Muslim Brotherhood Play for Power in Egypt?

Apr 5, 2012

Update from AIJAC

April 5, 2012
Number 04/12 #01

This Update features two pieces looking at the increasing signs that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is abandoning past promises of modesty and moderation and attempting to impose near-complete domination over Egyptian politics in the near future.

First up is Eric Trager, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s expert on Egyptian politics. He notes the Brotherhood’s decision to break previous promises and field a presidential candidate, its efforts to dominate both most Parliamentary Committees and the Constituent Committee writing the new constitution, and  scrapping of previous efforts to maintain a detente with the ruling military government constitute overwhelming evidence that the Brotherhood has abandoned any pretence of not seeking a monopoly on political power. Trager analyses three possible outcomes of the Presidential election in May – none of which are conducive to the development of stable democracy in Egypt, and also suggests some policy responses for Washington and its allies. For this important, but sobering analysis, CLICK HERE

Next up, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens profiles the Muslim Brotherhood’s new presidential candidate,  Khairat Al Shater, whom he notes favours universal jihad to eliminate the ‘”usurper Zionist enemy”, and calls for using government to achieve the “Islamization” of all aspects of life, so that all Egyptians become “a walking Quran.” He then notes that al-Shater is considered comparatively moderate when juxtoposed with the even more extreme Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate, who is also considered one of the three viable candidates for the job (the third is the vehemently anti-israel former Mubarak-era Foreign Minister Amr Moussa). It is a telling illustration of how badly things appear to be heading in Egypt, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Barry Rubin is scathing toward the US government for reportedly being willing to accept al- Shater as a moderate alternative to Abu Ismail. Plus a profile with more on Abu Ismail is here.

Finally, noted Israeli academic scholar Prof. Asher Susser takes on why so much expert and media comment has gotten the realities of the so-called “Arab Spring” so completely wrong. Susser blames the development of what he calls “false universalism”, a belief that the cultures of the Middle East cannot and must not lead Middle Easterners to behave in different ways or seek different political ends than Westerners. He notes that tendency, including especially the failure to notice that Middle Eastern societies “are far less secular and considerably more pious than their Western counterparts” is largely the result of the baleful influence on Middle East studies of the late Edward Said, whose “Orientalist” approach insisted that to try to identify any such cultural difference was a form of racism. Susser skilfully dissects at length both the many things most observers got wrong about the Arab Spring and Saidism’s important role in causing this reign of error, and to read it all, CLICK HERE.

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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Pursues a Political Monopoly

By Eric Trager

PolicyWatch #1918
April 4, 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential reversal highlights the group’s dictatorial internal structure and power-hungry ambitions, both of which will exacerbate Egypt’s political instability.

On Saturday, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) announced the nomination of Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater for president, cementing a critical shift in its political strategy. Although the group initially tried to manage Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition by cooperating with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and secularist parties, it is now pursuing outright political dominance. The MB’s reversal of its oft-repeated pledge not to run a presidential candidate also suggests that it cannot be trusted if it decides there is an advantage to be won. More broadly, the Brotherhood’s pursuit of a political monopoly undermines prospects for democracy in Egypt and threatens to intensify political instability — a scenario that should deeply alarm U.S. policymakers.


Following President Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster, the MB sought to allay secularist fears of an Islamist takeover by adopting a cooperative political approach and tempering its pursuit of power. Specifically, the Brotherhood made two promises: that it would contest fewer than half of the seats in eventual parliamentary elections, and that it would not run for the presidency. In June 2011, it emphasized its commitment to cooperation by joining the secularist Wafd Party in creating the National Democratic Alliance for Egypt, an electoral coalition that, at its height, included forty-three parties.

This cooperative approach was a facade, however. In October, the MB reportedly insisted that 40 percent of the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary candidates come from its own ranks, catalyzing the defection of thirty parties, including the Wafd. Shortly thereafter, the Brotherhood backtracked on its first promise, ultimately running for at least 77 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections that concluded this January. Then, after winning a 47 percent plurality in those elections, the MB ensured its dominance over the legislature by appointing Brotherhood-aligned chairs to fourteen of nineteen parliamentary committees.

