Why we shouldn’t fear the Muslim Brotherhood
“In many ways this is a very conservative movement,” says a leading analyst of Egyptian politics
If you were watching Fox on Monday, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Egypt was on the verge of being taken over by a pack of terrorists. Anchor Steve Doocy characterized the Muslim Brotherhood this morning as “the godfather of Al Qaeda.”
And several potential Republican presidential hopefuls have cited worries about the Muslim Brotherhood as a reason for the United States to continue to support the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak.
To get some hard facts and context about the controversial Islamic movement, I called Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and director of its Institute for Middle East Studies. He has written extensively on the Muslim Brotherhood.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Can you give a rundown of the history of the group and where it came from?
The group was founded in 1928. It was a broad movement aiming at increasing religious knowledge among Egyptians, doing good works, and making society more Islamic. It gradually got more and more into politics. It was suppressed in the late 1940s and it never really fully regained legal status after that. In the 1940s, that they did form sort of a paramilitary wing to combat the British troops who were still in Egypt and volunteer for the war over the creation of Israel in 1948.
Then in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Gamal Nasser regime tried to crush them, some members of the Brotherhood developed ideas that essentially legitimated armed rebellion against the government. Some leaders were executed and so on. In the 1970s, they were allowed to reemerge, but they were never given legal status. Since that time they’ve disavowed violence. They’ve said that they’re willing to work within the rules of the game, that they’re a reform movement not a revolutionary one. They have found a variety of ways to run candidates for parliament and to take an active role in Egyptian public life.
What role do they play day to day?
Their formal title is “The Society of Muslim Brothers” it is not “the Muslim Brotherhood political party” or anything like that. They claim they have got a broad reform agenda — social, religious, political, educational, and so on. Over the past decad they made real strides in the political realm. In the 2005 elections, they got one fifth of the seats in parliament. After that point, the regime came down on them hard — arrested some top leaders, tried to close down businesses that were associated with Brotherhood supporters, arrested an awful lot of the foot soldiers in the movement, and so on. The organization reacted by saying, “We have to take care of our organization first. We’re in this for the long haul, we think in terms of decades and generations, not in terms of political maneuvering for the next elections.”
So they basically scaled back a little bit of their political movement, and the architects of their political campaign found themselves less influential within the movement. What that means is, the movement right now is led by people who are very cautious and are really trying to preserve the organization. They are probably less skilled in politics like making alliances and speaking to the press. When the current strikes started, therefore, they really reacted in a little bit of a hesitating manner.
I’ve seen several people describe the Brotherhood and their agenda as “radical” — referring to the religious aspects. Would you describe them as radical?
Well they certainly take their Islam seriously. But in many ways this is a very conservative movement. The current general guide is a professor of veterinary medicine. He’s a shy guy. These are not fire-breathing radicals at the top of the organization. And whenever somebody talks a little bit too violently and impatiently, they are told either to calm down or to leave the movement.
Their agenda is to make Egypt better. And their conception of what’s good and bad has a religious basis. So that means increasing religious observance, religious knowledge. It also means probably drawing more heavily on the Islamic legal heritage for Egypt’s laws. They don’t want to necessarily completely convert Egypt into a traditional Islamic legal system. But if the parliaments going to pass a law, they want it to be consistent with Islamic law.
A lot of their program is just standard reform stuff — independence of the judiciary, the end of corruption, protecting the environment. Especially when they got more political over the last 10 years or so, what they really began to push was a very general reform language that takes Islamic coloration in some areas. But an awful lot of it is consistent with other reform programs coming from reformists all over the political spectrum.
Somebody said on Fox News today that the Muslim Brotherhood is the “godfather of Al Qaeda.” Is there any relationship there, historically or in the present?
You shouldn’t be watching Fox to learn about the Muslim Brotherhood is the lesson from that. Here’s what I would say: The concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship to political violence is not based on hallucinations — it is there. In the 1950s and 60s the Brotherhood did develop this strain of thought that said, the existing government is not Islamic and therefore some kind of armed clash is inevitable. That strain has basically been repudiated by the Brotherhood. In fact, Al Qaeda openly and consistently attacks the Brotherhood as having sold out.
What happened was that the sort of ideas that were gestating in the more radical streams of the Brotherhood, those ideas essentially spawned some more radical groups. And they begin attacking Arab governments, like the Egyptian government and Algeria, in the 1970s and 1980s. The Brotherhood wanted nothing to do with them. But in a sense you could see there is a common genealogy there.
When those attempts failed in the 1980s and 1990s to overthrow existing Arab governments, the current leaders of Al Qaeda — people like Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is Egyptian, and Osama bin Laden, who is Saudi — said: “We’re making a mistake. We’re attacking the Egyptian government, the Saudi government, and the Algerian government. But let’s go to the source, the government that is really backing them, and that’s the United States.”
But in its present form, the Brotherhood is not advocating political violence?
They specifically and repeatedly repudiate it. They have in the last couple days thrown in their lot with this uprising. But as far as they’re concerned, it’s a peaceful uprising, not a violent one.
Is it known how big the Brotherhood is?
Not really because it’s not a legal organization. The do have some firm sense of membership. If you join the Brotherhood, you are expected to attend regular meetings, go to discussion groups, that sort of thing. My guess is that it’s probably much smaller than people think. But it does have a little bit of the cachet of being people who are seen as public-spirited and good, moral, and upstanding. They would appeal to a much wider spectrum of Egyptian public opinion than their narrow membership base would suggest. In a total free election, they might get between 20 and 40 percent of the vote.
Is it an all male organization?
No, they do have female groups within the organization. The leadership is pretty much all male.
Let’s say at some point there’s a new government in Egypt in which the Brotherhood has a voice. How would they change the foreign policy of Egypt on Israel or relations with the U.S.?
They’re clearly suspicious of the United States, and you’ll hear some anti-American slogans from them — but no more so than from any other place in the Egyptian political spectrum. They don’t stand out there, and there are probably more anti-American people in the committee of opposition leaders.
With regard to Israel it’s a little bit different. Israel is unpopular in Egypt. And the Brotherhood since the 1930s has a very strong history of backing the Palestinian cause. They are critics of the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Those are all popular stands. That said, no one in Egypt wants a war with Israel right now. So the Brotherhood tries to finesse this by saying, ‘This treaty really needs to be put up for a referendum.” If they were in the government, I think they would be in an embarrassing position. This is an international treaty that was ratified — are you willing to abide by the state of Egypt’s international treaty obligations or not?
If it was a broad-based coalition government in which the majority clearly favored maintaining the current peace treaty, I think the Brotherhood would say: “We don’t like this, we’re not in favor it. But we’re willing to accept the results of a legitimate political process.” That’s my guess.
Is the Brotherhood something that should be a source of fear in the way it’s being talked about by many people?
We’ve got a big headache in Egypt. The regime in its current form is toast. Our regional policy has been based on a very close working relationship with the Egyptian government since 1974, so we’ve got fundamental rethinking to do. The Brotherhood is part of that headache. It’s not the biggest part. Is there cause for concern? Yes. Is there cause for fearful reaction? Absolutely not.