Syria’s unrest, Egypt’s political transition
Apr 15, 2011
April 15, 2011
Number 04/11 #04
This Update concentrates on both the increasingly widespread protests in Syria, and the state of the political transition in Egypt, looking especially at the role of the Muslim Brotherhood there.
First up is a BICOM (British-Israel Communications and Research Centre) briefing on the state of the significant unrest in Syria. The paper reviews the conditions in Syria and predicts that a protracted period of strife looks likely. It goes on to examine the possible implications of the unrest, as well as any regime change, for both Israel and any peace prospects. For the complete backgrounder, CLICK HERE. Also, Washington Institute scholars David Schencker and Andrew Tabler agree that the Syrian protests are gathering momentum. It is being reported from Syria that soldiers are being shot for refusing to fire on protesters, that thousands of women and children are blocking roads to call for the release of those arrested, and that Iran is assisting the regime to put down the unrest.
Next up is Robert Satloff, the noted Middle East expert who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, analysing the current political situation in Egypt and focussing on the Muslim Brotherhood. In testimony given to a US Congressional Committee, he reviews the complexities of the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with both the Mubarak regime and the current transitional military administration, and warns there is reason for “deep concern” about the Brotherhood becoming a major power broker in Egypt. He therefore offers some policy advice on how to maximise the possibility that a post-transition Egypt will be compatible with US, and other Western, interests. For all Satloff’s valuable insights, CLICK HERE. More comment on the Egyptian situation from other Washington Institute scholars is here.
Finally, Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby of the Hudson Insitute discuss in more detail what is known about the agenda and history of the Brotherhood. They argue that, contrary to views often expressed, while the tactics of the Brotherhood have evolved toward caution and gradualism, its substantive goals have not altered. They also look in some detail at its role in recent political events in Egypt and like Satloff, caution that there is “great possibility that a state either under the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood or deeply influenced by it” may emerge. For their full essay, CLICK HERE. Interviews with some Brotherhood leaders are reported here, while Arab scholar Khalil Al-Anani warns not to expect the Brotherhood to be democrats just because they have suffered repression in the past.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Some positive news for democracy and peace in a new poll from Egypt.
- Thinktanker Tony Badran on what Assad is thinking in the face of the protests, plus academic Joel Daniel Parker discusses the leading Syrian opposition figures.
- Israeli scholar Guy Bechor argues the current unrest gives the lie to the claims of many that Israeli-Syrian peace was achievable.
- Some more policy advice on Syria is here.
- Martin Indyk on the Saudi policy conundrums for US President Obama.
- Shmuel Rosner asks if the “Arab spring” might be running out of steam and may fail to topple any more regimes.
- Some more comment on Justice Goldstone’s re-consideration of his report, here, here, here and here. Plus, some refutation Goldstone heard three days before his recantation of his reports’ key findings, is here.
BICOM ANALYSIS, April 12, 2011
- The uprising in Syria has now entered its fourth week and continues to spread. President Assad has decisively rejected the possibility of major reform, and now relies heavily on the loyalty of the Syrian security forces to sustain his regime.
- Syria appears to be facing a protracted period of strife, rather than a rapid leadership change, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. To survive, the regime may escalate the repression of protest.
- Ongoing unrest probably removes any immediate prospect of revived negotiations between Israel and Syria. Yet it also stands to weaken the Iranian regional alliance, which is Israel’s main strategic concern.
Syria: latest developments
Anti-regime protest in Syria has now entered its fourth week, with no signs of dissipating. Large scale clashes took place over the weekend between government forces and demonstrators in a number of locations in Syria. At least 25 protestors were killed during rallies in Deraa in the south of the country. On Saturday, security forces opened fire on mourners attending funerals for slain protestors. Protests also spread last week from mostly Sunni regions to the Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Hassakah. At least 170 people are now thought to have been killed.
Media reports suggest that the regime may be preparing a major crackdown on protests. Two special forces’ battalions are reported to be preparing for deployment in Damascus. The Fourth Armored division, under the command of Maher Assad, the president’s brother, is reported to be have been deployed around Deraa. This exclusively Alawi force originated in unites that played the key role in the bloody suppression of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
What may happen next?
In private conversation, many Syrian oppositionists are currently claiming that the protestors have already won the most important victory, breaking the barrier of fear that reigned in the country for decades. As such, the fall of the Assad regime is now considered only a matter of time. However, the regime still holds a number of ‘cards’ before its fall becomes inevitable.
First, the demonstrations are sizeable and stretch across the country, but they do not yet constitute a mass popular movement. Syrians are still intimidated by the ruthlessness of the state security forces, and refrain from entering protests in large numbers. As long as protests continue at this intensity, Assad may consider that he can maintain a policy of repression and containment, and wait the protestors out.
