood is stepping away from the political wilderness and will play a more prominent role in Egypt’s future. For better or for worse, Mubarak’s bluff has been called.
Those warning about the dangers of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can find plenty of evidence for their concern among the group’s often conflicting public statements.
“Islam is the solution” is the movement’s slogan. A draft political platform, published in 2007, decreed that women and non-Muslims should be excluded from senior positions in the sort of Islamic state the Brotherhood wishes to create. (Coptic Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.) But Muhammad Mahdi Akef, “supreme guide,” or chairman, of the movement at the time the draft platform was composed, said such decisions were binding only on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, adding: “The ballot boxes will decide.”
The movement’s current chairman, Muhammad Badi, has defended jihad to “make God’s word supreme,” and pledged hostility to Jews and Israelis: “We will continue to raise the banner of jihad—two swords and a Koran—as long as the Zionists raise their flag, with two blue stripes to represent their so-called state from the Nile to the Euphrates. And the Brotherhood will continue to view the Jews and Zionists as their first and foremost enemies.” But Rashad al-Bayoumi, a leading Muslim Brother, this month told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that, should a provisional government replace Mubarak, “there is no need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel.”
The movement’s alumni also count among the world’s most radical and violent extremists. They include Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who joined the Brotherhood in Egypt when he was only 14. “The Muslim Brotherhood… has often provided the mood music to which al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers dance,” writes Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who, during his youth in East London, belonged to several radical Islamist groups. He grew disillusioned and has since campaigned against what he sees as the “destructive influence” of Islamist ideologies. But Husain is quick to point out that violent jihadists such as Zawahiri, who left the Brotherhood, did so because the movement was too moderate for them. It had accepted, among other sins, democracy.
The group, in short, is difficult to understand or predict. “They are not a monolith,” says Dina Guirguis, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a diverse group with various movements within it.”
Ed Husain believes it can and should be engaged. He’s not alone. It is notable that when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University in which he called for a “new beginning” between the United States and Muslims, he invited 10 Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians to attend. That was before Mubarak teetered on the brink of collapse. But Obama’s opening to the group appears ongoing. This week, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said a reformed government in Egypt “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors,” which can only be interpreted as a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Still, Washington’s statements on the Brotherhood have been guarded, and with good reason. Official engagement would be a sharp departure from long-standing U.S. policy. Even former British prime minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy, is wary. In an interview with CNN, he warned against allowing “religious autocracy” in Egypt, but wouldn’t say whether this was a goal of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The truth is I don’t know and neither does anybody else,” Blair said. “And therefore what I am saying is, don’t be hysterical about it but don’t be complacent about it either.”
There are those in Egypt intimately involved with ongoing efforts to force Mubarak’s departure who resent the outside world’s focus on the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fear it evokes. Among them is Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian blogger and democrat who was briefly detained by Egyptian security forces during the uprising. He was among those invited to attend Obama’s speech in Cairo two years ago.
“The fear of the West is only an obstacle to our movement at the moment,” said Abbas in an interview with Maclean’s. “Their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is crazy, and it’s destroying our revolution. We want democracy, and the Muslim Brotherhood will be included. And I don’t care about the West anymore. It’s not an Islamic revolution. We have no Khomeini in Egypt, for God’s sake,” he adds, referring to the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. “Our revolution did not start with Khomeini’s cassette tapes.”
Abbas also rejects the idea that Egyptians require a strong hand in government to keep their country stable. “We’re not cattle,” he says. “We are capable of organizing ourselves, just like the Westerners. We need no charismatic leaders, no ideologies. We need a state where there are institutions, and we already have institutions. We only need to make these institutions efficient.”
Abbas stresses that events unfolding in Egypt will be decided by Egyptians, rather than Western governments. And it’s true that the influence of outside governments in Egypt is now limited. But Western governments, and especially Washington, must already be preparing for a shift in Egypt’s political landscape that will come to include the Muslim Brotherhood. “We should be very concerned,” says Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser for the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration. “It’s possible to say that in a free election they won’t win, and as time goes by their influence will diminish. And those things may be true. But they adhere to a set of beliefs that most of us view as anathema, when you consider their views on the role of women, or the role of Copts, or their views on Egypt’s relations with Israel.”
But Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, doesn’t think the Muslim Brotherhood should be suppressed. “As they fight a fair fight on the battlefield of ideas, I don’t think you’re going to find the majority of people going for the Muslim Brotherhood, because I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood has the answers to Egypt’s problems. When secular, moderate parties get a chance to make their case, a chance Mubarak always denied them, I think the Muslim Brotherhood’s support will be cut back.”
The Washington Institute’s Guirguis also believes it is precisely because the Muslim Brotherhood has been constrained in Egypt that it has grown so popular. Mubarak drove it underground, where it thrived in mosques and other social institutions, while more traditional political parties had no similar outlets. “If we had a genuinely competitive political landscape, you wouldn’t have seen them emerge as the strongest opposition force,” she says. “Part of their support derives from the fact that they are a protest movement. They’re the ones opposing the regime in a country where the regime is operating with little to virtually no legitimacy or support from its people. Any group that is seen as fighting that is going to be more or less welcomed by at least some sectors of the population. So we’ve seen the fruit of Mubarak’s policies in the form of religious opposition, not the opposite.”
Those who don’t wish to see an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood dominate Egyptian politics can also take comfort in the very uprising that has allowed it to assert itself. “The people demonstrating today in Tahrir Square, they’re against dictatorship,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Doha Center at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. “If we were to have a totalitarian regime in the future led by the Brotherhood, we would have the same people in the square again.”