Playing chess with the Muslim Brotherhood

Direct confrontations with the group may be much less effective than well-planned gambits.

Muslim Brotherhood press conference 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Muslim Brotherhood press conference 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The US is facing a dilemma on how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On one hand, accepting it means accepting an Islamist system that will certainly have an anti-American and anti-Israeli agenda. On the other hand, rejecting and delegitimizing this group can turn some of its members to the use of violence.
The group has very strong anti-American and anti- Israeli views, and hence defeating it requires wisdom similar to playing chess rather than direct confrontations, especially in the current volatile situation.
This approach is possible because we know that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike other jihadi groups, can sit at a table and negotiate. In chess, one may win the game by executing a proper gambit, or a well-calculated sacrifice. Direct confrontations with the Muslim Brotherhood may be much less effective than well-planned gambits.
THE CURRENT reality in Egypt is that despite being officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood very much exists. For nearly 30 years, the Mubarak regime has been unable to suppress the spread of its ideology. For example, the Brotherhood managed during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak to increase the Islamic-based hatred of Israel, and both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism have reached very high levels in the country.
In addition, it managed to Islamize a significant portion of the society. Currently, most Muslim women are wearing the hijab, Islamic jargon is used in mainstream media and the support of Shari’a is prevalent among the population. During the time of Anwar Sadat, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism were declining, and during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time, signs of Islamization of the society were virtually nonexistent. This indicates that the Muslim Brotherhood thrived during the Mubarak regime.
The reliance of Israel and the US on one person in power in Egypt without pressuring him to change the educational system and the government-controlled media to actively fight anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism was a short-sighted approach that was doomed to fail. It was much better that the US – instead of pressuring Mubarak on democracy – should have used its relation with him to make changes in education and to implement effective strategies to weaken Islamism. This would have guaranteed a much better long-term relationship between Egypt and the US and Israel.
Mubarak’s approach that allowed anti-Semitism to flourish while pretending to be a friend to Israel was schizophrenic and indicates that he was not a true ally. His refusal to visit Israel even once during his 30 years of presidency is another indication of the lack of sincerity in his relationship – despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from the US.
A man who truly believes in peace would not have allowed anti-Semitism to flourish to such pathological levels in his country. For example, Sadat, who believed in peace, took many active steps to change Egyptian society and used religion effectively to fight rather than promote anti-Semitism. Sadat’s approach was to a great extent successful in decreasing anti-Semitism – despite his being assassinated by extremists who deemed him an “apostate.”
WHILE THE Muslim Brotherhood flourished over the last few decades, it lost a significant amount of its popularity in the last few years due to several reasons: • The emergence of open criticism of Islam and the exposure of radical teachings that contradict human conscience. The Internet and modern media allowed a level of debate and discussion that weakened the appeal of political Islam to many people. This was evident by the refusal of the protesters in Egypt to use the flag of the Muslim Brotherhood.
• The failure of Shari’a-inspired Islamic groups in Somalia, Afghanistan (Taliban) and Gaza (Hamas) to provide a better life for their people contradicted the basic slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood that “Islam is the solution.” Furthermore, the failure of the Islamic solution proved to many that the wealth in Saudi Arabia was not necessarily because it implement Shari’a.
• The refusal of the Muslim Brotherhood to join the demonstrations at the beginning (it only joined them when they started to succeed!). This led many to perceive it as a group of political opportunists. The Muslim Brotherhood had no other option but to arrange a few separate insignificant parallel demonstrations. It is important to note that the prayers that were held during the protests represented a common ritual level of Islam rather than an ideological movement belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
IN THE current volatile and exploding situation dealing with the Brotherhood has become a very sensitive issue. The following are a few – but essential – recommendations on how to handle the current situation with the Muslim Brotherhood in a way to avoid the complete collapse of the country.
• Try to “contain” or “accommodate” the group to some extent as direct confrontations in this situation can turn some of its members to become violent or support other more violent Islamic groups to do terrorist acts. Stability at this stage is vital to defeat this group in the long run.
• Allow some of the members to have limited roles in the next government in areas that do not allow them to control strategic policies, education or the sensitive security and military apparatus. One could assign more technical ministries to them to test their competence – such as the ministries related to environmental affairs, or water and irrigation or housing and utilities. This offer to the Muslim Brotherhood must be conditioned by its approval of the international treaties of Egypt, including the peace with Israel.
• Fight the group ideologically – putting its members in prison without fighting its ideology has been ineffective and failed to stop its proliferation.
• Use religion to fight the Muslim Brotherhood and embarrass it. For example the secular government can declare that it must respect the peace treaty with Israel and ask the group to agree with this. The Koran states clearly: Fulfill [every] promise and treaty, 17:34; O ye who believe! Fulfill [all] obligations. 5:1; Those who fulfill their oath and never break their treaties [the context is praising them], 13:20.
• Provide humanitarian aid from non-Islamic organizations to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood in using this tactic to win the hearts and minds of people.
This gambit of accepting a limited and controllable role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the next stage of Egypt’s political future, while using effective approaches to defeat it at the ideological level, will be vital to avoiding further instability that can breed uncontrollable radicalism.
The writer is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a terrorist Islamic organization JI with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaida. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.