Secondly, the Assad regime relies on the support of the Syrian Alawi minority. Shia Alawis constitute about 12% of the population of Syria, which is 75% Sunni Muslim. Assad has staffed the most senior sections of the security forces with Alawis, often related to him through clan or family ties. These elements are likely to remain loyal to Assad to preserve their privileged status.
Thirdly, the Syrian regime is aided by its close alliance with Iran. Today, Damascus constitutes a key lynchpin in the Iranian system of alliances in the region. This means Syria is less likely to face serious western threats of intervention. Key European governments and UN officials strongly denounced the Syrian regime for the deadly crackdown, an indication that the international community is not oblivious to the events in Syria. However, it is hard to see how these statements lead to concrete action, which could potentially spark confrontation with Syria’s allies in Iran, Lebanon and Gaza. The Syrian regime has already demonstrated its willingness to use terrorist proxies as a tool of policy, as demonstrated by its support for Hezbollah during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Given these factors, Syria appears to be in for a protracted period of strife ahead, rather than a rapid change of leadership, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. The final result of the confrontation cannot be predicted, but it can be said with some confidence that Assad is unlikely to quietly accept defeat.
What does the Syrian unrest mean for Israel?
Although there have been reports that US officials, particularly Senator John Kerry, have sought to reopen the Israeli-Syrian diplomatic channel, the internal dissent in Syria is likely to reduce any prospect of renewed negotiations between Syria and Israel. The Assad regime will be busy with survival in the upcoming period, and is therefore unlikely to seek major diplomatic initiatives. However, the beleaguered situation of the regime does raise the possibility of increased regional tensions.
If unrest further threatens his regime, Assad may seek a provocation against Israel as a way of diverting attention from domestic strife. This would be a high risk strategy for Syria, since its conventional forces are no match for Israel’s. But it is worth noting that the use of proxy military organisations as instruments of provocation is a noted characteristic of Syrian policy. Syria domiciles the leaderships of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a host of smaller Palestinian paramilitary groups, which could be mobilised to heat up the Israeli-Syrian or the Israeli-Lebanese front.
Despite the uncertainty, from Israel’s point of view, there are possible positive elements deriving from Assad’s challenges. Iran and its regional allies have sought to use the Arab unrest to expand their influence in the Gulf, Egypt and the Gaza Strip. At first, their willingness for greater repression appeared to make them immune. However, it is now clear that the willingness to use violence does not render pro-Iranian regimes invulnerable to internal unrest.
The weakening of the Assad regime would constitute a very serious blow to Iranian regional ambitions. Official Iranian propaganda, aware of this, is currently maintaining that Saudi Arabia and Jordan are behind the unrest in Syria.
It is important to note that Assad’s attempt to portray his regime as a key opponent of Israel is disputed by much of the Sunni opposition to his rule. For example, Sunni oppositionists have characterised the quiet on the Golan Heights is a mark of Assad’s acquiescence to Israel. The Assad regime, while a leading backer of groups engaged in asymmetrical warfare, has been careful to keep its own border with Israel quiet. A new, genuinely ideological Sunni regime might lack this inclination toward caution.
It is not possible to predict with any degree of confidence the outcome of the current unrest in Syria. But whatever the eventual outcome, it is appropriate to conclude any observation or analysis of current events in Syria by acknowledging the great courage and determination of the protestors, who are currently engaging in demanding their rights from one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world.
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“The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Current, And Prospects for Post-Mubarak Egypt: An Early Assessment”
By Dr. Robert Satloff
Executive Director, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Testimony prepared for delivery to the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, HUMINT, Analysis and Counterintelligence
April 13, 2011
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood and the direction of the Islamist current in Egyptian politics and society today. Having just returned from a fact-finding mission to Egypt several days ago, which included intensive discussions with the broad array of political actors in Egyptian society (including members of the Muslim Brotherhood), I am eager to share my observations with you on the potential role Islamists will play in the “new Egypt” and the implications of this development for U.S.-Egyptian relations and broader U.S. interests. With your permission, I will leave discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the United States to my colleagues.
