Washington — Although proponents of democracy can only be excited by the prospect of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leaving office after a 30-year dictatorship, they also fear that a possible successor in leadership of the country of 80 million could be worse — not only for Egypt, but for Israel.
But despite alarms about the Muslim Brotherhood raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some other observers, most scholars of Egyptian politics view the Muslim Brotherhood as actually the most moderate among Islamist groups.
The group, they say, rightly raises a variety of democratic concerns. But most doubt that the Brotherhood, as it is known, would pose an existential threat to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, or that it would win a popular election currently set for September.
“There is a lot of exaggeration and Islamist hysteria,” said Dina Guirguis, a longtime activist for Egyptian democracy and a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Many of those who talk about the Brotherhood don’t understand the reality on the ground.”
“I don’t know anyone who had studied the Muslim Brotherhood and thinks they can take over,” said Nathan Brown, political science professor at George Washington University who has researched the Egyptian political system. “The best they can hope for is a seat at a crowded table.”
That hasn’t stopped leaders in Israel and America from painting a dire picture of the group. Founded in 1928 by Sheikh Hassan al Banna, its original goal was securing Egypt’s independence from British colonialism and establishing a Muslim state. Fears are based in part on the group’s well-organized structure, which was galvanized during decades of working underground after being outlawed by the ruling regime. Right now, experts agree, the Brotherhood is in the best position of all contenders to do well in elections. But secular opposition groups are widely expected to catch up in six months’ time.
“There is the possibility that the Islamists will take advantage of the situation to take control of the state,” Netanyahu warned in a February 7 speech in which he described his country’s concerns regarding the Egyptian revolution. He predicted that a possible outcome was that “Egypt will go in the direction of Iran.”
Netanyahu’s concerns reflect a widespread sentiment in Israel and among pro-Israel activists in the U.S. that if Egypt transitions to democracy, Islamist extremists will take over. This fear was apparent in a February 2 briefing call to Jewish leaders held by the White House. In the call, Jewish activists expressed their concern over the administration’s support for including the Muslim Brotherhood in talks between the outgoing leadership and the opposition groups in Egypt.
The Brotherhood, which advocates abandoning Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, has emerged as the main source of anxiety for Israelis and their supporters, overshadowing most other aspects of the popular uprising. It was some members of the Brotherhood who in 1987 founded Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza and that has claimed responsibility for numerous acts of terrorism targeting Israeli civilians. The two groups’ political ideologies overlap greatly.
In a February 2 statement on the Senate floor, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk cautioned that the Brotherhood could change Egypt’s course. “While we support human rights and democracy, we must heed growing warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood, their leaders and plans for taking Egypt back to the 13th century. We have seen this movie before — in Iran, in Lebanon and in Gaza,” said Kirk.
Researchers, however, see a more nuanced picture of the group and of its ability to influence Egyptian policy. They point to the fact that the Brotherhood is unique, as it is one of few Islamic organizations that have explicitly debated the use of violence and decided against it, living up to this decision for the past four decades. Earlier, at the time of its founding, the group did not refrain from violence against the British. It became a model for similar Brotherhoods established in other Arab countries, which still operate throughout the Middle East, making the Brotherhood the largest and oldest international Islamist organization. Since it is outlawed in Egypt, there are no exact figures regarding membership and support. Experts estimate the Brotherhood has less than half a million active members, but that support for the group among Egyptian voters could reach several million.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s platform focuses on domestic issues, with an emphasis on combating poverty in Egyptian society. The group has stated that it would like to see Sharia, or Islamic religious law, become the law of the land in Egypt, although the Brotherhood has not laid out specifics for this plan. Still, statements by the group’s leaders make clear that on many domestic issues they hold similar views to that of the Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran -— they do not accept homosexuality, oppose having women as elected officials or in leadership positions and do not believe in full and equal rights for the Christian minority living in Egypt.
It was in 1970 that the group officially renounced violence, stating it would focus on promoting its social services network as a means of advancement toward its goal of an Islamic state. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations, which is considered the most comprehensive documentation of groups involved in terror.
But the issues of violence and terror still haunt the group, in part because of its frequent praise of jihad and in part because of some of the individuals who have been associated with the Brotherhood in the past.
Key among these figures is Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, who broke off at an early age from the Brotherhood to form the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged into Al Qaeda. Al Zawahiri has since bitterly criticized the Brotherhood’s refusal to take up arms.
Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s current leader (a position known as the “general guide”), called as recently as last October for a holy war against Israel. He deplored Arab countries that “do not carry out the command of Allah to wage jihad for his sake with both money and lives.”
Similar statements are abundant and are now being reported by groups monitoring the Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. For many, such public remarks by Muslim Brotherhood figures are the writing on the wall that some in the West choose to ignore.
“What most worries me is the lack of worry on the part of others,” wrote Barry Rubin, a Middle East scholar with the Interdesciplinary Center in Herziliya, Israel, in an article titled “Western Blindness on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Extremism is Beyond Ridiculous.”
Indeed, the group is clear in its rejection of the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel. The Brotherhood claims that since it was never approved by a referrendum, the 1978 treaty is not valid. Rashad al-Bayoumi, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, said in a recent interview with a Japanese TV network that once Mubarak steps down, “there is a need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel.” Other leaders have said they would agree to join a government that maintains peaceful relations with Israel, but in general the group believes the accord should be abrogated.
In a January 30 interview with Iranian TV news channel Al-Alam, the Muslim Brotherhood’s representative in London, Muhammad Ghannem, called on the Egyptian people to “prepare for war against Israel” and urged the closing of the Suez Canal and a halt to all natural gas exports from Egypt to Israel. Scholars, however, among them Nathan Brown, believe the Brotherhood will not push for war with Israel since it understands this runs counter to the will of Egyptian people.
Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, argued that despite Israeli fears of such a move, it would be a mistake to believe the Brotherhood could actually drive Egypt down the path of revoking the peace accord with Israel. “This is a self-defeating assumption,” he said. “In fact, the peace with Israel reflects the consensus in Egypt.”
But will the U.S. engage with a group that calls for the annulment of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel?
“We cannot cherry pick,” said Joel Rubin, deputy director of National Security Network, a progressive foreign policy think tank, and a former State Department Egypt desk officer. According to Rubin, the U.S. currently engages with Islamist parties in Iraq and should not set conditions for the Egyptian people. “The administration should make clear that peace between Egypt and Israel is an American interest,” he added.
Marshall Breger, a Catholic University law professor who was President Ronald Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community and has been active in outreach efforts to Muslim groups, said he sees no reason to refrain from engaging with the Brotherhood, either privately or publicly. “They are part of the fabric of the Egyptian society,” he said. “They are a relevant player.”
Brown estimated that the Brotherhood would be less successful electorally now than in 2005 when, under tough limitations, it won 20% of the seats in Parliament. Dina Guirguis estimates that the group’s share in future elections will range between 15% and 20% of the votes.
Other parties mentioned as potentially gaining leadership roles are the Wafd, a secular liberal nationalist party that boycotted the 2010 elections, and the Ghad party, which is considered more centrist.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org