Egyptian protests: Should we fear the Muslim Brotherhood?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 2 2011 1:38 PM

Should We Fear the Muslim Brotherhood?

If we can be friends with Saudi Arabia, we can work with Egypt's largest organized opposition group.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Egyptian protest. Click image to expand.
A poster of Hosni Mubarak with his face crossed out is held up as Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square heeding a call by the opposition for a "march of a million" to mark a week of protests calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak's long-term regime, on Feb, 1, 2011

Now that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime may soon come to an end, Americans are asking what might take its place. A prime candidate is the Muslim Brotherhood, or so it seems. The Brotherhood is the largest organized opposition group in Egypt, with hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. In official Washington, the name of the Muslim Brotherhood conjures up fears of another Iran. Already, Western policymakers and analysts have sounded warnings about anti-democratic forces taking over the revolution. Theocracy, we are told, may not be far behind.

Once again, the United States finds itself torn between interests and ideals—and between democracy and its outcomes. This is the "Islamist dilemma" that has long paralyzed American policy in the region. Is a democratic revolution worth it if it brings the Muslim Brotherhood into government?

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While there are legitimate concerns about the group's positions on both domestic and foreign policy, the Brotherhood of today is not the Brotherhood of yesterday. Decades ago, it renounced violence. More recently, the group has publicly committed itself, in Arabic, to many of the foundational components of democratic life, including alternation of power, popular sovereignty, and judicial independence. In its political programs, the Brotherhood has largely stripped its programs of traditional Islamist content. Where the Brotherhood once talked endlessly about "application of shariah law" (tatbiq al-shariah), it now settles for vague expressions promoting Islamic values and morals. Meanwhile, its vocabulary has shifted from favoring an "Islamic state" to a "civil, democratic state with an Islamic reference." 

The Brotherhood, to be sure, is not a force for liberalism, nor is it likely to become so anytime soon. The group holds views that most Americans would be uncomfortable with, including on women's rights and segregation of the sexes. But we're not voting in Egyptian elections; Egyptians are. 

Ultimately, though, American fears about the Brotherhood are not about gender equality or religious freedom. After all, one of America's closest allies is the most theocratic country in the world. Saudi Arabia, as conservative as it is, supports U.S. security objectives in the region. The real concern is whether the Brotherhood, known for its inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and the United States, would work against U.S. regional interests. Crucially, would it attempt to cancel the peace treaty with Israel—long the cornerstone of the U.S.-Egypt relationship? Such an outcome is unlikely; the Brotherhood is well aware that this is a red line for the international community. Any new, transitional government—which will be tasked with rebuilding a battered country—will not want to harm its relationship with Washington and risk losing billions of dollars in much-needed assistance.

Of course, democracy is messy, and nothing is guaranteed. For their part, Israelis have no reason to be sanguine about the Brotherhood's evolution. The risks of Islamist overreach, however, can be mitigated through creative policymaking. The United States and the international community can help facilitate the building of robust political institutions that constrain the power of elected leaders, Islamist and secular alike. Washington should also begin a substantive dialogue with the Brotherhood in order to exchange views on key issues of concern, particularly in the realm of security cooperation. Such a dialogue may then allow U.S. officials to enjoy a degree of leverage with pragmatic and reform-minded Islamist leaders. It is always better to have leverage with opposition groups before they come to power, rather than afterward. Afterward is, often, too late.

This, of course, assumes that the Brotherhood will not only be a dominant force in a future government but also have control over Egyptian foreign policy. Brotherhood leaders have made a series of statements in recent days suggesting they are ready to put pragmatism ahead of ideology. They know the world is watching closely—and nervously. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Sobhi Saleh, a prominent Brotherhood figure, said: "The West looks at us like the Shia regime in Iran, but we aren't. We're much closer to the Turkish example." He went on to say that the Brotherhood was willing to abide by the Camp David Accords, something that several of the group's leaders have echoed in the past.

In the coming stage, though, the Brotherhood is likely to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy. After years of mounting repression, including mass arrests and the seizing of its financial assets, the group's priority is having enough freedom and political space to resume social and educational activities and slowly rebuild its organization. With this in mind, it has already lent its support to Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the most likely candidate for interim president and one of Egypt's most unabashedly secular politicians. In Egypt, presidents, not parliaments, make foreign policy.

It is difficult, then, to envision a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood would be running Egyptian foreign policy.

It is just as difficult to envision a democratic Egypt that does not include the country's largest and best-organized opposition force. In the Arab context, the question of democracy and the question of political Islam are inseparable. Any future government that excludes Islamists will be perceived by Egyptians as unrepresentative and illegitimate. And in the coming transitional phase, this is the last thing Egypt needs. A "national unity government" means just that—national unity. And to be truly unified, all Egyptians need to have a stake in Egypt's future—even, perhaps especially, those we don't like.

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Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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