Context: Before turning to the specific question of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is important to provide a general comment about the situation in Egypt. I will summarize my view as follows: One cannot but be moved by the courage, enthusiasm and audacity of the people – largely young people – who toppled the Mubarak regime. I believe their commitment and determination will eventually be vindicated in the development of a more hopeful, more open, forward-looking Egypt. In other words, the long-term looks positive. However, for many reasons, the near term looks problematic. The best case will be bumpy, with the uncertain relationship between army and civilian forces moving in zigs-and-zags – indeed, often in bloody zigs-and-zags, as was the case over the past week. Even more likely will be worse-case situations that will be far more difficult, vexing and even dangerous for Egypt, U.S.-Egyptian relations and U.S. regional interests than what we have seen in ten weeks since the start of the revolutionary events in Tahrir Square. The challenge for the United States is to help Egypt weather a period of profound uncertainty; provide what assistance, counsel and partnership we can to support those in Egypt who wish to take a liberal, democratic, inclusive, responsible and peaceful course of political change; and insulate our broader regional interests from the potential negative impact of bad- and worse-case scenarios.
From Revolution to Transition
It is already a truism of Egypt’s post-Mubarak politics that liberal activists were responsible for the takeoff of the revolution but, so far, Islamists and the military have been defining the landing. That is to say that the spark of revolutionary activity came largely from secular youth, who rather ingeniously organized the massive protests that caught the regime – and themselves — by surprise on Police Day, January 25. Islamists were slow to the fray. However, sensing an opportunity, Islamists grabbed it. When, over the next ten days, the regime tested the option of using real military force to quash the protests, the protestors’ most effective and best organized manpower came from two sources – first, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies and second, the well-oiled machines of soccer fan clubs and soccer team security forces. Only the former, of course, had a strategic political agenda, and from the moment the Islamists committed themselves to the fight, their goal has been to capture, exploit and inherit the revolution.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, the demise of the Mubarak regime provided an opening to regularize their role in Egyptian political life after decades on the political margins or in the political shadows. That is to say that the Brotherhood recognized that a post-Mubarak Egypt might provide an opportunity for it to resume legitimate political activity after decades of an uneasy relationship with the country’s military leadership.
Here, one should recall the Brotherhood’s long and checkered history in modern Egypt. Founded in 1928 by the schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood was conceived as a movement to revitalize Egyptian society, combat Western ideas, philosophy and cultural mores, and fight colonialism, imperialism and Zionism through the spread of Islamic law, practice, custom and tradition. While the Brotherhood always maintained an important focus on education and social welfare as critical to its proselytization (dawa) efforts, with striking speed, it developed into a major player on the domestic political scene, complete with a secretive, armed element that terrorized Egyptian society. That terrorism and the radical political philosophy on which it was based led to the imprisonment and execution of Brotherhood leaders, a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organization, and the inclusion in the 1971 constitution of a prohibition of political parties based on religion.
The MB’s relationship with the Egyptian regime, however, has long been more complex than that. Under the Mubarak presidency, for example, the Brotherhood remained a banned political entity and the regime periodically threw large numbers of Brotherhood activists in jail. At the same time, however, the regime reached tactical arrangements with the Brotherhood which allowed the Brotherhood to operate vast social welfare programs, especially in areas where the civil government was dysfunctional, and even to compete in limited fashion in legislative elections, so long as the MB candidates campaigned as “independents.” There were various rationales involved in this policy – part of this was to provide an outlet to permit the influential Islamist current in society let off steam; part of this was an internal security imperative of finding some way to get social services to citizens when the government could not deliver it itself; part of it was an insurance policy purchased by the regime to protect itself from popular attack for its maintenance of peace with Israel and counter-terror partnership with the United States; and part of it was to project both at home and abroad the idea that Islamists were such a potent threat that accepting the authoritarianism of the Mubarak regime was a small price to pay to ensure stability in as vital a country as Egypt. The bottom line was that politics in Egypt stultified – one aspect of the tacit agreement between the Islamists and the regime was to undermine the most attractive alternative to the regime, i.e., non-Islamists (liberals, democrats, leftists, etc.) and the Islamists’ own political fortunes were nearly always determined by the whim of the regime. So, when the regime decided in 2005 that it needed to underscore to Washington the danger of the “freedom agenda,” it orchestrated elections which gave 20 percent of parliament to the MB, and when the regime decided in 2010 that it had proved its point, it orchestrated elections in which the MB did not win a single seat.
(While this testimony focuses on the Egyptian face of the Brotherhood, it is important to note that the Brotherhood was always, at its core, an international movement, which rejected the idea of the nation-state and sought eventually to recreate the Islamic caliphate. While there is no Islamist Comintern, with a central committee guiding the activities of local Muslim Brotherhood chapters in far-flung countries around the globe, there are important doctrinal, ideological, political, strategic and personal connections that link Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sister- movements and organizations around the world. Hence, for example, the Islamic Resistance Movement — otherwise known as Hamas — defines itself as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.)
