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In my past conversations with Brotherhood leaders, I have not probed the stance toward Israel; it is not a topic of my research, and it often sets conversations off on an edgy track. But recently I have asked, largely to understand how the Brotherhood balances the very different pulls on its loyalties. And the answers that I have received are in one sense quite consistent: The Brotherhood and the FJP recognize Egypt’s international obligations and treaties; treaties that do not serve the interest of one side or that have been violated can be re-examined; Israel is in violation of the treaty. I pressed: What if Israel does not agree to renegotiate? What is the proposed response to the alleged violations? A renegotiation requires mutual agreement, I was told. A commitment has to use only diplomatic means (some of which are provided for in the treaty, like arbitration) and those that are fully in accord with international law. What varied considerably was body language (I got the idea that these words were far more difficult for some people to say than others), emphasis (whether the words were said dispassionately and quickly, or whether there was a bit more emphasis on “Zionist crimes”) and detail. The Brotherhood has ironed out a position, but it has not been easy.
Second, the recent parliamentary election revealed how strong the Brotherhood’s Salafi rivals are. Most of the discussion in Egypt has centered on how the Brotherhood and Salafi blocs in parliament will interact. In the long run, however, the Brotherhood leadership is more focused on other spheres. The competition among Islamists for followers in each neighborhood, town and village may be far more consequential than any legislative battle. To many outsiders, Islamists look alike, but in the past year, Brotherhood and Salafi activists have become acutely aware of their differences. Salafis see themselves as sticking closely to religious texts and focusing on individual righteous conduct; they view the Brotherhood as more about politics than about religion. The Brotherhood sees Salafis as too concerned with a superficial and often quite rigid display of religiosity rather than with the spirit of Islam. The Brotherhood also sees itself as far more engaged with the broader society and therefore appropriately flexible in interpreting religious strictures.
Finally, the Brotherhood leaders need to learn to balance politics with their traditional concerns (charity work, self-improvement, proselytizing, education), especially at a time when politics seems so glamorous and has attracted the best people in the organization. Indeed, many of the movement’s most dynamic and imaginative members have shifted their attention over to the political party — explaining its success but also leaving some of the movement’s plans (to form labor unions, create sports leagues, reach out to students and so on) a bit adrift.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is famous for its discipline, and it is throwing itself into its new tasks with enthusiasm. If the Brothers must engage the United States, for instance, they must know something about the environment whence their interlocutors come. So at the end of my interviews, I sometimes find myself peppered with questions that show surprising sophistication (such as which think tanks are influential in Republican congressional circles).
Brotherhood leaders know that if they respond to these challenges successfully, their movement may be able to become the dominant social and political force in Egypt for years to come — and all by using the greater freedom and democracy that Egypt’s rocky revolution still promises to provide.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.