Dangerously underestimating the Muslim Brotherhood

Analysis: The Islamists’ tactical absence from the protests has been widely misread as proof of their lack of ambition and marginality.

Senior Muslim Brotherhood members 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Senior Muslim Brotherhood members 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The precedents are fresh and obvious. Yet the US government seems intent on ignoring them.
In Iran in 1979, leftist and other secular forces, central to the rising pressure that ousted the Shah, were duped and then outflanked by Islamist supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, who took power and have cemented it for 32 years since. The Islamists achieved this despite having constituted only the most marginal of forces just a couple of years earlier.
RELATED:Muslim Brotherhood: ‘We are against Zionism’Muslim Brotherhood: With Israel, no agreement is eternal
In the Palestinian territories in 2006, the US insisted on pressing ahead with elections that, in part because of Fatah’s corruption and disorganization, saw the underestimated Islamist Hamas terror group gain a parliamentary majority, which it then exploited to violently take over the Gaza Strip a year later.
In Lebanon over the past few weeks, the Iranian-inspired, controlled and financed Hizbullah out-maneuvered the hapless prime minister Sa'ad Hariri, to complete what amounts to a gradual, highly sophisticated takeover of the country.
In Turkey in recent years, confidence that such secular bulwarks as the army and the judiciary would prevent growing Islamic domination of the national agenda has proved increasingly misplaced, again via the subtle and protracted marginalization of these former establishment pillars. Turkey, champion of Hamas, nemesis of Israel, is now drifting inexorably out of the western orbit.
Washington’s apparent disinclination, as it now tries to influence the process of Hosni Mubarak’s replacement, to internalize the dangers highlighted by the Iran, Gaza, Lebanon and Turkey disasters, and thus do everything in its power to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood presiding over a similar process in Egypt, is incomprehensible.
And it could prove immensely threatening for Israel.
For all President Barack Obama’s declared intent to usher in a new partnership between the US and the Muslim world, what he termed “a new beginning” in his 2009 speech in Cairo, his diplomats did not deliver significant diplomatic pressure on Mubarak to reform his regime in the past two years. This was most starkly confirmed by December’s vigorously fraudulent parliamentary elections, which featured mass arrests of opposition supporters and the firm muzzling of critical media, and in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s 88-seat share of the previous 454-member parliament descended to zero because of the regime’s machinations.
Washington evidently failed to foresee that embittered Egyptians might then resort to the massed protests of the past two weeks, and it abandoned Mubarak with alacrity as it scrambled to avoid being caught on the wrong side of a largely spontaneous people’s push for freedom and democracy.
But however one gauges the realpolitik involved in that dramatic recoil from a 30-year ally, the White House’s subsequent reported moves to legitimate Egypt’s Islamists – whose outlook conflicts utterly with the democratic agenda – make no sense, and suggest a frighteningly superficial understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions and potential achievements.
Far from learning the lessons of the Islamists’ skilled subversion of other pro-democracy movements, working with potential leaders of an Egyptian transition to minimize the risk of such a process recurring, and making publicly plain that there will be no ongoing American alliance with an Egypt in which an unreformed Islamist movement has even a marginal role in government, the White House seems to be actively encouraging a transitional outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
National Security Council official Dan Shapiro told Jewish leaders on a conference call Wednesday that the administration would not deal with the Brotherhood. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had two days earlier urged the inclusion of “important non-secular actors” in a more democratic Egypt – a statement that was widely seen as relating to the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Administration’s proposal for the immediate transfer of power calls for the transitional government to include the Muslim Brotherhood, the New York Times reported Friday.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
As things stand, of course, the longer Mubarak hangs on, the greater the instability and the anger, and the more for the Islamists to build upon.
But why would the US assist them? The administration may in part be motivated by the president’s seeming conviction, as David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post last week, “that change is a matter for Egyptians, not Americans, and that too heavy an American hand would be counterproductive.”
In addition, numerous “experts” in both the US print and electronic media over the past week have been concertedly representing the Muslim Brotherhood as benign, hapless, not particularly popular, or all three of the above.
