The hysteria in American media about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not only ignorant and demagogic, it is hypocritical. The United States has actively promoted Muslim Brotherhood branches in other countries when it suited its purposes, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, the Turkish and Indonesian cases of democratic transition in the Muslim world should have taught us something about how Muslim fundamentalist parties are themselves transformed in a democratic setting.
As recently as 2005, the pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood had 88 seats in the lower house of the parliament, about 20 percent, and so has been at some points a junior partner in Egypt’s governance. It has been so establishment that it declined to support the Facebook campaign on April 6, 2008, for better wages and working conditions for Egypt’s textile factory workers. Out of that campaign came the April 6 Committee that called for this year’s Jan. 25 demonstration. The Brotherhood joined this year’s protest movement only at the last minute and was not a leading force in it.
On Sunday, the Brotherhood called upon the new military regime to release all prisoners of conscience, including young protesters incarcerated during the past three weeks. Its leaders also asked for an end to the state of emergency laws that allow the government to suspend civil liberties. It further suggested that a cabinet minister be appointed to investigate government corruption under the old regime.
On Saturday, the Brotherhood had issued a statement praising the Egyptian military high command for its role in stabilizing the country and taking it toward democratic civilian rule. The fundamentalist group denied that it sought to dominate Egypt, and pledged that it would field no candidate for president in the upcoming elections, and would have no strategy of trying to dominate the new parliament.
The Brotherhood can afford to be magnanimous here, since it is not clear that the clause in the constitution that forbids it from running as a religious party will be abrogated, and it may depend, as in the past, on other parties being willing to run popular Brothers in certain constituencies. There is no indication from the opinion polling in Egypt, moreover, that it would be able to dominate parliament even if that were its goal. Some of its leaders have spoken of putting the peace treaty with Israel to a popular referendum. But the still-powerful Egyptian military probably would not allow any such step, and even if it did, the polling suggests that the peace treaty would win. In any case, the Brotherhood is not speaking the sort of language that Ayatollah Khomeini preferred in 1979 in Iran’s revolution, when he rejected phrases such as “democracy” as un-Islamic.
Someone named Andy McCarthy, identified as a “former federal prosecutor,” has been everywhere in the media making the most grossly inaccurate claims about the Muslim Brotherhood and demonstrating a profundity of ignorance about Egypt unmatched since Pope Innocent III launched the disastrous Fifth Crusade in 1213. McCarthy alleged that the Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, that Ayman al-Zawahri of al-Qaida is in this group, and that the fundamentalist party Hamas in the Gaza Strip is under the control of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Everything he said to millions of Americans was a laughable falsehood.
The Brotherhood was begun in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, as a revivalist movement that also protested the influence of British colonialism. Contrary to what Paul Berman and other neoconservatives have alleged, al-Banna thoroughly condemned Hitler and Mussolini as execrable racists, and his movement had nothing in common with European fascism. In a reaction against the British reoccupation of Egypt during World War II, the organization developed a terrorist cell in the 1940s and early 1950s. But the massive crackdown on it that its violence provoked drove the organization underground and marginalized it.
In the 1970s, Sadat rehabilitated the Brotherhood and stipulated that if it would eschew violence and become a civil society association, the government would let its members out of jail and allow them relative freedom. It was this bargain, to which the Brotherhood has faithfully adhered, that drove radicals such as al-Zawahri, now al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, to break with the Brotherhood and to denounce it virulently. Sadat was not assassinated by the Brotherhood, contrary to what was alleged to the great Mideast expert Sean Hannity by the great Mideast expert McCarthy. The president was felled by militants who rejected both him and his ally, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood is a decentralized organization even in Egypt. It is not organized internationally. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, e.g., is essentially a different organization from its Egyptian counterpart. Hamas has its distant origins in Brotherhood proselytizing in the 1930s, but it takes no orders from Cairo. Other political groups with a Muslim Brotherhood genealogy include the Iraqi Islamic Party, which cooperated with George W. Bush’s invasion of and administration of Iraq.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a fundamentalist organization. It is relatively hostile to women’s rights, and its vision of moving Egypt even further from civil, secular law to a conservative and literalist interpretation of medieval Muslim traditions is reactionary. Its literature is tainted with the worst sort of anti-Semitism. But decades of repression have not destroyed the movement, and there is no reason to believe that more repression would be more effective now.
There is another, proven, way to deal with this problem. The political success stories of the past decade in the Muslim world with regard to democratization are Turkey and Indonesia. In both countries the fundamentalist religious tendency has been liberalized and domesticated by its participation in the parliamentary process. Mubarak’s regime did not work. Democracy in Turkey and Indonesia has. Let us go with a winner for once.