Last month, the MB further alienated secularist parties by monopolizing the legislatively appointed Constituent Assembly, which will write Egypt’s next constitution. MB political leader and parliamentary speaker Saad al-Katatni was named chairman of the assembly, and approximately 65 of the body’s 100 members are affiliated with Islamist parties, including 27 Brotherhood and 12 Salafist parliamentarians. By contrast, only 16 seats were reserved for secularists, 5 for Christians, and 6 for women.

The Brotherhood’s actions have catalyzed a significant political crisis. When the Constituent Assembly’s first session opened on March 28, twenty-five members had already resigned in protest, and representatives from al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church resigned shortly thereafter. The MB has shown little willingness to make the body more inclusive of non-Islamists. Indeed, Brotherhood parliamentarian Subhi Saleh lashed out at the resignations, declaring that the assembly would not “fall hostage to the dictatorship of the minority.”

Meanwhile, prominent lawyers filed suit against the assembly, arguing that the inclusion of parliamentarians in such a body is unconstitutional; a verdict is due April 10. If the current Constituent Assembly is not invalidated, Egypt’s next constitution will lack legitimacy with a significant portion of the voting public — a situation that will undermine attempts at establishing a culture of legal rationalism.


The MB’s cooperation with the SCAF proved only slightly more durable. The group’s February 2011 promise not to run a presidential candidate was, in part, a vow not to contest the junta’s executive authority, which the Brotherhood feared might invite an Algeria-like crackdown. The MB further reassured the SCAF by helping to draft proposed constitutional amendments that contained the council’s program for political transition, and by endorsing those measures in a March 2011 referendum. When pro-democracy activists later stepped up their protests against the SCAF’s repressive rule, the Brotherhood mostly stood aside and minimized its own criticisms of the junta.

This detente seemingly solidified following the Brotherhood’s parliamentary victory, when the group appointed a former general to chair the sensitive Defense and National Security Committee. The MB also used its legislative preponderance to discourage criticism of the council, such as by investigating a secularist parliamentarian for allegedly insulting SCAF chair Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi.

The relationship soured last month, however, when parliament demanded the dismissal of the SCAF-appointed government for lifting travel bans on American pro-democracy NGO workers. By implicitly challenging the council’s executive power, which includes the power to appoint the government, the legislature exceeded its constitutional authority; in response, rumors surfaced that the SCAF might challenge the parliament’s constitutional legitimacy. A war of words soon broke out: the MB accused the SCAF of trying to “abort the revolution,” while the council insinuated that it might crack down on the Brotherhood as the military did under Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954.

The MB’s nomination of Shater for president is a further escalation of this conflict, since it openly contests the SCAF’s executive power. In a statement announcing the decision, the Brotherhood accused the council of disrupting the parliament’s work, pressuring parties to leave the Constituent Assembly, and attempting to run a presidential candidate who would resurrect autocracy. Given the SCAF’s political and economic stake in the dispute and its record of repressing other critics, the confrontation threatens to destabilize Egypt’s already tenuous political environment.


By reneging on two oft-repeated political promises, the Brotherhood has exposed its true aims. Its foremost priority is dominating Egyptian politics, and any assurances that it makes to the contrary cannot be trusted. Moreover, Western observers were not alone in being surprised by Shater’s nomination — even midlevel MB officials were caught off guard, which suggests that decisionmaking remains concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of top Brotherhood leaders.

Three potential scenarios show the danger inherent in the MB’s dictatorial internal structure and power-hungry ambitions. First, if Shater wins the presidential election currently scheduled for late May, an emboldened Brotherhood would likely push harder for the military to relinquish many of its perquisites (e.g., budgetary autonomy and control over major industries), which could set the stage for a violent showdown. An MB political monopoly would also invite intensified protests from secularists, who are already accusing the Brotherhood of behaving like Mubarak’s former ruling party. Meanwhile, the group would no doubt use its dominant position to carry out an oppressive theocratic agenda (e.g., repealing the ban on female genital mutilation, as one female MB parliamentarian recently advocated), which would exacerbate domestic tensions.

Alternatively, if Shater loses to a SCAF-backed candidate, the Brotherhood would likely contend that the voting was fraudulent (in fact, the MB is already accusing the council of planning to steal the election). In this scenario, the group could use its parliamentary dominance to undermine the legitimacy of both the presidency and the military, causing an extended political crisis.

Shater could also lose to Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail. In this case, Egypt would effectively become a competitive theocracy, alienating non-Islamists and spurring them to either challenge the new regime’s legitimacy or emigrate.

