In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's 'trial of power'

In Egypt a few years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was making promises. The protesters in Cairo say the group isn't keeping them.

Ahmed Ramadan/AP
Game over for democracy in Egypt? Or game over for Mohamed Morsi?

This morning I stumbled across a long story I wrote about the Muslim Brotherhood's struggles with the Mubarak regime in June 2005 and found plenty of resonance for events today (as well as some personal chagrin in the fact that I'd used the phrase "Arab spring" back then).

Egypt is now finding out something that had been an object of speculation for decades: What the Muslim Brotherhood would actually do if it ever came to power. The prospect long horrified many Egyptian secularists and Christians. As I wrote at the time: "Both Arab regimes and secular opposition groups say the stated support for democracy by Islamists is a chimera."

In the first half of 2005, the Bush administration was still pursuing its "Freedom Agenda" in the Middle East (more or less abandoned after electoral successes for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt made possible by US pressure and a stirring victory for Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections) and the Brothers sensed an opening. They began to openly demonstrate and organize, insisted they were committed to democracy, and argued that any friend of freedom should champion their cause.

The Mubarak regime pushed back hard and in June 2005, over 800 Brotherhood activists were in jail. Some of them were tortured.

The debate then, was much as it is now. If democracy came to Egypt would the Brothers win? And if they did, would it fulfill the old cliche of "one man, one vote, one time?" Now many of the people who warned of what would happen then are saying, "I told you so." Tanks have been deployed in Cairo to stop protests against a power grab by President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader freely and fairly elected in June. In November, he decreed himself sweeping powers and has been trying to force through a new constitution that has ignited a political and social crisis in his country.

False hope?

Hossam Baghat, a prominent Egyptian human rights campaigner who has generally avoided hyperbole in the years that I've known him, summed up the mood in two written statements today.

"I know it may look to outsiders like the beginning of civil strife in Egypt," he wrote of the protests and violence in Cairo yesterday that claimed five lives. "But in fact it is many great Egyptians uniting to prevent the establishment of modern day fascism in their country." He followed that up with: "I can't count how many times I said 'being in government would certainly have a moderating effect on Egypt's Islamists.' I was wrong."

That assumption, or hope, that governance would force the Brothers to compromise, was grounded in a difficult reality confronted by all knowledgeable advocates for democracy in Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood, even though it had been technically outlawed for decades, was the most popular and organized political force in the country. Free elections in Egypt were always going to give them a major share of political power, and the choice for critics of their agenda was to either decide that dictatorship was better than democracy, or find a way to believe the Brothers when they told them that an Islamist imposition on society would not be the result.

With the developing reality in Cairo, and with signs that Morsi and the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, are cutting deals with the Egyptian military to cement their position, far more secular Egyptians are in the camp of fear than seven years ago. Suddenly, the young revolutionaries who triumphed in Tahrir Square in Feb. 2011 are on the side of former regime figures like Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, the Mubarak-era general and cabinet minister who was defeated for the presidency by Morsi in June. The tanks that were defending Mr. Shafiq and Mubarak in early 2011 are now defending President Morsi.

In 2005, the Mubarak government's official stance towards the strength of the Brothers was denial. The then Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief promised democratic reforms that had been demanded by the Bush administration, but insisted that the Brothers would not be allowed to play a direct political role. Asked if the Brotherhood would ever be legalized he said "never," and added that the group had at most the support of 10 percent of Egypt's population.

Talk of freedom

Mahdi Akef, the Brother's then Supreme Guide, told me then there was nothing to worry about. "For the Brotherhood, the issue of freedom is at the top of our agenda now. Freedom is at the heart - it's the principal part - of Islamic law."

Not everyone was buying it. "I'm not ready to sacrifice my nation to these people,'' Said al-Kimmi, an author and historian of Islam, said then. "They may say to you they support democracy, but if you look at the history of their beliefs, democracy really doesn't fit with Islam. The sharia is antidemocratic – the rights of women would be attacked and they'd cut people's throats. If my choices are Mubarak's corrupt regime or them, I'll stick with what we have now."

Ali Abdel Fatah, the Brothers' chief organizer in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, laughed off concerns back then: "The Brotherhood should be the ones who are afraid. We haven't had the trial of power, we aren't the ones who've formed military courts to jail opponents, executed peaceful activists, destroyed Egypt's civil society, or transformed the state into a series of personal fiefdoms. All we want is an open and fair system."

Well, the trial of power has arrived. And so far, the Brothers are failing it. The man I quoted to end that long ago article illustrates the point:

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a Brotherhood member whose grandfather and great-grandfather ran the organization until their deaths, is a student at American University in Cairo. The movement's democracy rhetoric is no trick, he says, and that the Brotherhood is unlikely to push for more open conflict with the government.

"Revolutions don't really lead to democracies, just look at Iran,'' he says. "The Brotherhood really wants a democracy in Egypt, and it's willing to wait to make that happen peacefully."

Well, Egypt has had its revolution. As for Mr. Houdaiby? He broke with the Brotherhood a few years ago and is now a frequent critic. He told NPR's Leila Fadel a few days ago that the choice Morsi has forced on the Egyptian public – either improve an unpopular constitution or to leave him in a position of unchecked power – "means that we are not only creating a pharaoh, but the equivalent of a god."

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