On "engaging" the Muslim Brothers

I found this draft of a post I started writing in April 2011 — just three months after Mubarak was toppled. I can't remember why I never published it, but if my feelings were tentative when, it pretty much describes exactly what I have argued to officials since mid-2012 what the mistake of the US and other Western powers towards the MB has been for the past two years. I wish I had made the argument more forcefully and earlier.

I have always hated the term "engagement" when applied to the Muslim Brotherhood, a term that became fashionable around 2005. It is generally used as in, "the US should engage the Muslim Brothers". It has its fierce advocates in the US foreign policy community, and many who are against. The problem is that the term is ill-defined and thus meaningless.

One example is Ed Husain's recent FP piece, which while providing a good assessment of the state of the debate inside the Brotherhood, never really says what engagement is about (the other thing I did not understand is his use of the world "suburban".) He writes:

For the last three decades, the United States has engaged with Arab leaders through three prisms: oil, terrorism, and Israel. This is no longer enough. In this new Arab era, Washington will need to interact with ordinary people and their elected representatives in parliaments. The Muslim Brotherhood is undeniably a part of that wider Arab population, and Washington should attempt to engage progressive and pragmatic strands within the movement in order to tilt the debate away from extremism and confrontation to nation-building and dialogue. It can be done. Islamists can change.

This sounds to me like Husain and other advocates of "engagement" are suggesting the US should engage with the MB like they did with the Arab regimes. This would be disastrous, because a) the MB is not a government, at least not yet, and b) this approach is basically one of plotting with the dominant force in a country, which is what the US did with the regimes to disastrous effect. 

I much prefer Nathan Brown's approach, which he explained to Congress recently:

The policy question that is often posed in Washington is whether the U.S. should “engage” the Muslim Brotherhood. I have always been puzzled by formulating the question that way. Discussions between diplomats and leaders of various types are a means of gathering information and pursuing policy, not ends in themselves. The question is therefore not whether or not we “engage” the Brotherhood (our diplomats should, of course, be able to do their jobs by developing informative contacts with all political actors, but these contacts are to make sure our policy is better informed; they should not be the purpose or center of any policy). The real question is whether various domestic political forces can engage each other. We can sometimes contribute to that domestic engagement by making clear we are willing to work with any legitimate leadership.

In the last few years, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to oppose a law banning the beating of children and another to make the ban on Female Genital Mutilation more strict. Some in the MB are now talking about the introducing Sharia-based punishments. There is a lot of buzz inside the MB on these issues now, because naturally Islamists (even the reform-minded ones) are excited about have the freedom to discuss these religious questions. I recently had a fascinating (if slightly chilling) insight into some of these debates, including the discussions of how to reinterpret, say, the injunction to cut thieves' hands: one solution proposed, for instance, is that criminals be given a choice about either having the traditional sentence or serving long prison terms. This is what Islamists do: they get excited about Sharia.

Islamists also are excited about engagement, and are recuperating the "engagement" meme from the Western policy wonks. I am told that the MB is in the process of setting up a special unit for engagement, because it wants to sell itself to the West. Partly of course this is understandable, there are a lot of misunderstandings in the West about Islamists and a tendency to mix al-Qaeda and the Brothers in the same bag. But this must also be seen as what it is: a lobbying effort from an organization that is interesting in engagement because it sees in it a way to negotiate its own political success, because it recognizes US influence. And the worst thing the US could do is send signals to the MB that it somehow supports it, or for that matter any other political force (that was the signal it effectively sent to the NDP, after all.)