Far from benign, the Brotherhood is committed to death-cult jihad in the cause of widened Islamist rule, was the progenitor of Hamas and central to Islamist radicalization among the Palestinians. And its popularity was evident in that impressive 2005 parliamentary performance, achieved, it should be stressed, despite the Mubarak-orchestrated unfavorable circumstances.
Yet readers of the New York Times on Thursday, for instance, were treated to a page-leading op-ed article headlined “Egypt’s Bumbling Brotherhood,” which depicted the Islamists as a veritable Keystone Kops rabble of incompetents who have “botched every opportunity” for 83 years to revive Islamic power. Their purported 20-30 percent support, according to author Scott Atran, “is less a matter of true attachment than an accident of circumstances.”
Tony Blair’s warning that the Islamists could take the unfolding Egyptian revolution in the wrong direction was blithely dismissed by the author with the assertion that the Brotherhood’s “failure to support the initial uprising… has made it marginal to the spirit of revolt now spreading through the Arab world.”
On CNN that same day, scholars Michele Dunne and Robert Kagan, while not entirely deriding the notion of Islamist influence, nevertheless scathingly marginalized the threat, with Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, citing the centrality and dependability of the secular Egyptian military and judiciary as though Turkey’s seismic shift had not been unfolding before our very eyes in recent years.
Some commentators made much of the fact that the Brotherhood kept a low profile early in the uprising, interpreting this as evidence of disorganization and/or a lack of ambition. But the restraints have come off since then: Islamist rhetoric has become more prominent, and Brotherhood spokesmen are now ubiquitous in the media.
Experiences elsewhere have demonstrated the patience that Islamist organizations can exercise, building and gaining power and influence over years, over decades. Yet the absence of the Brotherhood from the protest frontlines for a matter of mere days – an astute tactic to ensure the watching world was not alienated and to maximize domestic support for the uprising – was apparently widely misread as proof of its irrelevance.
A much-cited – though not always accurately – Pew Research Center of Muslim attitudes, published only two months ago, indicates how frighteningly fertile the ground is for the Islamists in Egypt: 82% of Egyptian Muslims favor stoning people who commit adultery; 77% favor whipping/ cutting off of hands for theft and robbery; and 84% favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion, it found. By way of comparison, the comparable percentages in Turkey, even as it submits to growing Islamist influence, were just 16%, 13% and 5% respectively.
The same survey found that among Egyptian Muslims who see a struggle between those who want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists, a striking 59% side with the fundamentalists and only 27% with the modernizers.
Pew also found that 54% of Egyptian Muslims believe suicide bombings can be justified often (8%), sometimes (12%) or rarely (34%), as against 46% who said they could never be justified.
The Pew poll did not ask a follow-up question about precisely when such bombings could be justified, but a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman from Cairo, also interviewed on CNN, offered an insight in this context.
Mohamed Morsy, who in the course of the conversation on Thursday refused to commit his movement to maintenance of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty or to recognition of Israel, and stressed its opposition to Zionism, insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the use of violence. Without missing a beat, however, he went on to say that what was going on in Palestine was “resistance.” And “resistance,” he said, “is acceptable by all mankind. It is the right of people to resist imperialism.”
In the New York Times “Bumbling Brotherhood” op-ed, another such spokesman, Dr. Essam el-Erian, was quoted as saying, “Israel must know that it is not welcome by the people in this region.” And writer Atran acknowledged that the Brotherhood “wants power,” and allowed that “its positions, notably its stance against Israel, are problematic for American interests.”
The current regional uprising has reemphasized Israel’s unique centrality to America as the region’s only truly dependable ally, because the partnership is not tactical or even strategic, but a function of shared interests and values that genuinely resonate throughout society. Why, then, Israel’s leaders must surely be asking their American counterparts in their current frantic consultations, would the US government help legitimate, on yet another of our newly unstable frontiers, a bleak, benighted movement that can be guaranteed to use any influence it accrues to undermine those shared interests and values?