The demise of Hosni Mubarak raised, for the Brotherhood, the prospect of returning to the political stage as a fully legitimate actor. This has required the Brotherhood to adopt a very delicate balance between, on the one hand, embracing the ideals of change, democracy and revolution and, on the other hand, redefining and updating the tacit arrangements with the military, which remains (if uneasily) in control of the pace, content and direction of political change in Egypt. The result is complexity, contradiction and paradox. Brotherhood members and sympathizers have been deeply engaged in all political dialogues with the post-Mubarak military government; Brotherhood leaders were the most vocal supporters of the military’s constitutional amendments, as seen in their support for the “yes” vote in the recent referendum; and Brotherhood leaders have been strong advocates for a speedy electoral timetable, which would maximize their advantage in organization over their liberal and leftist political competitors. At the same time, elements within the Brotherhood have built important political coalitions with key liberal and leftist activists; fought bravely against the Egyptian security forces when the regime used force and violence against Tahrir Square protestors during and after the events of January- February; and called for swift justice against mainstays of the Mubarak regime. If these positions are, at times, contradictory, that is the nature of politics in post-Mubarak Egypt.
To add further to the complexity of the situation, the Brotherhood does not occupy the Islamist space on the Egyptian political spectrum all by itself. There are at least six different elements within the overall Islamist current. Moving from the most radical to the most liberal, these include: the al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah /Islamic Jihad, organized by former convicts imprisoned for their role in the Sadat assassination; the extremist Salafiyun, who have been implicated in destruction of Sufi shrines and sectarian violence against Copts; the Brotherhood and its new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party; the liberal wing of the Brotherhood (represented by possible presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and his proto-party, an- Nahda/Renaissance); the Youth of the Brotherhood, which sometimes coalesces with liberal and leftist youth; and the al-Wasat/Center party, which is led by disaffected Brotherhood members. The extent to which these divisions within the Islamist trend are real is unknown. One implication of this variety of Islamist political groupings – especially the fact impact of the emergence of the Salafis as political actors — is that it has the effect of making the Brotherhood look more mainstream and moderate, by comparison. That, indeed, might be the rationale for these divisions all along. (One additional facet of Islamist politics is the extent to which a variety of groups reportedly receive funding from foreign sources, especially from Saudi Arabia and Gulf. Informed observers especially focus on Salafi groups as recipients of this funding, which has the potential to distort the local political environment.)
The Brotherhood, Elections and Political Power
I believe deep concern about the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential emergence as a major player and even power-broker is warranted. As I noted in previous congressional testimony, the Brotherhood is not, as some suggest, simply an Egyptian version of the March of Dimes – that is, a social welfare organization whose goals are fundamentally humanitarian. On the contrary, the Brotherhood is a profoundly political organization that seeks to reorder Egyptian (and broader Muslim) society in an Islamist fashion. Tactically, I believe the organization will exploit whatever opportunities it is offered; it has renounced its most ambitious goals and the violent means to achieve them only as a result of regime compulsion, not by free choice. Should the Brotherhood achieve political power, it will almost certainly use that power to transform Egypt into a very different place. The best case analogy would be Turkey under Erdogan, where the secular state is gradually being Islamized. A more realistic situation would see deeper and more systemic Islamization of society, including the potential for a frightening growth of sectarianism between Muslims and Copts and even deepening intra-Muslim conflict between Salafis and Sufis.
However, while extreme wariness and caution is warranted, it would be a mistake for the United States to operate under the assumption that the Brotherhood’s ascension to power is inevitable, given the country’s broad range of political alternatives. In fact, such an assumption is very dangerous and could itself lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, a close look at the 2005 elections and the March referendum results suggests there is considerable reason to believe that the Brotherhood does not command majority support among the Egyptian public. Moreover, recent actions by the Supreme Military Council – most notably its maintenance of the most important elements of the Mubarak-era constitution – suggests that the Egyptian military does not intend to change an electoral system that effectively prevents the Brotherhood from achieving political power through the ballot box.