To be sure, other scenarios are possible. Yet it is difficult to imagine one in which the Brotherhood’s pursuit of political monopoly enhances the country’s prospects for stability, given the group’s exclusivist ideology and determination to dominate. Egypt is facing a severe economic crisis and could go bankrupt later this year. A perpetual MB-SCAF power struggle might therefore turn the impoverished country of 80 million people into a failed state. For Washington, this would be the worst scenario, endangering efforts to achieve America’s three primary interests in Egypt: strategic cooperation, political pluralism, and regional peace.

At the same time, consolidating legislative and executive power will make it increasingly difficult for the Brotherhood to escape domestic political responsibility. This presents an important policy opportunity for Washington. As the MB inevitably looks abroad for help, Washington can condition its willingness to ensure Egypt’s economic future on the Brotherhood’s behavior. Specifically, the Obama administration should work with international allies to develop a credible economic aid package that would be dispersed incrementally, and only so long as the Brotherhood acts responsibly and helps in developing more-inclusive political institutions. Washington should use military aid in a similar fashion to hold the SCAF accountable.

Eric Trager, The Washington Institute’s Ira Weiner fellow, is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is writing his dissertation on Egyptian opposition parties.

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The Very Model of a Modern Muslim Brother

Meet Khairat Al Shater, poster boy of ‘moderate’ Islamist politics.


Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2012

In Egypt’s upcoming presidential election, there are three main contenders.

One is a septuagenarian dinosaur who served a decade as foreign minister in Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Another was quoted in 2004 by Ikhwanonline—the website of the Muslim Brotherhood—calling for “Arab and Muslim peoples to prepare for Jihad, and boycott all forms of dealing with the Zionist-American enemy and the states that support it.”

And then there’s the third guy, who’s the real hardliner.

Welcome to Arab democracy, post-Arab Spring. That third guy is Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a telegenic Salafist who admires Iran, wants to abolish the peace treaty with Israel, end trade with the West, and have women work at home. The Weekly Standard carried an instructive piece about him in September, warning that he had a good shot at winning the presidency. On Sunday, the New York Times got around to taking note of him, too, apparently since the State Department has also come around to thinking he could win.

Which brings us back around to candidate No. 2.

He’s Khairat Al Shater, a multimillionaire businessman who was the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy head and de facto CFO until last week, when he resigned the Brotherhood (with its blessings) to run for president. Though the Brotherhood had pledged not to field a candidate, it’s doing so anyway out of frustration with the reluctance of Egypt’s military rulers to cede effective power more quickly. And that’s OK with the Obama administration, partly as a hedge against a possible Abu Ismail victory, partly because they’re OK with him.

Mr. Shater, the Times reports, “is in regular contact with the American ambassador, Anne Patterson, as well as the executives of many American companies here, and United States officials have praised his moderation as well as his intelligence and effectiveness.”

About Mr. Shater’s intelligence and effectiveness, there’s little debate. But as the quote from Ikhwanonline suggests, “moderation”—except perhaps in the broader company he keeps—is another matter.

So, on the subject of Israel, Mr. Shater noted that the killing of Hamas’s Ahmed Yassin was “a heinous crime corresponding to the perfidious nature of the Zionist enemy.” As for negotiating with Israel, he called it “mindless”: “The only way” to deal with the Jewish state, he insisted, “is jihad.” He faulted “the enemies of Islam” for trying to “distort and remove [jihad] from the hearts and minds and souls of Muslims.” He blasted the U.S. for preventing “the Islamic nation in its entirety” from eliminating “the usurper Zionist enemy.”

Of course that’s just Israel, and what else is a leading Muslim Brother supposed to say? Still, given that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is a cornerstone to U.S. policy in the Mideast, it might at least call into question the wisdom of the U.S. becoming comfortable with a Shater presidency.

Then there’s Mr. Shater’s ideas about governance in general, spelled out in a lengthy talk he gave last year in Alexandria about the history, philosophy, methods and ambitions of the Brotherhood. (An English translation will be available later this month at the Hudson Institute’s currenttrends.org.)

A few sentences in Mr. Shater’s talk will come as music to Western ears: He calls for an independent judiciary, rule of law, economic development and the peaceful rotation of power.

