Egypt, Without Illusions
Democratization will be a messy and turbulent process, but fears of a radical Islamist takeover are overblown.


Of course, that doesn’t mean we should sugarcoat the EMB’s record or ignore the hair-raising comments made by many of its senior members. No question, the organization is filled with religious obscurantists who have espoused anti-Semitism and endorsed murderous attacks against both Israeli civilians and U.S. troops in Iraq. While the EMB formally abandoned violence a long time ago, it also spawned Hamas — which is technically the Palestinian branch of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood — and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a terrorist outfit that later merged with al-Qaeda. For that matter, Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy, the Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, was originally a Brotherhood member, before leaving to create EIJ. The type of Islamic society championed by top EMB officials is anathema to Western values of liberty and equality. Those who accuse the Brothers of being theocrats-in-waiting can easily summon a raft of evidence to buttress their case.

And yet, we must appreciate that the EMB has been evolving. Just ask New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright — author of The Looming Tower, a Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda — who once studied and taught at the American University in Cairo. “The Brotherhood in Egypt has made a decision that, in general, they agree with democratic politics,” he told NPR last week. This decision has prompted ferocious criticism from Zawahiri and bin Laden, who regard the Brothers as traitors to Islam. At the present juncture, Wright said, the EMB is deeply “fractured.” Its ranks include “hardliners,” “moderates,” and “progressives who want to be much more a part of the modern world.” The group is far from a homogeneous bloc.

George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch made this same point in a thoughtful 2008 report. “The Brotherhood today is perhaps best understood as an internally divided organization, with the balance of power between politically oriented pragmatists and religiously oriented conservatives very much in flux,” he wrote. “The MB’s still dominant moderate stance is engendering impatience among the ranks, with analysts as well as Brotherhood leaders and activists warning of
the growing difficulty of persuading young activists of the virtues of self-restraint. A sensible policy approach would be to try to create the conditions in which the pragmatists could win these internal battles — by reducing regime repression, recognizing and rewarding positive developments, and pushing to open up the public sphere for discussion and debate that might increase the organization’s transparency.”

As Lynch indicated, the EMB remains relatively opaque, thereby adding to Egyptian and Western distrust of its actual motives. But in the sunlight of democratic competition, the Brotherhood will be forced to clarify its stance on various hot-button questions. For example: What is the proper status of women in Egyptian society? How about religious minorities, such as the Coptic Christians? And should Cairo preserve formal relations with Jerusalem? As Wright told NPR, those three issues — women, minorities, and Israel — will go a long way toward determining the level of EMB sway in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Over the past decade, the Brotherhood has often seemed schizophrenic. In 2004, it unveiled a “reform initiative” that championed democratic pluralism, constitutional government, and free elections — while still calling for Sharia law. A year later, EMB candidates (running as independents) captured roughly 20 percent of all seats in the Egyptian national assembly, despite violent harassment at the polls. Optimistic Westerners said the Brotherhood had become an authentic democratic organization with which America should pursue greater engagement. In 2007, however, the EMB released a draft of its first-ever policy platform — and the skeptics claimed vindication. The platform rejected the right of women or Coptic Christians to serve as Egyptian president. It also advocated the formation of a clerical council that would issue binding judgments on legislation related to Sharia.

“This proposal,” wrote journalist James Traub in his 2008 book, The Freedom Agenda, “which had never before appeared in Brotherhood policy documents, was quickly seized on as proof that the group favored Iranian-style theocracy.” The platform brouhaha also sparked a massive uproar within the Brotherhood itself, thereby highlighting its internal schisms. (Several key “moderate” EMB officials had been in jail when the policy blueprint was formulated.) Ottaway insists that at least some EMB leaders — people she knows personally — are genuinely committed to representative government, and she argues that
entering the arena of pluralist democracy would have “a moderating effect” on the organization as a whole.


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