Still, it is important for Washington to be vigilant about the mainstreaming of the Brotherhood in Egyptian political life and the impetus this would give to the Islamization of domestic politics and foreign policy. Based on the words of Islamist leaders and the experiences of Islamists in and around governments in other Arab countries, implications of this would be felt in numerous arenas – from social mores, to education policy, to Egypt’s regional policies. This would have particular impact on Egypt’s peace with Israel. In recent weeks, Brotherhood leaders have downplayed their previous statements calling for a national referendum to determine whether Egypt should continue to adhere to its peace treaty, saying little more than this is an issue that the new democratic parliament should address. Most likely, the military’s firm position to maintain Egypt’s international commitments has made it unacceptable to talk about abrogating the treaty or advocating political steps toward that goal. Still, in an Islamized Egypt, the future frigidity of Egypt-Israel peace is likely to make the experience of the last couple of decades look warm and cozy by comparison. This will have practical effect in Egypt’s policy toward Gaza, in Egypt’s policing of Sinai, in Egypt’s sale of natural gas to Israel and in the continued operation of the Qualified Industrial Zones set up inside Egypt to build Egypt-Israel economic cooperation and access to the U.S. market. Of course, in all these ways – and more — a more Islamist Egypt would also have serious deleterious ramifications for the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
U.S. Interests and U.S. policy
In addressing the Islamist challenge to democracy in Egypt, it is necessary for the U.S. government to strike a wise balance between, on the one hand, being alive to the dangers that the Brotherhood and its allies post to critical U.S. interests and, on the other hand, providing the Brotherhood with a political gift in the form of lightning-rod statements or actions that could motivate voters otherwise indifferent to the Brotherhood’s message to come out and support the movement.
Privately, the Administration should engage with the Supreme Military Council on U.S. concerns so that technical decisions are not taken in framing an electoral process that inadvertently abets the Brotherhood’s political prospects. In addition, we should share information with them on the foreign funding of Islamist groups, parties and movements with an eye to insulating Egypt’s democratic experiment from nefarious interests of outside powers.
Publicly, it is important for the Administration to send a clear message to the political elite and voting public in Egypt about what sort of Egypt we can envision as a partner. Broadly speaking, U.S. interests are best served by supporting a transition to an Egyptian government that:
- shows, through action, its commitment to the universal freedoms of speech, assembly, thought, and religion, and to a free press; that encourages religious liberty and both practices and enforces religious tolerance for all minorities; that supports the rights of people to communicate freely, including through the internet, without interference; and that combats extremism in all its forms, including those based on religion;
- represents, through democratic norms and practices (including free and fair elections for president and parliament), the legitimate political, economic, and social aspirations of its people and that endeavors, in all practicable ways, to meet them;
- respects the rule of law and the institutions of justice; recognizes the vital importance of an independent judiciary; and fights corruption at all levels of government;
- is committed to fulfill its international obligations, including (but not limited to) freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal; peace with Israel and the expansion of peacethroughout the region; the fight against extremism and terrorism; peaceful resolution of the Sudan conflict (including recognition of partition); and all other treaty obligations and duties incumbent upon a peace-loving member of the United Nations;
- affirms its bilateral partnership with the United States to advance security and peace in the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean.
This is the Egypt that merits full U.S. political support and financial assistance, including both economic and military aid. As Egyptians begin to make political choices about their future leadership and strategic direction, Washington should project a clear message that it stands ready to provide such aid to a government that can endorse these principles and work toward their implementation in practice. A Brotherhood-led, -guided or –inspired government of Egypt would not meet this test.
To give these principles real political impact, it would also be important for the Administration to act now to create incentives to encourage Egyptians to choose the sort of leadership with whom we can build a special relationship, i.e., an Egypt guided by the principles outlined above. Among the incentives Washington should consider are: opening negotiations for a free trade agreement; expansion of the QIZ program; an early loan to the government of Egypt collateralized by the Mubarak-era seized assets; and a dramatic increase in education initiatives, including substantial expansion of university-to-university programs that would bring Egyptian students to the United States and create distance learning opportunities for many more of them.
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Hillel Fradkin & Lewis Libby
Commentary, April 2011
On March 20, Egypt held a referendum vote, and it is the common consensus that the results indicate the degree of support and power for the Muslim Brotherhood. In this special preview of an article from Commentary’s April issue, written several weeks before, Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby consider the political program of the this venerable Islamist movement.
On February 18, crowds gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak—but also to pray, since it was a Friday, and Friday is the Muslim Sabbath. As it had on every Friday since the uprising began the month before, the Muslim Brotherhood took a leading role. But on this Friday, the subject was no longer Mubarak but rather Egypt’s future and the place the Brotherhood—the venerable Islamist organization—would have in it. Would the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately support a turn toward democratic governance, or would it revert to its oft-cited goal of installing a theocracy? How that question might be answered arose in the person of Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive whose secret work on Facebook and elsewhere on the Web had been so crucial to organizing the protests.
Would Ghonim speak?
He would not. Despite his centrality to all that had happened, this undeniable hero of the revolution was denied access to the podium by the Muslim Brotherhood. Ghonim’s parting gesture, as he left the square, was to wrap himself in the Egyptian flag. In his stead was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian who had lived in exile for more than 30 years, had had no apparent role in recent events, and had just flown in from Qatar. Qaradawi is known to millions in the Muslim world through his weekly TV show on Al Jazeera and through his founding and direction of Islamist institutions, many of them in Europe. He is the chief ideologue and spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide.
