Why Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood isn't the Islamic bogeyman
Western fears of Islamist takeover in post-Mubarak Egypt are unfounded. During recent protests, the Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated a commitment to peaceful political participation. The US now has an opportunity to support a truly democratic Egypt, including the Brotherhood.
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The reality is that the Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, but the party’s leadership and rank-and-file alike have continued to pay the cost of this now mistaken association, so carefully perpetuated by the Mubarak regime. Mr. Sadat’s assassin came from a splinter organization called Egyptian Islamic Jihad (the group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later join forces with Osama Bin Laden). Most of Egypt’s most unreconstructed militants, from Mr. Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad and the larger Islamic Group, remain in prison.Skip to next paragraph
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These are not the Brothers. In fact, the tiny cadre of real jihadists in Egypt scorns the Brotherhood as the “court Islamists” of the Mubarak regime, given that Brotherhood members have been repeatedly elected as independents to Egypt’s parliament during Mubarak’s rule. While this may play to committed militants as capitulation to a bankrupt regime, to most Egyptians, the Brotherhood’s participation in parliament – particularly its dogged insistence on questioning ministers and holding the government to account – has helped to make an otherwise ornamental institution at least somewhat relevant.
Undoubtedly, this is why the Mubarak regime worked so hard to make sure that the Brotherhood’s share of seats dropped from 88 to one in last November’s election. When anticipated changes take effect and the Brotherhood is allowed to stand as a political party, it will join a wide range of other Islamist parties in the region (like Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, and Yemen’s Islah Party), whose participation has helped to make often anemic legislatures more significant, against all odds.
Brotherhood is diverse and divided
Beyond this explicitly political role, however, the Brotherhood is probably better known and respected for its charitable work, which includes running hospitals, fund-raising, and other activities that are vital to many in Egypt, where millions live on less than two dollars a day. As the Mubarak regime’s economic reforms increased the wealth of a small middle class, most Egyptians have seen their declining living standard accompanied by a shrinking social safety net, making the Brotherhood’s welfare policies all the more critical in the lives of citizens in the Middle East’s most populous country. The physical and economic damage wrought by the 18-day revolution will probably make this need even more plain.
When we lived in Cairo, we met and interviewed many Brothers (and Sisters) who were young, tech-savvy democrats – socially conservative for sure, but nothing like the cartoonish fanatics they are said to be in the West. They believe in Islam, but they also work in concert with Christians, leftists, and activists from other movements.
But some Brotherhood members have mixed feelings about the youth’s confrontations with the regime, as reflected by the 2010 internal election of the relatively staid Mohammed Badie. This cadre appears to have expressed its reluctance mainly by reinvesting its energies in the service activity that helped to build the organization in the first place, making sure that the social message doesn’t get lost in the noise of opposition politics.