what is the truth about Muslim Brotherhood? by Bruce Riedel

What’s the truth about the Muslim Brotherhood?

By Bruce Riedel

Updated 2/16/2011 3:30:38 PM |

The revolution in Egypt is a tsunami in Islamic politics. The toppling of Hosni Mubarak will raise expectations and fears from Morocco to Indonesia. At the center of many of these hopes and concerns is the role of Egypt’s oldest and best organized political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, which is certain to play an important role in how Egypt evolves after Mubarak. Is it a radical revolutionary party inherently opposed to American interests, or is it a reformed Islamist party ready to play by democratic rules and work with America? Will Egypt become another Iran or a Turkey?

he short answer is Egypt will be its own model and the Brotherhood will play a unique role in creating that model. Founded in 1928 as an Islamic fundamentalist party dedicated to fighting the British occupation of Egypt, the Brotherhood spread across the Arab world and beyond. Today it has branches in many other Muslim countries, especially in the Palestinian territoriesand Jordan. At first it engaged in terror and assassination, even raising an army to fight Israel in the 1948 war. Its ideologues in the 1950s and 1960s wrote extreme anti-American polemics and called for violent revolutions.

Suppressed by Mubarak and his predecessors, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat, the Brotherhood abandoned violence in the 1970s and ’80s and committed itself to peaceful political change in Egypt. It organized clinics, schools and bookstores for the poor and participated in the rigged elections Mubarak tolerated. It committed itself to dialogue and change, not violence and one-party rule or rule by a clerical supreme leader.

A critical role in revolution

The Brotherhood was slow to join the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt last month, but once it did commit to the movement to oust Mubarak, its role was critical. The Brotherhood provided organization, and its turnout of demonstrators gave the originally very secular opposition a broader base in Egyptian society. But it has also tried hard to be a team player. It has promised to work with other secular parties and has already promised it will not run its own candidate for president when elections are held to replace Mubarak.

The Ikhwan’s fiercest critic is al-Qaeda, and especially its Egyptian leader Ayman el-Zawahri, who was once a member of the Brotherhood but broke with it decades ago. Al-Qaeda hates the Brotherhood because it represents everything al-Qaeda is not — a mass-based movement with a political program that rejects violence. The triumph of the Egyptian revolution is a dramatic setback for al-Qaeda because it shows that change can come in the Arab world through politics instead of jihadist violence. Twitter, not terror, worked. Zawahri, usually quick to comment on every event in the world, has been silent about the toppling of Mubarak. That is in part a testimony to the drones flying over his lair in Pakistan, but it is also a function of al-Qaeda’s rage at being left behind by its rival, the Brotherhood, in the future of Egypt.

his isn’t to say that the Ikhwan is surely free from extremists within its ranks. Indeed, as the new Egypt evolves, Islamists might try to steer the Brotherhood back toward its violent roots. Even so, this group cannot be ignored, and engaging the Ikhwan will help us find out whether dangerous elements are hiding behind the screen.

If the transition in Egypt leads to a national unity government or a broad-based coalition of parties backed by the army, the Brotherhood will probably play a role. If there are genuinely free and fair elections, it could secure a sizable bloc of the vote, although probably not a majority. It could be a player at the table of Egyptian decision-making like never before.

Its agenda will focus on Islamist concerns, such as ensuring a central role for Islamic law in the judicial process and an Islamist educational system. But there are significant constraints on what the Brotherhood can do in Egypt. The Coptic Christian community will press for its rights. The tourism industry, Egypt’s most vital source of foreign exchange, will not want to drive away Westerners with laws that scare foreign visitors to the pyramids and the Sinai beaches. Brotherhood leaders have said that they don’t want an Iranian-style extremist regime in Egypt. Now we should test their sincerity by engaging them.

What about Israel?

Nor do they say they want to return to war with Israel. Egyptians remember the severe costs of their four wars with Israel. They don’t like the 1979 peace treaty, and many find it deeply humiliating, but they know the treaty is essential to keeping Egypt at peace and its economy succeeding.

The issue that is most likely to cause friction between the Ikhwan and America, and indeed between Egypt and America, is the Hamas state in Gaza. The Brotherhood and most Egyptian politicians oppose the siege of Gaza and Egypt’s role in trying to strangle the Hamas movement. For the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, in and outside the Ikhwan, this is a humanitarian issue. Isolating 1 million Gazans is simply wrong and should end whether or not Hamas eschews violence and recognizes Israel.

It would be wise for Washington and Jerusalem now to start rethinking their policy toward Gaza and to re-energize rapidly the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt and the Brotherhood are going to be more difficult and complicated players in Arab-Israeli politics than Mubarak. Get ready for a new day.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East policy at theBrookings Institution and the author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad.

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