But that has to be understood in the context of Mr. Shater’s broader aims: “Restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life.” His notion of an ideal citizen is a cadre: “Every individual in the Society should be . . . a walking Quran.” Similarly, his notion of religious piety is organizational commitment: “With individual piety the issues connected to organizational developing must also be present.”

More important, while Mr. Shater believes that different historical circumstances require different organizational tactics, he is adamant that the Brotherhood’s goals must remain fixed and unyielding.

“No one can come and say, ‘let’s change the overall mission’. . . . No one can say, ‘forget about obedience, discipline and structures. . . . No. All of these are constants that represent the fundamental framework for our method; the method of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not open for developing or change.”

What Mr. Shater is advocating, in other words, is the creation of flexible democratic political structures within the rigid framework of a quasi-totalitarian society. And like all totalitarian visions, it even comes with its own Guardians of Virtue: “The Revolution,” he says, “needs to become perpetual,” with a core group of “one or two million” to safeguard the revolution from its enemies. In the old Soviet Union, that job was done by the KGB. In Iran today, it’s the IRGC.

Is this vision of a regime really compatible with American values and interests? People in the Obama administration seem to think so. Hang on, wasn’t there a third candidate? Amr Moussa, dinosaur, is looking better all the time.

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By Asher Susser

Foreign Policy Research Institute, April 2012

The tumultuous events that have swept through the Middle East during the last year or so were widely referred to in the West as the “Arab Spring”. The media was awash with expectations of a secular democratic upheaval that was about to remove the dictators that had ruled much of the region for generations. The term “Spring” had European origins, conjuring up associations with the “Spring of Nations” in 1848, the “Prague Spring” of 1968, or the Eastern European Spring of the late 1980s after the fall of Communism, when popular uprisings in the name of secular democracy sought the overthrow of despotic regimes that had ruled for decades. The “Arab Spring,” according to this thinking, was analogous to the European experience. Indeed, Islamist movements, we were told, were on the margins of events and an overrated force in Arab politics. They were being pushed aside by the new, younger generation of secular democrats organized through the ultra-modern social networks of Facebook and Twitter, much alike their Western counterparts. None of this proved to be true.

These faulty assessments were all components of a “false universalism”[1] that was never translated into political reality. The Islamists, albeit of various strands, have won every election held since the advent of the “Arab Spring.” In Egypt, the most important of Arab states, the Islamists crushed the secular democrats, who proved to be an almost irrelevant political force. Islamists have also won the elections held thus far in Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait, and are playing a prominent role in post-Qaddafi Libya.

Amongst Western observers there was a deeply ingrained reticence to recognize the Otherness of the Middle Eastern Other, in particular the fact that Middle Eastern societies are far less secular and considerably more pious than their Western counterparts. The origins of this inherent reluctance to engage in the cultural Otherness of the Middle East are to be found in the more general post-modern assault on value-free science and objective truth, the rational underpinnings of the European enlightenment. In the aftermath of the Second World War, during which modern science had been employed to perpetrate the unprecedented immorality and inhumanity of the Holocaust, as well as to deliberately destroy masses of innocent civilians with nuclear weapons, considerable doubt was raised about the validity of the very notion of value-free science. If “the clay feet of science” were being questioned, this was all the more so in reference to the “objective truth” of the humanities and the social sciences, where the argument was now made with ever-increasing force that the “soft” sciences were no more than an array of political agendas, or narratives, all designed to serve the political ends of particular elites or interest groups. The humanities and the social sciences should, therefore, be recast to assist in the creation of a new, more just, political order. [2]

This debate did not bypass the field of Middle Eastern studies. In his most influential book, Orientalism, Edward Said, the renowned Professor of English Literature from Columbia University, assailed traditional Middle Eastern scholarship for its overemphasis on the cultural differences between Middle Eastern and Western peoples and for according far too much importance to Islam as a religion and civilization in determining the distinctive characteristics of Middle Eastern societies. Said rejected the “notion that there are geographical spaces with indigenous, radically ‘different’ inhabitants who can be defined on the basis of some religion, culture, or racial essence proper to that geographical space…”[3] This form of scholarship, he argued, had racist undertones and was intended, in this case, to serve the interests of domineering Western powers by portraying the peoples of the Middle East as essentially static and underdeveloped.