And so February 18 turned out not to be a celebration of the “agenda” of Egyptian reform for all Egyptians but rather of the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. What is that agenda? That is the question. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and most organized Egyptian entity apart from the Egyptian military and the state itself. The institutions that the Brotherhood manages or dominates—schools, clinics, and loose affiliations of lawyers, doctors, and students—constitute something like a parallel state. And the Brotherhood has shown its strength with the Egyptian public in recent years. In 2005, in the only semi-free legislative elections in decades, the Brotherhood managed to win 20 percent of the seats. The Brotherhood seems well positioned to benefit from the protests and the departure of Mubarak, and that fact has cast a shadow over the extraordinary events in Cairo—the peaceful ouster of a sclerotic autocrat.
Some observers have expressed the hope that the Brotherhood might actually play a benign role as Egypt moves forward. They cite the soothing words of one of the members of its Supreme Council, Essam el-Errian: “We come with no special agenda of our own—our agenda is that of the Egyptian people. We aim to achieve reform and rights for all, not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians.” This and other pronouncements have been taken as evidence that the Brotherhood is not the radical organization of old—the organization from whose ranks the assassins of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat, emerged, and from whose theoretical seedlings al-Qaeda sprouted.
But even if the Brotherhood hasn’t changed, say, others, we shouldn’t worry too much. It won’t have the legitimacy necessary to dominate the political life of the new Egypt. Common estimates of its public support range between 20 and 30 percent, which suggests to optimists that the Brotherhood would lack the capacity to overpower the pro-democracy elements of the movement. After all, the senior leadership of the Brotherhood was not initially involved in instigating the protests, and once the organization got involved, it supposedly played at best a subordinate role. The public knows this. And the Brotherhood knows it too, they say, which explains why it has announced it will not field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency, nor run a candidate slate sufficiently large to win a majority in the new parliament. Indeed, in offering their hopes for a new Egypt, Brotherhood leaders have invoked the relatively reassuring model of Turkey—present-day Turkey, that is, under the governance of the AKP, a party that grew out of the Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But as the sobering treatment of Ghonim and appearance of Qaradawi on February 18 both suggest, democracy advocates need to keep their wits about them when considering the composition of the new Egypt. The passions that stoked these remarkable events are very fresh and very raw and very powerful. But they will abate over time, and time is the Muslim Brotherhood’s friend. The organization is nearly 80 years old, and it has learned the benefits of both patience and prudence.
It is proceeding with caution, and so, in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, should we.
Far too many analysts seem to confuse the caution the Muslim Brotherhood has displayed thus far with moderation. There is no conflict between being immoderate and acting with discretion. We know very well from historical experience that successful radical movements and organizations often proceed carefully in pursuit of a violent revolutionary aim.
The Brotherhood’s difficult eight-decade history in Egypt has schooled its leaders in the need for caution. During those 80 years, the Brotherhood has sometimes enjoyed some freedom and even favor, only to see them replaced by hardship. In the 1930s and early 40s, the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, enjoyed influence—sometimes considerable—under the Egyptian monarchy. But in 1948, Banna was murdered by King Farouk’s police. Subsequently, the Brotherhood became friendly and complicit with the group of young officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and established the regime that persisted through the reign of the three generals—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak (it persists today, in spite of the latter’s ouster).
But in two years’ time, the Brotherhood had fallen out with the regime and found itself subjected to ferocious persecution far worse than anything it had endured under the monarchy. For a time, Nasser relented, but he turned on them yet again and launched another cycle of attacks in the 1960s. This campaign culminated in the 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, the anti-Western thinker who was the Brotherhood’s most popular figure.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, the Brotherhood enjoyed a period of relative freedom under his successor Anwar Sadat, who was more pious than Nasser and needed the group to combat the influence on Egypt of the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. But that second honeymoon, too, soon faded, and ended altogether under Mubarak, in the wake of Sadat’s assassination by Islamist radicals who had broken from the Brotherhood.
So we can see how and why the Brotherhood was forced to learn the virtues of caution. At the same time, its vision of Egypt’s future, and the Muslim future as a whole, is anything but moderate. From its very beginnings in 1928, the Brotherhood has been explicit about its ultimate goal: the radical transformation of contemporary Muslim society and its political order. Its central pronouncement, authored by its founder, Banna, remains authoritative to this day: “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Koran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
The Brotherhood’s strategy for realizing its vision was long term, to put it mildly, and thus has been mistaken for a legitimate effort to effect gradual change from the bottom up through the construction of institutions separate from the government—like providers of social services and communities of like-minded professionals. But these organizational efforts in no way have led to the abandonment of its radical vision in its most comprehensive and ultimately political form.
