Islamists and SCAF in marriage of convenience

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood each benefit from working together - for now.

November 30, 2011 01:16
4 minute read.
Egypt military leader Tantawi promises safe polls

Tantawi 311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Egypt’s post-Hosni Mubarak political landscape is endlessly confusing, with a surfeit of unfamiliar parties offering policy platforms often opaque, even to themselves.

Amid the tumult one new relationship has come starkly to the fore: the intimate, if generally tacit, alliance between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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The Brotherhood was banned in Egypt in 1954, two years after a military coup toppled a pro-Western monarch in Cairo. The ban remained in force until early this year, when 18 days of popular protest pushed Mubarak out of the plush presidential palace in the capital’s Heliopolis district.

Last week Marc Ginsberg, Washington’s former ambassador to Morocco, wrote a controversial op-ed alleging an “unholy alliance” between the Brotherhood and the military council running the country until next year’s presidential elections.

Writing in The Huffington Post, Ginsberg said a “reliable European military intelligence source” had told him the council (known by its acronym SCAF) was buying off the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties – including hardcore Salafi fundamentalists – with millions of dollars in bribe money.

An Egyptian reform activist based in the United States said the military is distinguished primarily by a total absence of ideology beyond maintaining its grip on power.

“Maybe from abroad the presidents looked different from one another – some made war with Israel, others made peace. But for Egyptians, all of these are the same regime, one that doesn’t mind shifting alliances in order to continue,” he said on condition of anonymity for fear of his own safety.

The Brotherhood is by far Egypt’s most powerful political force, and by co-opting a once-banned group, the army can present an image to Egyptians of inclusivity and popular representation. Working with the Islamists also serves the army’s diplomatic interests: “This way it tells the West: ‘Look, it’s either us or the Muslim Brotherhood,” the activist said.

Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the alliance between the army brass and the Brotherhood is purely a marriage of convenience.

“If any of us were SCAF, God forbid, I think we’d make phone calls to political brokers and people who can mobilize a million people at Tahrir Square at the drop of a hat – that first phone call would go to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said in a media-conference call from Cairo in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post.

“This is not an organization that works by Facebook or Twitter, but by word of mouth – from wives talking to wives, sisters to sisters and brothers to brothers,” he said.

“From SCAF’s pragmatic point of view, yes it has cut a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood will not confirm this, but it has also cut a deal with SCAF in order to be a force that can contends in the elections.”

Husain, born in London to a South-Asian family, is a former Islamic fundamentalist who later turned against Islamism and in 2008 co-founded Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank.

He said the Brotherhood’s appeal lies partly in its simple message of piety and fairness.

Its Freedom and Justice Party, he said, “seems to be the only party that (A) has a manifesto, (B) has some kind of vision of what it wants to do, and (C) has a mechanism for doing it.”

Fouad Ajami, an acclaimed Middle East scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote in an op-ed Tuesday that it’s not only the military that has long shown itself willing to let pragmatism trump principles.

“The behavior of the Brotherhood is in keeping with its past; this has always been a party that mixed the cult of violence with rank opportunism,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was a chameleon who gave religious warrant to political deceit... Banna and his successors always pined for an alliance with the military.”

The Brotherhood is expected to take the largest portion of ballots in parliamentary elections that got underway Monday, and Egypt-watchers in Israel and the West have expressed concern over what an Islamist-heavy government in Cairo would mean for Egypt-Israeli relations.

Husain acknowledged bilateral ties to be at a low point, but said attributing the tension to the Brotherhood may be a mistake.

“Lots of nasty things have happened over the last three months on that front – the attack on the Israeli Embassy, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and general anti- Israeli sentiment in the air here. But to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for that is I think unfair,” he said. “With all its problems, the Brotherhood is no more anti-Israel than the average Egyptian or the average Arab in this part of the world.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a huge appetite to try to nullify the Camp David agreement or to go to war with Israel,” he added. “Are they people who want to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? By and large the sentiment is ‘No.’ Do they want to confront Israel again? The answer is no. Do they want to improve relations with Israel? Again, the answer is no. So on balance, it’s about maintaining the status quo and getting around this issue without making it the central one.”

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