A secular youth movement may have deposed President Hosni Mubarak, but the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is positioned to take power in September’s parliamentary elections and assume a leading role in drafting Egypt’s future constitution.
The Obama administration cannot ignore that the Brotherhood is a broad-based popularly supported national movement whose message of human development and social justice transcends generations and resonates across Egyptian society. It should recognize divisions in the Brotherhood, especially the growing role of young members who are more progressive, and engage the Brotherhood in discussions about Egypt’s political future. (Photo of David Phillips at left)
The Brotherhood may appear hierarchical, but it is far from monolithic. Divisions are becoming more pronounced between the Guidance Council made up of older ideologues aligned with the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al Banna, and today’s vanguard of young leaders.
Taking advantage of the military council’s new electoral law, the Brotherhood recently announced plans to set-up the Freedom and Justice Party. Young members of the Brotherhood expressed their reservations about the party’s by-laws at a press conference last week. Splinter parties — the Egyptian Renaissance Party and the Renaissance Party — are in formation. In addition to supporting the Brotherhood’s splinter parties, they also demand the right to remain members of the organization and join non-Brotherhood affiliated parties.
Brotherhood youth leaders find precedent in the so-called middle generation. When these student activists in the 1970s assumed roles in the Brotherhood’s Political Bureau, they expressed resentment of the Guidance Council’s measures isolating the Brotherhood from contemporary developments. They also objected to the Brotherhood’s autocratic tendencies and lack of democratic decision-making. Members of the middle generation helped form Wasat, which called for an end to military rule, the establishment of a multi-party system, and the rule of law. Wasat ultimately failed to achieve legal status as a political party until a few weeks ago when it secured its official license through a court ruling after Mubarak’s ouster. However, today’s young Brothers are building on experience of the middle generation by demanding changes within the organization and focusing on political mobilization.
While pursuing a policy of engagement with the Brotherhood, it would be naïve for US officials to conclude that the Brotherhood is accommodating towards western principles. The middle generation may have different from the Guidance Council by endorsing a strategy of incremental change, but it shared the ultimate goal of establishing Sharia law in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s slogan asserts, “Islam is the solution.” Two crossed swords over the Quran is the Brotherhood’s symbol.
When Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron conspicuously excluded the Brotherhood from his schedule during a recent visit to Egypt, the Guidance Council took umbrage. The Obama administration must not make the same mistake. Failure to engage with the Brotherhood strengthens hardliners and risks pushing the organization closer to Egypt’s more radical anti-Western Muslim movements.
The Brotherhood is a responsible actor compared with Egypt’s neo-fundamentalist groups who have habitually used violence to advance their radical agenda. Since 1974, neo-fundamentalists have targeted Christians and Copts, bombed video clubs, assassinated officials, murdered journalists, gunned down tourists, and attacked immodestly dressed women. The radical Bedouin cell, Tawhid and Jihad was responsible for suicide attacks in Taba, Sharm El Sheikh, and Dahab between 2004 and 2006. It is heavily influenced by Wahhabism and ideologically attuned to Al Qaeda.
There’s no room for dialogue between the United States and neo-fundamentalists. However, the Obama administration should emphasize engagement to help make the Brotherhood a more constructive player in Egypt and the region. Political developments in Egypt are dynamic and fast-paced. The pressure of Egypt’s democratization is putting pressure on the Brotherhood and may lead a split in the organization. If the Brotherhood breaks into factions, the US will want to have ties with its young members and other moderate figures.
Engagement will also foster the Brotherhood’s cooperation on issues of concern to the United States. The United States needs Egypt to dissuade Iran’s nuclear development. It wants Egypt’s next government to retain the peace treaty with Israel and work towards the creation of a Palestinian state side-by-side and at-peace with Israel. The Brotherhood is uniquely placed to advance the goal of Middle East peace through its historic and spiritual ties with Hamas.
Talking to the Brotherhood will nurture nascent leaders with whom the United States can do business. It will also advance a leadership cohort building on Egypt’s history of tolerance and respect for pluralism. Beyond Egypt, the Brotherhood can become a model for fanatical groups moderating their ideology and becoming constructively involved in democratic governance.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is author of Bullets to Ballots: Violent Muslim Movements in Transition.