The Brotherhood’s “gradualism” arose from a belief that such an approach was the best way to achieve its comprehensive and radical political vision of a fully Islamic society and way of life. Of course, this strategy posed problematic tactical questions: How would the Brotherhood determine the right moment for the transition to genuinely political activity and the acquisition of genuine rule? Did it need to wait until society was Islamically homogenous by Brotherhood standards? Or should it proceed at a moment somewhat short of this goal, if adversity or the right circumstances presented themselves?
The inherent uncertainty and difficulty of answering these questions could and did lead to divisions within the Brotherhood’s leadership. It even led to defections from the Brotherhood and the founding of alternative groups. One such group assassinated Sadat. As later interviews with the conspirators revealed, they undertook their plot not only or even primarily because of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which had been signed two years earlier. Rather, they considered work on women’s rights championed by Sadat’s wife, Jihan, an existential threat to true Muslim society.
The main body of the Muslim Brotherhood demurred on using violence in that instance. But that was a tactical difference of opinion; it did not represent an alteration in the essential character of the group’s overall objective. One of the anti-Sadat conspirators, Ayman al-Zawahiri, shouted from his jail cell, “Islam is our religion and our ideology.” Released, he later became al-Qaeda’s second-in-command.
Might the new opening of Egyptian politics lead the Brotherhood to shed its bruised history and adopt a new, participatory, or democratic notion of its role? Or, even if it does not yet deserve to be called “moderate,” might it come to be so through the give-and-take of future Egyptian electoral politics? Perhaps. But even the evidence suggesting that the Brotherhood is evolving in this way is subject to a far less reassuring interpretation.
It is true that senior leaders of the Brotherhood were not members of the committee of youth who first organized the protests. But that committee included a leader of the youth arm of the Brotherhood, so the senior leadership knew what was happening. Other members of the youth committee, moreover, included the Brotherhood precisely because they believed they might need their ranks swelled by Brotherhood members. The Brotherhood supplied that need on the first occasion that suited its own institutional requirements: January 28, the first Friday of the revolt. The weekly Friday prayers permitted the Brotherhood to mass its forces easily in the mosques and with the protective cover of religious duty. Large groups of people who emerged from the mosques were led to Tahrir Square under the supervision of Brotherhood monitors. This pattern was repeated on all subsequent Fridays, and the Brotherhood declined to participate in a mass demonstration in March that did not fall on a Friday.
None of this suggests that the Brotherhood had simply a subordinate role in the Egyptian events. But it does exemplify the Brotherhood’s characteristic caution. When Mubarak was still on the scene, and even following his fall with the military in charge, there was—and there still is—a substantial risk in being too conspicuous.
Nor should one take too much comfort from the analyses that say that the Brotherhood has the support of only about a quarter of the electorate. That is a shaky estimate and may be too low. To get that 20-30 percent number, analysts are relying on the results of that 2005 election, but given the extent to which those elections were limited, controlled, and stolen, those results may well understate the degree to which the ordinary Egyptian is in sympathy with the Brotherhood. Indeed, some polls show that a high percentage of the public holds extreme views on key issues, views that should make Brotherhood candidates attractive to them. In truth, we do not know reliably what the Brotherhood’s strength might be, and the Brotherhood may not either. Only the senior Brotherhood leadership is privy to their strategy going forward. Indeed, that strategy is necessarily a work in progress, since they, like all Egyptians, cannot foresee how events will unfold or what crises or turning points might lie ahead. Thus it has ever been in revolutions, and the Brotherhood has been through several.
Westerners have little cause for comfort in the pronouncements of the Brotherhood that it is attracted to the “Turkish model.” That may seem like a course we can welcome, given that the Brotherhood has also praised the bravery of Iran’s leaders and their model for governance. But Turkey should give us pause. Yes, Turkey’s Islamist AKP was democratically elected, then re-elected, and may win yet a third term this spring. But its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, knows to play his own cautious game, skillfully using state power to weaken the army and other institutions, like the press and judiciary, whose independence could check his ambitions. The Turkish model is characterized by growing authoritarianism through intimidation, questionable detentions of opponents, and diversion of public assets to friendly hands. That may be more congenial than the “Iranian model,” but that ought to be cold comfort, given the speed with which Erdogan is effecting Islamist changes in what was the most secular country in the Muslim world.
