Is the World Too Easy on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Leaders?

Is the World Too Easy on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Leaders?

Steve Cook writes in The Atlantic:

. . . primarily Western analysts and a good chunk of the American foreign policy establishment have come to believe that the Brothers can be a genuine force for progressive political change. This conclusion is based on an alleged evolution of the Brotherhood that is reflected in its discourse about reform and democratic change. Observers also point to the Brothers' past performance as parliamentarians when they sought to hold corrupt governments under Mubarak accountable. If neither of these arguments is convincing, it may not matter so the theory goes because circumstances will force the Brothers to become democrats despite themselves. Left without the means of coercion, the only resource the Brothers have is their popularity and as a result, they will go back to the ballot box again and again in order to outmaneuver their political opponents. Eventually the principles and practice of democracy will become institutionalized.

As I have written before, much of this is based on hunches, wishful thinking, or historical analogies that are interesting but are hardly predictive of the Brotherhood's political trajectory. Still, if the reception that the Freedom and Justice Party received in Washington last March is any indication, these arguments hold sway and insulate Morsi and the Brotherhood from the widespread denunciation they deserve when they pursue non-democratic policies.

I can think of a few analysts who advocated the position Cook describes, of looking at the MB as "moderates" (whatever that means) who should be embraced, but I think he actually misdiagnoses the main issue. It's not that many in power in the US, or influential analysts, are prepared to think of the MB as a "genuine force for progressive political change" — something it obviously is not in many respects.

It's that these people look at the MB as credibly in charge and capable of running Egypt. They don't care whether it is progressive, just like they did not mind much Mubarak not being progressive. And this is what the MB is selling itself as, combining easy assurances of being democratic (an untested proposition) with the more important selling point of being ready to do business and able to deliver on issues of agreement. The phenomenon that Steve is describing — of the MB being given a pass, notably by the Obama administration — is therefore more the result of a need for a dependable interlocutor in the US (which the MB is more than other political forces in Egypt, because it has the ability to enforce a position among its ranks) and the need to keep Egypt open for business on a few select issues: military cooperation, Israel. The problem Cook describes, in other words, is actually mostly that people are willing to make excuses for the MB or engage in wishful thinking because the democracy and human rights bit is simply not that important to them compared to more strategic issues.

I agree with his conclusion, though:

It is too early to draw any firm conclusions about the Brothers in Egypt, but it certainly seems that their first inclination is to advance their agenda by any means necessary while expressing fealty to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square. It has become a cliché, but what the Brothers do is more important than what they say. After all, doesn't anyone remember "New Thinking and Priorities"? The NDP was also adept at the language of political change and reform, but hardly anyone believed it. Of course, the FJP is not the old ruling party, but in order to ensure that it does not become some variant of the NDP, liberal-minded Egyptians and foreigners (yes, foreigners) need to speak up loudly when the Brothers do illiberal things.

 

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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, www.arabist.net.