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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
The Brotherhood probably commands the loyalty of more Egyptians than any other organized social or political force. But it is far from the only source of organized political opposition. Just how many parliamentary seats the Brotherhood would command in free and fair elections is unknowable, since Mubarak’s regime has spent decades making sure that there are no organized political forces that might challenge state power.
But the organization has pledged publicly not to run a candidate in the coming presidential election, and it is not clear that they would pursue or be able to win a clear parliamentary majority. And yet the specter of an Islamist “takeover” has for too long been deployed against on-the-ground realities to justify continuing suppression of the democratic aspirations of all Egyptians – Muslim and Christian, Islamist, leftist, or liberal.