While Egypt’s secular political parties flounder, the power of the Muslim Brotherhood continues to grow. To understand why, there is no better place to turn than Eric Trager’s article, “The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood: Grim Prospects for a Liberal Egypt” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (subscriber restricted). In sharp contrast to generally thin mainstream press reporting on Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics, Trager’s piece is based on in-depth interviews with about 30 current and former Muslim Brothers over a three-month period.
This enables Trager to piece together a detailed account of the Brotherhood’s structure and recruitment practices, showing in the process how dramatically different the Muslim Brotherhood is from a conventional political party. For example, at first recruiters don’t even identify themselves as Muslim Brothers but simply “build relationships with their targets in order to scrutinize their religiosity.” Through a lengthy and complicated promotion process, the piety and ideology of junior members are closely monitored. Tiny local cells, called “families,” meet regularly and “spend much of their time discussing members’ personal lives and activities.” Recruits also devote a good deal of effort to studying the work of Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hasan al-Banna (not a moderate), and at advanced levels begin donating between 5 and 8 percent of their income to the organization. Before reaching the final level, recruits are often tested by being fed false information, after which they’re tempted to report it to state security. While the basics of this system go back to the Brotherhood’s founding, the details were elaborated and formalized under decades of pressure from Egypt’s rulers.
This is the sort of ideological commitment and discipline we see in groups like the old Communist Party in the West, and bears little relation to what Americans think of as conventional political activity. There is certainly nothing about the picture painted by Trager we would call liberal, in the classic sense of that word.
The Brotherhood’s top-down discipline isn’t perfect. In certain instances since the revolution, younger members have been able to influence the group’s direction. But Trager shows why a significant breakaway by supposedly more moderate younger members is highly unlikely.
The Muslim Brotherhood is planning to contest nearly half the seats in the upcoming parliamentary election (through the nominally distinct Freedom and Justice Party), and Trager thinks the Brotherhood is likely to win the “vast majority” of these seats. The Brotherhood has also moved aggressively to ally with — actually, co-opt — a select group of secular parties, leaving the Brotherhood likely to emerge as the most powerful force in the new assembly.
Trager also shows that what the Muslim Brotherhood means when they call their goals “moderate” bears little relationship to what Americans mean by that word. The Brotherhood claims that being moderate signifies renouncing violence, denouncing terrorism, and refusing to work with jihadists. Yet Trager’s interviews reveal almost universal exceptions to these rules in the minds of Brotherhood members for Israelis, Americans, and Brits, whose countries are considered “gangs that kill children and women and men and destroy houses and fields,” and are thus appropriate targets for violence.
Trager wants the United States to help Egypt’s liberal parties reach the rural masses, in hopes of blunting what he sees as the Brotherhood’s otherwise unstoppable appeal to the religious hinterlands. That seems a wan hope. Even Trager admits that Egypt’s secular political parties are either “too new to be known or too discredited by their cooperation with the previous regime.” He adds: “Concentrated within the small percentage of Internet-using, politically literate Egyptians, their numbers are surprisingly small.”
Realistically, the only force in Egypt capable of keeping the Muslim Brotherhood and the broader Islamist movement in check is the military. Egypt’s military is now engaged in a complicated dance of cooperation and competition with the Brotherhood, outlined capably in another new Foreign Affairs article, “Commanding Democracy in Egypt,” by Jeff Martini and Julie Taylor.
These two articles from the latest issue of Foreign Affairs can be combined with Amr Bargisi’s piece in The Weekly Standard on the rise of an Islamist candidate for Egypt’s president to create a disturbing trilogy. True, Bargisi expresses the hope that stewardship of Egypt’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation may discredit Islamism. Even so, the weakness of Egypt’s secular parties, as well as their seldom reported but very real deficit of authentic liberalism, leaves little hope that a continued Egyptian economic meltdown will somehow produce the liberal renaissance the revolution itself could not.
The more likely scenario is a continuing battle between Egypt’s Islamists and the military, with the West the loser.