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February 08, 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood: True or False

As the political future of Egypt has been plunged into uncertainty by mass protests that broke out on January 25, commentators and policy makers are expressing concerns about the implications of a greater role for the Muslim Brotherhood in the future government of Egypt.

A major problem with speculations about the future role of the Brotherhood is that they are just that—speculations. This is uncharted territory for Egypt. No one—possibly not even the Brotherhood—knows right now what it might do if it is presented with an opportunity to run openly in free elections. Bold assertions of what they will or will not do should be viewed with skepticism. The Brotherhood have already stated that they do not intend to run a candidate for the presidency. There is no doubt that in a future, more open political climate in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will be a force on the scene.

There are valid concerns about what the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood might be, and there are steps that responsible authorities in Egypt (whoever they might be) would be well advised to take to guard against threats to human rights and the development of an enduring democratic system in a new Egypt.

What follows is our assessment of some commonly expressed concerns:

  1. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest, most organized opposition group in Egypt. TRUE

    In its 30 years in office, President Mubarak's government and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have systematically restricted the development of opposition political parties of all ideological types. Because of its dual identity as both a political movement (although not a political party) and a religious and social movement, the Brotherhood has been able to continue and thrive even when the space for opposition political activity has been restricted. While conventional political parties cannot grow and flourish without a degree of open politics, the Brotherhood can pursue other activities—education, indoctrination and provision of social services—that have permitted it to develop as an organization.

  2. The Muslim Brotherhood will do well if free elections are held in Egypt for a new parliament in a few months' time. TRUE 
    While it has been banned from participating in Egyptian elections, from time to time known Brotherhood supporters have been allowed to run for office as independents. They have often done well, notably in the 2005 parliamentary elections when Brotherhood-identified independents gained 88 seats and formed the largest opposition group in parliament. It is clear that the Brotherhood has the capacity to win parliamentary seats. Having said that, an election with the Brotherhood running openly would be different from previous elections, and the calculations of voters would also be different:
    1. Voter participation would likely be much higher in a free election. Historically, voter turnout has been as low as 9%.
    2. Voters in past elections may have voted for the Brotherhood as a protest, knowing that there was no possibility of it being permitted to form a government or exercise significant influence.
    3. Conversely, the Brotherhood may have held back from displaying its full electoral power in previous elections so as to avoid reprisals and persecution from the authorities.
    4. In an open election, the Brotherhood would likely face competition, not only from newly empowered secular opposition parties, long absent from the Egyptian electoral scene, but also from other parties claiming Islam as a guiding force in their politics. Breaking the Brotherhood's monopolistic claim to be the political face of Islam could split the Islamist vote and thereby dilute its electoral power.
  3. Any government in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a substantial role would inevitably be a threat to American interests and would seek to abolish the peace treaty with Israel. FALSE

    The Brotherhood will be one among several competing political interests in a new Egyptian government. It is impossible to predict with certainty how political parties might align and configure in new conditions, but institutions and constituencies that now exist will not disappear. The military appears to be consolidating its already extremely strong influence over Egyptian politics and is likely to hold a de-facto veto power over any government policy, especially in the national security area. The military establishment is unlikely to permit actions that would endanger its close cooperative relations with the U.S. military, and its receipt of $1.3 billion of foreign military assistance from U.S. tax payers. Newly appointed Vice-President Omer Suleiman has been a close interlocutor with the United States on counterterrorism and national security issues. His role and the policy of cooperation he has carried out would be likely to continue. Similarly, the military would be unlikely to accept an aggressive policy towards Israel that would end U.S. support and cooperation and give Egypt no strategic advantage.

    The business community has grown and prospered in recent years and is heavily dependent on foreign investment and integration in the global economy. A new Egyptian government will face the challenge of meeting the heightened expectations of millions of poor people and finding jobs and opportunities for young people who have been at the forefront of the protests. It will need the goodwill of the business community to build a strong economy and sustain economic growth.

  4. A stronger role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's government presents a potential threat to women's rights, the rights of religious minorities and basic political freedoms. TRUE

The Brotherhood has an ambiguous position on many human rights issues, notably on the rights of women and religious minorities and on freedom of expression. For example, a policy platform that was released in 2007 required that the President of the Republic could not be a woman, and provided for a Council of Islamic scholars who would vet legislation for its compatibility with Islam, following the pattern of the Council of Guardians in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The publication of this regressive platform caused rare open disputes between Brotherhood leaders, some of whom objected strongly to its contents. One can speculate about what the public platform of a free Muslim Brotherhood would include, but there's no question that the tendency of the Brotherhood to arrogate to itself the right to judge what constitutes proper Islamic practice and to condemn practice it finds un-Islamic presents risks to the enjoyment of basic rights and freedoms by many Egyptians. Brotherhood supporters speak of "Islamic democracy;" they note that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians are Muslims (which is true) and that many are pious believers (also true). Some take the leap of suggesting that as the Brotherhood is the party of Islam, they automatically speak for this majority and should therefore prevail. Such thinking is a threat to democratic principles.

To guard against the risk of extremism and the curtailment of rights, a revised Egyptian constitution needs to have strong protection for the principle of non-discrimination as well as robust safeguards for freedom of opinion and expression and other basic freedoms, in accordance with Egypt's obligations in international law. These rights and freedoms must in turn be upheld by a strong, independent judiciary, a strong, independent legislature and other state and private institutions, including a vibrant free press and strong civil society organizations. A new government should ensure that the state education system does not become a vehicle for promoting extremism and hatred of religious minorities.

The Mubarak government has a poor record on many of these core rights and freedoms. Discrimination against Egypt's minority Christian community has been a constant feature of government policy, and the state has often supported censorship of works of art on the ground that they were offensive to religion. The official media and supporters of the ruling party have propagated defamatory rumors against religious minorities that have fueled sectarian tensions, leading to increasing violence against the Copts. The antisemitic content of the official media has also been a cause for concern. There is reason to hope that a new government, even one including the Brotherhood, might do better in these areas.

The formation of a new government in Egypt (and also in Tunisia) in which the Islamist political trend will be included after decades of exclusion and persecution is a major transformation. In some Arab countries, Islamist groups have participated in the electoral process in controlled circumstances, in Jordan and Morocco for example, and their electoral popularity has diminished when faced with the mundane challenges of governance. Egypt now provides an opportunity to put to rest fears about the impact of the participation of Islamist movements in Arab politics on basic freedoms and democracy, but that opportunity is not without risks.

Events in Egypt have their own momentum, properly led by Egyptians themselves. Nonetheless, the U.S. government has a role to play and, given its long-standing, close, friendly bi-lateral relationship, it has an obligation to provide advice and be a voice in support of basic rights and freedoms in Egypt. The U.S. government has been criticized, not least by human rights organizations, for being insufficiently critical of the previous authoritarian government in Egypt for its violations of human rights; it should not make the same mistake again. Supporting the institutions that uphold the rule of law and build a democratic culture is the best safeguard against future threats to Egypt's democratic development from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other party or constituency in the new political landscape that might seek to gain power at the expense of basic rights and freedoms.

Read letters from the Working Group on Egypt to:
President Obama & Secretary of State Hillary Clinton