Sunday, February 13, 2011

Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?

With the success of the January 25th Movement in removing former president Husni Mubarak from office, many Western policy-makers have expressed concern over the type of government that will emerge in Egypt. Uppermost in their minds is the possibility that a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power. But is there really a possibility that an Islamist political party such as the Brotherhood will win elections and take power?

The answer to this question is complex and multifaceted. There is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a role in post-Mubarak Egypt. However, what exactly does that mean? Does that mean, as some analysts in the West have asserted, that the Brotherhood will be able to create an Islamic Republic in Egypt according to the Iranian model? Here the answer is resoundingly in the negative.

In a recent telephone poll, conducted between February 5th and 8th by an Egyptian-led field team under the auspices of Pechter Middle East Polls in Princeton, NJ, 15% of Egyptians expressed support for the Muslim Brotherhood and only 1% supported them in a presidential straw poll. When asked what were the most important reasons that led the Egyptians to rise up against the Mubarak regime, they had nothing to do with Islam.

Indeed,the top three concerns of Egyptian respondents were overwhelmingly economic in nature: "poor economic conditions" (22%), "corruption (21%), and "unemployment/lack of job opportunities" (17%). Only 4% of Egyptians polled said that "the regime (is)not Islamic enough," and only 4% likewise said that the "regime (is) too connected to the US."

When I began studying the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1960s, I was surprised to find that it recruited few Muslim clerics (al-'ulama). Despite having been founded in 1928, it has never enjoyed the type of support that would allow it to seize power. Led by its firebrand founder, Hasan al-Banna,the organization did engender support. But such support had less to do with its Islamic orientation than with its opposition to British colonial rule in Egypt and its sending members to fight in the Arab Revolt in Palestine between 1936 and 1939 and in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

Once al-Banna was assassinated by the Egyptian government in 1949, and its military wing, the Secret Organization (al-jihaz al-Sirri ) was suppressed after an assassination attempt on the new Egyptian military leader Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood became an unimaginative and stodgy political movement, one dominated by its "supreme guides," first Hasan al-Hudaybi and then 'Umar al-Tilimsani, along with an increasingly aged leadership.

The Brotherhood's prominence over the past 30 years has been the result of a conscious effort by the Mubarak regime to constitute it as the "official opposition." All other parties were suppressed or marginalized. By allowing the Brotherhood limited access to power - in the form of electing some members to parliament - the Mubarak regime could always thwart US and Western suggestions that he introduce democratic reforms by arguing that, if he did take such actions, the Brotherhood would come to power.

In 2002, after the Bush administration initiated an effort at democracy promotion in the Middle East (a short lived policy analyzed in greater detail my posting,, the Brotherhood won 88 seats in Egypt's parliamentary elections, as the Mubarak regime allowed more openness in the elections. However, just as the significant support for the Italian communist Party under the corrupt rule of the post-WWII Christian Democratic Party reflected a protest vote, so too the votes for the Muslim Brotherhood while Mubarak was in power were less an indicator of support for its policies than a rejection of the Mubarak regime.

In the sample of the Muslim Brotherhood that I constructed, I discovered that it has attracted many middle class professionals, especially in the natural sciences and in the engineering profession ( There were few peasants and workers or clerics in my sample. Indeed , there has been ongoing hostility between Egypt's Muslim clergy and the Brotherhood because clerics view the Brotherhood as upstarts who are trying to usurp their religious role in society.

After 2005, a split developed between the Brothers in parliament and the organization's leadership. The parliament representatives, who were much younger than the septuagenarian and octogenarian leadership, sought to make alliances with the small number of parliamentary delegates representing secular parties, such as the Tagammu'a Party. They believed that such alliances would enable them to expand their ability to draw attention to government corruption and authoritarianism. When the leadership forbid such ties, the parliamentary delegates ignored them. This cleavage already foreshadowed the generational gap that currently defines much of Egyptian politics, as we have seen over the past month.

A further cleavage has developed in recent years as young Brothers, many of whom refer to themselves as "the Reformers" (al-Islahiyun), have likewise challenged the organizations's leadership. These young Brothers, including many women who likewise consider themselves part of Egypt's Islamist trend, want to create a more democratic and tolerant Islamist politics. They have called for better treatment of Egypt's Coptic Christian population, which the Mubarak regime has failed to protect from radical (albeit minority) Islamist elements in Egyptian society, and to give women positions of leadership within the the Brotherhood. These younger Islamists support democratic elections such as have occurred in Turkey under the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development) Party.

Now that Mubarak is gone, many political parties have come out into the open, as many as 26 by current count. Egyptians no longer are faced with a choice between Mubarak's discredited National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood. Younger Brothers who participated in the recent demonstrations against the Egyptian government have been seen as supportive of open and fair elections. The fact that the Brotherhood only gave its support to the demonstrators well after they had already become large and were being attacked by the police was not lost on the Egyptian people.

Finally, the attempts to draw parallels between Egypt and Iran are misplaced. The Shiite clergy in Iran has been involved in opposition against the central government since the late 1800s. Many clerics are linked by family ties to the powerful traditional merchant class known as the bazaaris. Many own land as well. While the clergy has always had its internal doctrinal and ideological cleavages, there has never been the type of cleavage within Iranian society between the clergy and a non-clerically based political movement like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Also, there was no Internet, Facebook and Twitter during the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution against the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. While it is true that the revolutionaries used Western television stations in Tehran to promote their opposition to the US during the seizure of US Embassy personnel in late 1978 and early 1979, they did not have the ability to mobilize quickly and in large numbers as Tunisian, Egyptian and other youth do now. Indeed the Iranian regime had its hands full suppressing the demonstrations by Iranian youth in Tehran and elsewhere in June 2009 that protested the rigged presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

The Muslim Brotherhood will participate in the Egyptian elections that will occur next year. It will win seats in parliament and its views will need to be represented in the new Egyptian government. However, we will most likely see a much more pragmatic Brotherhood that will need to focus less on its Islamist agenda than on addressing Egypt's pressing social and economic needs. If it fails to do that, it will lose support among the populace at large, especially among Egyptian youth.

1 comment:

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