As Egyptian elections draw near, the Muslim Brotherhood, careful to keep a low profile during the revolt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, is seizing the political momentum. The intensely disciplined Islamist group is Egypt’s most cohesive political movement, and the largest organization apart from the Egyptian military itself. Through its network of schools and clinics, and by offering social services, it enjoys an unparalleled ability to mobilize its followers.
Will the Brotherhood, moderated perhaps by its participation in electoral politics, use the unprecedented opening offered by the upcoming elections to support a turn toward democracy? Or will it move Egypt in a theocratic, anti-Western direction? The Brotherhood itself has made some conciliatory and reassuring noises in the direction of apprehensive Western ears.
“We come with no special agenda of our own,” said a member of its Supreme Council, Essam el-Errian. “Our agenda is that of the Egyptian people. We aim to achieve reform and rights for all, not just for the Muslim Brotherhood.”
But neither liberal phrases and heady optimism can obscure hard facts. We ought not to confuse the Brotherhood’s cautious discretion with genuine moderation. This is especially so in the case of an organization that has had eight decades worth of lessons in caution and patience.
Ever since its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was murdered by King Farouk’s
police in 1948, and its chief thinker, Sayyid Qutb, was executed under
Nasser in 1966, the Brotherhood has learned to bide its time.
There are good reasons the Brotherhood may not rush to seek a majority
just yet. It may be that its leaders intend to wait out the country’s
first post-Mubarak government, a stopgap administration which is likely
to be either too fractious or too feeble to meet the pent-up demands of a
long-suppressed citizenry, and which may lack the mandate to tackle
Egypt’s deep-seated problems.
Indeed, public expectations have soared at the very moment the economy’s capacity to meet them has buckled.
As the Brotherhood is all too aware, the shakiness of Egypt’s economy –
and its extremely weak private sector – could undermine progress toward
As many protesters poured into Tahrir Square because of economic
frustration as for political motives. After the uprising, GDP crashed by
4 percent in the year to the first quarter. Manufacturing has declined
by 12%. Revenues from tourism declined dramatically. Today, a fifth of
Egyptians live on $2 a day or less.
The stakes are high. If the economy falters, so will democratic reform.
As Ahmed Heikal, Egypt’s largest private investor, recently told The
Economist: “If we get things right, we could be Turkey in 10 years. If
we get them wrong, we could be Pakistan in 18 months.”
In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambitions remain unchanged: the
radical transformation of Egypt’s political order into a wholly Islamic
state and the consequent reappraisal of its relationship with Israel.
The very same Essam el-Erian quoted above has also said, “Israel must know that it is not welcome by the people in this region.”
At the huge rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held on February 18 to
celebrate the ousting of Mubarak, Wael Ghonim, the young Google employee
who helped organize the original protests, was not permitted to speak
from the podium.
Instead, leading Brotherhood ideologue Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi gave the
impassioned keynote. Among other things, the sheikh offered the massed
crowd a “message to our brothers in Palestine.”
“I have hope,” he said, “that Almighty Allah, as I have been pleased
with the victory in Egypt, that he will also please me with the conquest
of al-Aqsa mosque [in Jerusalem].”
The greater the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, then, the more
Egypt’s already troubled relationship with Israel can be expected to
fray. Some of Israel’s friends get the message.
Congresswoman Kay Granger, chairwoman of the US House appropriations
foreign operations subcommittee, told The Jerusalem Post last week that
Washington’s $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt will be cut off if Cairo
backs out of the peace treaty with Israel.
But too few understand the perils posed by Islamists who subvert
pro-democracy movements. In Iran in 1979, secular forces that ousted the
Shah were outflanked by Islamist supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. Let
us pray that history does not repeat itself on our southern doorstep.