In the study of the Middle East, as in other fields in the humanities and social sciences, scholarship, and reporting too, was expected to conform to a form of political correctness rather than the pursuit of an unattainable, ostensibly objective truth. In Middle Eastern studies this came to mean that the study of political culture or cultural distinctiveness became illegitimate. Said’s critique was taken to an absurd extreme through the imposition of a Saidian-McCarthyist straightjacket, whereby anyone engaging in the study of political culture would invariably face intellectual excommunication and/or condemnation for being “essentialist,” “orientalist” or even “racist”.

In the midst of the Orientalism debate in the United States, Michael Hudson, a prominent American political scientist empathetic towards the Arab world, urged his colleagues to “be careful not to throw out the political culture baby with the Orientalist bathwater.” [4] But Hudson’s was a voice in the wilderness. His advice has gone unheeded by most. It is now much more widely acceptable to “explain events as if these were generic phenomena inextricably linked to paradigms of a universal nature. . . . Such universal paradigms attempt to explain widely divergent historical developments as if differences in culture, time, and place had no vital bearing on historical outcomes.” [5]

The use of the term “Spring,” with its typically European connotations and inherent secular expectations, coupled with the exaggerated media focus on the almost mythological qualities and influence of Facebook and Twitter, fostered such a false universal paradigm of uniformity between the Middle East and the West. The inordinate emphasis on technology was the perfect representation of this universalist nature of the new globalized world. Thus the pundits created a universe in which virtual reality and political reality were entirely comingled, a world in which the discussion of the more profound social, political and cultural trends of modern Arab societies could be totally ignored or even pronounced as irrelevant.

Major media outlets focused on the youngsters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who were for the large part secular liberals. They interviewed intellectuals with perfect “Oxbridge” accents, and asserted time and again that Egypt’s Islamists were but a marginal force whose influence was greatly exaggerated by alarmists. It was as if the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square and their “Oxbridge” spokespersons represented all 85 million Egyptians. Very much in line with the popular media representation, a widely held, and needless to say, politically correct academic view was also prevalent in the early days of the “Arab Spring.” As opposed to the “alarmists” who predicted that a tidal wave of Islam was about to sweep Egypt and the region, the politically correct assessment argued that in a world of Twitter and Facebook, a new Middle Eastern democracy was about to take root. This assessment did not anticipate an Islamist takeover in Egypt. In the free democratic space that was filling the void left by the disintegration of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the Muslim Brotherhood was deemed more likely to decline than to grow. Large segments of the Egyptian people would have political alternatives that weren’t available to them before. In other words, new parties would emerge, which would siphon off some of the Muslim Brotherhood vote. The Muslim Brothers would remain an important part of the Egyptian polity, but not the biggest or the most important part, according to this assessment. As for the regional ramifications, the unrest in Egypt was a model lesson in civil protest, which could spread across the entire Middle East with the same democratizing results. [6]

There is not even one correct sentence in the above analysis. It is a perfect example of the prevalent post-Saidian, post-modern “Spring-like” analytical paradigm which is flawed to the core. That is not to argue that traditional Orientalism is above criticism, but that taking the Orientalist critique to an absurd extreme and entirely ignoring the cultural input in Middle Eastern politics is to evade the underlying currents and processes in Middle Eastern societies and to obfuscate the fact that “culture matters” in the Middle East, just as it does everywhere else. The Middle East is not exceptional. It has its peculiarities and distinctive cultural characteristics, just like all regions, peoples and cultures of the world. These are too important to be relegated to the margins of scholarship, in the name of some post-modern quasi-religious creed.

Asher Susser is a senior research fellow and former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. His new book is Israel, Jordan, and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative (Crown Books). This essay is reprinted, with permission, from Tel Aviv Notes, Vol. 6, Number 6, March 26, 2012, published by the Dayan Center.

  1. [Text] This is a term I have borrowed from Nader Hashemi who used it in his book Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  2. [Text] Based on Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).
  3. [Text] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 322.
  4. [Text] Michael Hudson, “The Political Culture Approach to Arab Democratization: The Case for Bringing It Back In, Carefully,” in Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World, ed. Rex Brynen, Bahgat Korany, and Paul Noble, vol. 1: Theoretical Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995), p. 65.
  5. [Text] Jacob Lassner and Ilan Troen, Jews and Muslims in the Arab World: Haunted by Pasts Real and Imagined (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), p. xi.
  6. [Text] The Jerusalem Report, 28 February 2011.

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