Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (or: Egypt ’11 is also not Iran ’79).

One word for Mubarak: "Leave."

Please see update, below.

It’s been, as they say, a day. I didn’t have time to think about Egypt or matters much beyond the end of my nose, and though I wanted to write about how Egypt ’11 is even further from being Iran ’79 (the Islamic Revolution) than it is Iran ’09 (the fallout of the stolen election), I’m only just now getting to it.

But the good news is that blogger and Israeli-Palestinian peace activist Mitchell Plitnick has kicked it off for me:

The Egyptian MB [Muslim Brotherhood] is not a reactionary, violent group. In fact, although there was a period in their history decades ago where a strain that embraced violence held sway in the group, they have since repeatedly and explicitly renounced violence as a means to their ends and have stuck to that despite the violence they faced from the Egyptian government. Their association with the birth of Hamas is going to be a commonly heard refrain, but it says a lot more about what Hamas was when it was first created (a social and religious network which Israel actually wanted to see grow because they thought that they would be like the MB, a religious counterweight to the secular PLO but less inclined toward armed struggle than the PLO and its Fatah leadership at the time. Little did they know…) than it does about where either Hamas or MB are now.

Indeed, due to the repression of decades, it’s hard to know where the MB stands now. They certainly represent conservative religious values, and, like any opposition group whether religious or secular, their openness to true inclusive democracy may or may not withstand the actual acquisition of power. It’s certain that MB will not favor the sort of cooperation with Israel and the US that has characterized Egyptian policy for 35 years, but how far they would break from the past is unknown.

click through for the whole thing – there are good links, too

Aside from anything else, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, he’d spent years building a following, and had become the symbol — no: the embodiment — of the people’s hopes and dreams. He was joyfully welcomed home by any and all, including people who were entirely secular and had no desire to live in an Islamic Republic (people who’ve gone on to become dissidents) because his charisma and their desperation were such that they believed he could lead them to freedom, and form a government that reflected a national consensus.

At the same time, after some 14 years of exile, Khomeini was known only through the statements and cassette tapes his followers smuggled into Iran. Iranians hadn’t seen him up close and personal for a long time, and so while he was their symbol, he was also something of unknown quantity.

On the other hand: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is well-known, and fairly ineffective. The movement is officially banned in Egypt, but unofficially tolerated, its “independent” members sometimes allowed to “win” seats in elections, while other times, coming up goose-egg (literally: in 2005, Brotherhood candidates took 88 seats; in 2010, not a one).

It’s a fair assessment to say that Mubarak, et al, have used the Brotherhood as both prop and foil — a tool with which to convince the West that Egypt allows a certain freedom of expression, and a weapon with which to frighten the West into believing that any more freedom of expression would be bad (“look, I’d love to open up elections, but you know who would win? The Brotherhood!”). Members of the Brotherhood are sometimes allowed into parliament, sometimes arrested, sometimes tortured.

Knowing that whatever influence they do have comes at the whim of a hostile regime hasn’t encouraged the Brotherhood to bold action. Until the 2005 elections, they focused largely on social behavior (observance, faith) — and even the act of taking part in elections and attempting (and mostly failing) to affect legislation indicates a willingness to work within the system, not overthrow it. While it’s clear that their 2010 whupping was government orchestrated, there were also indications they would’ve lost some support anyway — their constituents had watched them closely, and seen them fail.

Furthermore, if we’ve seen nothing else in watching the Egyptian uprising, we’ve seen that it doesn’t have a Khomeini. The closest the movement has to a single leader is Mohammad ElBaradei, a man I hesitate to call “secular” because I have no idea what his personal faith is, but he is certainly no Islamist. As I understand it, the Brotherhood was actually playing catch-up for a few days last week, joining the protests a little late.

And finally, and not for nothing, but: Iran is a Shi’ite nation. Egypt is Sunni. Treating the different branches of the Muslim family as two peas in a pod is not unlike doing so with the 700 Club and the Catholic Church. Nuance — indeed, stark cultural difference — actually matters.

Though of course, having said all that: No one knows what will happen next.

If free and fair elections are held (a thing which, as I suggested yesterday, I’m not all that certain is in the offing), it’s possible the Brotherhood would come up the big winner — but even if it does, we still don’t know what that would mean. Everything I’ve read about the Brotherhood in Egypt suggests to me that while I might not want them to make laws for me, they’re neither al Qaeda, nor Khomeini. They’re a highly conservative religious movement that has largely failed to have an impact on Egyptian politics, such as they are.

And if the Egyptian people do vote the Brotherhood into office?

Well — isn’t their right to do just that precisely what I’m hoping to see realized?

***********

Note: Yesterday’s book list is applicable here, as well.

Update: It turns out that I’m not the only one trying to make this point! CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Mohammad ElBaredei yesterday, asking him about the Brotherhood, and ElBaredei said

You know, the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with the Iranian model, has nothing to do with extremism, as we have seen it in Afghanistan and other places. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative group.  They are a minority in Egypt.  They are not a majority of the Egyptian people, but they have a lot of credibility because all the other liberal parties have been smothered for 30 years…. As you know, Fareed, I’ve worked with Iranians, I’ve worked here.  There is 100 percent difference between the two societies.

And Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, wrote a piece on CNN’s Belief Blog yesterday that’s strikingly similar my own (great minds! etc), concluding

[The] Muslim Brotherhood could become something like Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council, and Egypt’s army could become a Revolutionary Guard. But each of these prospects seems unlikely, fueled more by fear (and analogy) than logic.

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4 Comments

  1. Their history in Egypt is anything but stellar. Despite being persecuted, they have roots in assassination attempts of Egyptian leaders. I hope that’s over with, but there’s a really big reason why Mubarak has been keeping them illegal.

  2. Emily, I just wanted to say that you’ve been producing some really great content w.r.t. Egypt. Thanks as always for your thoughts.

  3. Thank you for all this information.

    I arrived here via the ever popular TNC blog.

    Love, c.

  4. Emily, just had a bunch of very low-flying jets scrambled overhead here in ME. Could be training; but the last time they flew that low and out of formation was the day Israel invaded Lebanon.

    So a heads up to pay attention, today. Something might be up.