The Corner

Mubarak v. the Brotherhood

It is simply delirious to suggest that we can work with the Muslim Brotherhood, that the Brotherhood has renounced violence, or that a Brotherhood-led government will ultimately be better for the United States or, for that matter, for Egyptians.

We have two principal interests in the region: peace and anti-terrorism. Say what you will about Mubarak, who has committed abominable abuses and stunted the growth of civil society — albeit in the face of a non-stop terrorist threat that is more immediate and existential than anything we face in the U.S. Mubarak has also kept the peace with Israel, and he has been a real ally against terrorists (as opposed to “allies” who profess allegiance with us but do more to abet than defeat jihadism).

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is staunchly opposed to the West and which supports aggression against U.S. forces operating (and promoting democracy) in Muslim countries, is pledged to the destruction of Israel. Hamas is a Brotherhood franchise. The Brotherhood would neither keep the peace nor support our efforts against terrorism. Its doctrine is a pro-terrorist doctrine. If you fall for its claims to be against “terrorism,” you are falling for a word game — they do not consider attacks against Israel or against Western forces in Muslim countries to be terrorism. They consider that to be resistance.

The sharia system a Brotherhood-led government would impose is itself a form of tyranny. It would repress freedom of conscience, individual liberty, and equality under the law. It would validate violence if committed in the service of jihad (and, as we saw when Brotherhood spiritual compass Yusuf Qaradawi endorsed the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq, it would have the support of the influential al-Azhar University in doing so). Moving to a government led or strongly influenced by the Brotherhood would not be a move toward democracy even if it were brought about by the process of free elections. Democracy — at least as most of us mean it when we say we’d like to see it adopted — is a culture, not a process.

Finally, Elliott Abrams’s argument (see Jonah’s post) is absurd. The Brotherhood remains a force to be reckoned with in Egypt, despite numerous attempts to suppress it, because of its tug on Egyptian Muslim society, not because the regime has been insufficiently nuanced in dealing with it. Mr. Abrams is idealizing Egypt, just as Bush democracy project enthusiasts have consistently idealized the Islamic ummah — prioritizing democratic processes over democratic culture because they will not accept the dearth of the latter (indeed, the hostility towards the latter) in Islam. This is why, for example, Secretary Rice could say with a straight face that 70 percent of Palestinians just want to live side-by-side in peace with Israel when, in fact, well over 70 percent of Palestinians deny Israel’s right to exist.

In 2007 polling by the University of Maryland and World Public Opinion, three-quarters of Egyptians said they favor a “strict” application of sharia law in every Muslim country (half said they “strongly” favored it, the other quarter favored it “somewhat”). And while two-thirds approved of “democracy,” three-quarters also said they want to “keep Western values out of Islamic countries” — i.e., their conception of “democracy” is very different from Western democracy (with features like establishment of Islam as the state religion, installation of sharia as a principal source of law, the invalidation of laws that are inconsistent with sharia, etc.). Moreover, fully 92 percent of Egyptians said that the U.S. was trying to weaken and divide the Islamic world. That’s probably why 82 percent of them wanted U.S. forces withdrawn from all Muslim countries. 

The Muslim Brotherhood thrives in Egypt because, even if many Egyptians would prefer not to live under strict sharia, Egyptian society as a whole has a greater affinity for Muslim Brotherhood principles than it does for Western principles. The authoritarian regime has had to walk a tight-rope because the Brotherhood enjoys strong support in Egypt as a symbol of Islamic rectitude. Mubarak understood — manifestly better than many of his critics — that coming down too hard on the Brotherhood would be seen as an attack on Islam itself. One needn’t think too long about the flip-turns our own government has done to avoid being perceived as “at war with Islam” (even though Muslims make up only about one percent of our population) to understand why Mubarak, in the Arabic world’s most populous Muslim country, did not see a harder line with the Brotherhood as a very promising strategy.

With due respect to Mr. Abrams, the Brotherhood is regarded in some circles as “moderate” precisely because many Egyptians viewed it as not aggressive enough in pursuing the Islamist agenda. Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Gamaat al Islamia (the Islamic Group), Egyptian terrorist organizations, broke away from the Brotherhood for just this reason. Mubarak calculated that he had to crack down mercilessly on EIJ and Gamaat but tolerate the Brotherhood (which is nominally banned but permitted to operate as long as it does not get caught orchestrating terrorist operations in Egypt). To maintain that he could have done things differently and that, if he had, the Brotherhood would somehow not be as strong and popular today is to take Egyptian society as we’d like to imagine it. Mubarak had to take Egyptian society as it is.


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