By Andre Michael Eggelletion
After the reign of Egyptian President Mubarak finally ends, how much influence will the Muslim Brotherhood have in Egypt? This is a question being pondered by Washington and leaders in the international community. The American people should be aware of what the Muslim Brotherhood is and how much influence they already have in Egypt and the region.
Questions about the Muslim Brotherhood
By sheer size, popularity, and current political acumen, the Muslim Brotherhood is beyond doubt the most powerful opposition force in Egypt. Most thinkers on the subject see a high probability of the Muslim Brotherhood having increased its sway considerably in the emergence of any successor government in Egypt. The questions about this projected ascendancy to power are many: What will be the result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence Egypt’s eventual new government? Can they be successful in advancing the country toward the rule of sharia law? Will they push a toxic anti-American/Israel doctrine? How will the citizens of Egypt react to increased influence from the Brotherhood? Will they remain committed to a non-violent evolution into a more democratic form of government? These are a few questions the American people and world leaders had better try to accurately forecast. Hopefully when concrete answers emerge they will confirm continued progress toward stability, respectability, and democracy in Egypt.
Historical agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist organization in Egypt. It was started by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, and piously began advancing the religion of Islam. It also has used its strong theological beliefs for building opposition against imperialism and Zionism. Gradually the theosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood gave way to a more theocratic approach. In other words, over time, their focus morphed from purely a religious one to a more religious/political one. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood’s influence has remained largely intact.
Outside resistance to Muslim Brotherhood influence in Egypt
As the Brotherhood has evolved, both internal and external schisms and divisions have developed along the way. One notable example of external resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt occurred in 1954 when they tried to assassinate Egypt’s second President, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser for opposing the Muslim Brotherhood's call for sharia rule. Nasser incarcerated and exiled thousands of the Muslim Brotherhood's members and forced the remnants into hiding.
Reformation within the Brotherhood
The Brotherhood then nearly split apart, with some choosing jihad against the Arab Republic of Egypt, while others wanted to move toward diplomacy. The more radical reformists within the Brotherhood began a failed push for more political unilateralism out of frustration with the old guard’s lack of transparency and feared collusion with corrupt government power brokers from either party. A break finally came for the Brotherhood in 1972 when they gained engagement from President Anwar el-Sadat. The Brotherhood then renounced all domestic violence.
Nonetheless, their brutal suppression by Nasser in 1954, taught the Brotherhood that they had to find a place within the system to be successful as they continued their internal reforms. Through these hard fought internal reforms, the Brotherhood finally gained enough broad legitimacy to start winning elected positions in Egypt during the 1980’s.
By 2004 the less-radical reformists began to broaden their coalition by adopting a more political pluralistic approach. They moved to the political center and launched the “Movement for Change.” They became less focused on radical parochialism and began working with with secular democracy activists on a new civic charter and a new constitution. This was an attempt to lay the groundwork for a position in a post-Mubarak government. It is this coalition that began in 2004 that has united in the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square in opposition against the Mubarak regime. It is this movement, along with other opposition groups, that now backs former IAEA chief Mohammad El Baradei in his aspirations to lead the post-Mubarak Egypt.
Will the Brotherhood lead a post-Mubarak Egypt?
In the final analysis, the Brotherhood will likely have significant influence in an El Baradei government or a government led by the current Vice President Omar Suleiman. They have always dealt with turmoil and reformation from within. Ideological vs. pragmatic conservatives have fought for a more para-governmental vs. a more diplomatic approach, respectively. Then there are the secular reformist Brotherhood elements that are very quietly supporting El Baradei.
Though the last 30 years have been stormy, the New Muslim Brotherhood has profoundly broadened its political and social reach. Its leaders are now skilled political scientists. They have learned to diplomatically conscript effective activism, and have gained credibility among non-radicalized Islamist journalists and politicians. They have become more introspective and more open to policy debates from the outside, and are emerging as a more diverse political force in Egyptian affairs. Whether Washington likes it or not the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to extend its tentacles into the core of the Mubarak opposition, and will certainly carry heavy influence in post-Mubarak Egyptian politics.
Neither Washington, nor the incoming Egyptian governments have a choice
What is unclear is whether or not the Brotherhood will continue to wield its influence pragmatically, and with self-restraint in the new government, or chose radicalism. I believe Washington will continue to engage the new Egyptian government, albeit to a less degree than the Mubarak regime because of the increased influence of the Brotherhood. The U.S. will do so because we have no other choice if we desire to continue our current counter terrorism successes. I also believe the new Egyptian president, no matter who it is, will support current freedoms that now exist under Egyptian law. He will because he has no other choice if he wants to avoid further civilian uprisings. In the area of foreign policy, the Brotherhood will continue its rhetoric against the manipulating American and Israeli influence in Egyptian affairs. They may even try to revise the terms of Sadat’s accord with Israel and the West. But any rhetoric coming forth from a Muslim Brotherhood influenced Egypt will be just that; rhetoric. Why? The new Egyptian government, like the old, does not want to risk losing the billions of dollars in aid coming from the United States.
What the opposition says about the Muslim Brotherhood
Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood often point to acts of violence in the past. In the book, “The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942” author Brynjar Lia does confirm the use of bombings by the Muslim Brotherhood to end British colonial rule. There was also the more radical Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role that created Hamas in 1987, at the beginning of the First Intifada, an uprising against Israeli rule in the Palestinian Territories that featured little deadly violence. Other than these acts, the Muslim Brotherhood has been largely underground since Great Brittan’s ouster in 1952. They remained largely unseen from that time until its slow metamorphosis started in 1984 into what it is today.
Like them or not, you can’t stop them
For Americans and Israelis, the elevated position of the Muslim Brotherhood may likely make Egypt appear less cooperative than it was under Mubarak. But the United States really shouldn’t worry too much. Since winning their first elections in 1984, the Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated moderately responsible behavior at home. With a track record of 27 years of mostly responsible behavior, and the current weight of thousands of protestors in Tahrir Square behind them, I don’t see how Washington can trivialize or confront the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Egypt. Whether Washington wants it or not, they will be heard in the post-Mubarak era. If you support transparent democracy, then you simply cannot deny them. Just as the people in Palestine chose Hamas in elections during the Bush years in office, no matter what the Egyptians chose, the Brotherhood will be heard from; more under El Baradei and less under Suleiman. Whether or not Washington can sell this inevitability to the American people is the only question left.