Indeed, perhaps what the Brotherhood likes most of all about the AKP’s success in Turkey is the way it has succeeded in bringing that country’s formerly powerful, secular military to heel. That might be the “Turkish model” it really seeks to pursue in Egypt.
The Brotherhood might also want to bide its time when it comes to taking power. For whenever the newly elected civilian government comes to power in Egypt, it may not be able to wield broad powers to effect change, either because the Egyptian military (acting with caution) might act to limit them or because too many parties will win seats and governing authority will be diffuse. The result could be a first government too fractious or enfeebled to tackle Egypt’s enormous problems. Indeed, if the history of Central Europe in the 1990s is any guide, even empowered governments with international support will probably be unable to satisfy the pent-up demands of a long-suffering public, especially one unused to democratic ways.
Those who attempt to take on the overwhelming job of governing the country in this atmosphere face the specter of a body politic that comes to view them with hostility and contempt. If the Brotherhood is among the governing number, it might find itself on the knife’s edge. The roiling dissatisfaction created by these circumstances might produce calls for a national savior to redeem the revolution. That savior might arise from the military’s ranks, or be the military itself. In that event, the Brotherhood might find itself suppressed yet again, its goal of a wholly Islamic society defeated once more.
Thus the Brotherhood has good reason not to seek a majority too soon. It might serve its own purposes best by taking a role as a junior partner in the new government, with particular interest in certain ministries like education or social services that it can use to make the case that the Brotherhood is the only force in Egypt working to provide a better life for the people.
All in all, it might regard the downside risk of tarnishing its reputation or endangering its goals as substantially greater than the upside rewards of a major role in the early going. This might have the effect of making the Brotherhood seem as though it has chosen a far more moderate course than fearful Westerners expect, because it will have chosen caution over a risky attempt to seize the revolutionary moment. And, to be fair, one cannot rule out the possibility that a “new” Muslim Brotherhood more genuinely moderate than cautious, one opting for a departure from its radical past, might be emerging. We know that a cohort of new and younger leaders exists, and some are said to disagree with the senior leadership.
But for the time being, the old Muslim Brotherhood is still in charge, and its tradition was well in evidence on February 18 in the decision to invite Qaradawi—regarded as the highest authority and bearer of that tradition—to dominate the day. In his sermon, Qaradawi celebrated the demise of Mubarak—the Pharaoh, the Koranic exemplar of tyranny—and urged the consolidation of that victory. But in so doing, he darkly warned of the “hypocrites,” a Koranic term denoting those who apparently supported Muhammad’s “revolution” but secretly conspired against it. It was not obvious who such hypocrites might be. Were they the remnants of Mubarak’s regime, or people like Wael Ghonim, who ostensibly had been comrades in arms but might resist an Islamic state?
Qaradawi was not there simply to celebrate the new Egypt and the new national agenda of “reform and rights” for “all Egyptians,” as el-Errian had put it. Rather, he urged his audience to look beyond Egypt and its reform not as Egyptians but as Muslims and Muslim Brothers. He offered an impassioned “message to our brothers in Palestine.” “I have hope,” he declared, “that Almighty Allah, as I have been pleased with the victory in Egypt, that he will also please me with the conquest of the Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem].”
As the many millions who have heard Qaradawi know all too well, his words in Tahrir Square reflect his hope to participate in the extermination of the world’s Jews—Jews, not merely Israelis. He has applauded Hitler’s work and seen Allah’s hand in it. Indeed, he has expressed gratitude that the final work has been left to Muslims, a task, he claims, that goes to the roots of Islam. This is neither “moderation,” nor a contribution to the pressing task of building a new democratic and healthy Egyptian polity. Nonetheless, Qaradawi’s message received thunderous applause. We don’t know if there is a “new” Brotherhood aborning, but we certainly do know that the old Muslim Brotherhood is not only surviving, but thriving.
In this sense, the future course of Egypt presents a very great risk—for Egyptians most of all, and for others. This ancient nation has begun its liberation from oppression, but the high hopes raised by the astonishing results of its winter revolt cannot obscure the cold facts. The nation’s direction is uncertain and the structures necessary for true democracy are barely in evidence. Outsiders may yet have a role to play in this, but that role will be limited; and early elections, which may now be in the cards, leave little time for newly liberated democratic forces to adjust.
We should not delude ourselves. There is a will adversely affect our position in a crucial part of the world. Secular forces would recede. More radicals would be schooled. Islamists would dominate the most populous and most developed countries in the Middle East—Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. The dire straits in which Israel would find itself would not be limited to the Jewish state alone. At long last, and to the world’s great peril, the Muslim Brotherhood would have no more need of caution.
About the Authors:
Hillel Fradkin is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where Lewis Libby serves as senior vice president.