Muslim Brothers: so hot right now

As they face one of the biggest crackdowns in decades and the military trial of some of their top funders begins, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers are attracting ever more attention. There is a long piece in the NY Times Magazine -- a pretty decent and sympathetic portrait of the group and some of its personalities, even if it is generally inconclusive -- that looks at their recent pro-reform parliamentary record and what various members of the group say about issues such as alcohol, Copts, and so on. James Traub, the author of the piece, is working on a book on democracy promotion and it shows: there are references to the Bush administration's stance towards the MB, which Traub posits as being at odds with the Forward Agenda for Freedom (Bushspeak for democracy promotion.) To me it seems the democracy promotion angle (a US policy issue) is a bit awkwardly tackled to the more general look at the Brothers' democratic credentials, but of course it's an interesting issue.

As it has fully entered the political arena, the brotherhood has been forced to come up with clear answers on issues about which it has been notably ambiguous in the past. Some are easy enough: There seems to be little appetite among them for stoning adulterers or lopping off the hands of thieves; and all deprecate the jizya, or tax on nonbelievers, as a relic of an era when only Muslims served in the military. Some are not so easy. I asked Magdy Ashour about the drinking of alcohol, which is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Islamic states. He was quite unfazed. “There is a concept in Shariah that if you commit the sin in private it’s different from committing it in public,” he explained. You can drink in a hotel, but not in the street. This was flexibility verging on pragmatism. I wondered if Ashour, and the other brotherhood candidates, had offered such nuanced judgments on the stump; a number of detractors insist that the group’s campaign rhetoric was much more unabashedly Islamist.

There are, of course, more fundamental questions. In the course of a three-hour conversation in the brotherhood’s extremely modest office in an apartment building in one of Cairo’s residential neighborhoods, I asked Muhammad Habib, the deputy supreme guide, how the brotherhood would react if the Legislature passed a law that violated Shariah. “The People’s Assembly has the absolute right in that situation,” he said, “as long as it is elected in a free and fair election which manifests the people’s will. The Parliament could go to religious scholars and hear their opinion” — as it could seek the advice of economists on economic matters — “but it is not obliged to listen to these opinions.” Some consider grave moral issues, like homosexual marriage, beyond the pale of majoritarianism; others make no such exception. Hassan al-Banna famously wrote that people are the source of authority. This can be understood, if you wish to, as the Islamic version of the democratic credo.
It's also interesting to see MB rhetoric for why Americans should talk to them:

But why not engage the brotherhood openly? Is what is gained by mollifying the Mubarak regime worth what is lost by forgoing contact with the brotherhood? “Americans,” Essam el-Erian said to me, “must have channels with all the people, not only in politics, but in economics, in social, in everything, if they want to change the image of America in the region.” Of course, that principle applies only up to a point. The administration has, understandably, refused to recognize the democratic bona fides either of Hamas or of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the Muslim Brotherhood, for all its rhetorical support of Hamas, could well be precisely the kind of moderate Islamic body that the administration says it seeks. And as with Islamist parties in Turkey and Morocco, the experience of practical politics has made the brotherhood more pragmatic, less doctrinaire. Finally, foreign policy is no longer a rarefied game of elites: public opinion shapes the world within which policy makers operate, and the refusal to deal with Hamas or Hezbollah has made publics in the Islamic world dismiss the whole idea of democracy promotion. Even a wary acceptance of the brotherhood, by contrast, would demonstrate that we take seriously the democratic preferences of Arab voters.
Ultimately, though, what I like best about Traub's piece are the little vignettes about what it is that Muslim Brotherhood MPs and activists do at the local level. It's worth reading fully.

While on the topic of the MB, Robert Leiken, the establishment conservative policy type who advocated (with mildly neo-con [edit:see comments] Steven Brooke) engagement with the MB in the pages of Foreign Affairs a couple of months ago, follows up on critiques of his argument in the National Interest -- particularly the critique "more neo-con than me you die" Joshua Muravshik articulated in Commentary. So basically it's an argument between conservative policy wonks. All credit to them for having the argument, and I am not so familiar with centrist and liberal debates on this issue in Amreeka (my friends Samer Shehata and Josh Stacher, who have argued for engagement with the MB, are scholars not wonks). Indeed, I find the pages of places like the Center for American Progress rather barren on such topics -- or am I wrong? The debate has to be broader than this to be significant.

Nonetheless, there is a fundamental truth that if you talk about engaging the MB in an American context, no matter what you think about what the MB wants to do in Egypt, there is the question of its support for Hamas. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supports terrorism, since it supports Hamas, and Hamas is considered to be a terrorist organization in US law. In some anti-MB arguments, that "support of terrorism" charge can seem to mean that the MB supports al-Qaeda -- and the debate hits a brick wall. Nonetheless, that critique is not serious. Hamas is not al-Qaeda and while it makes use of terrorism, it does so in resistance to occupation. That argument of course won't get you far in American circles either, but one that might is that if the US does not engage with the MB because it supports Hamas, should it break off diplomatic relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Egypt which have given money to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government or facilitated those donations? (I am leaving out the obvious imbalance in US treatment of Palestinian use of violence against civilians to resist occupation vs. Israeli use of violence against civilians to perpetuate occupation.)

There is perhaps another issue worth raising: what is the MB's position towards the situation in Iraq, and does the MB encourage people to go fight the jihad there? I have no evidence the MB is involved in this, but there have been quite a few Egyptian mujahedeen in Iraq and you have to wonder about the recruitment networks they came through.

In any case, if people want to debate this in the comments, can we refrain from the all-caps messages about how the MB are the spawn of Satan?

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,