The Muslim Brotherhood had a monopoly. Can they compete?

In Among the Believers, V.S.Naipaul traveled through Iran six months after the Iranian revolution and met a communist named Behzad who still believed, at that late date, that the ‘true’ revolution had been a proletarian rebellion and not, as soon would become evident to everyone, a religious one.  Behzad was deluding himself; Naipaul makes that clear.  But American policymakers today who are worried about the Muslim Brotherhood fear that the young bloggers and striking factory workers who were so prominent in the Egyptian revolution are Behzads in the making and that in Egypt, as in Iran, the religious nature of the revolution will move to the fore.  To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood exits the Mubarak era as the best organized political opposition force in Egypt, which on its face would seem to leave them well positioned to capitalize on the disorder of new-found freedoms.   But there are a lot of reasons to believe this fear of Brotherhood dominance is misplaced; unfortunately, none of them appear in Ian Johnson’s essay on the Brotherhood in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

The thrust of Johnson’s argument is that the US has longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — Ikhwan, in Arabic — though the implications of this for the current day are left entirely unclear.  He begins elaborating these ties in 1953, the year before Gamal Abdel Nasser outlawed the Ikhwan in Egypt, when the US Information Agency invited Islamic scholars (including Said Ramadan, son-in-law of Ikhwan founder Hassan al-Banna and the group’s de facto foreign minister) to a conference at Princeton University.  Apparently, the USIA believed that, in contrast to the avowed atheism of Soviet communism, these visitors would be impressed by American religiosity, a touchingly naive hope made ridiculous by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the leading intellectual light of the Ikhwan, in which he described his stint at a college in Colorado just a few years earlier as a searing glimpse of a debauched and decadent people.

Still, the Princeton visit later led the CIA to support Ramadan in taking over a mosque in Munich, again in the name of anti-communism.  Johnson makes much of this, introducing what would seem a fairly standard enemy-of-my-enemy maneuver with the inverted claim, “While it is too simple to call [Ramadan] a US agent…” He then fails to articulate why even a simpleton might call Ramadan this because, as Johnson allows, “the US didn’t reap much for its efforts.”  The score at this point would appear to be US nil, Ikhwan 1 — or perhaps Ikhwan 2, if one counts the Princeton boondoggle as a prize worth having.

Johnson zips through the era of American support for the mujahideen in the Afghan war against the Soviets without offering much in the way of argument, though he does skillfully elide all Islamists into a single tendency.  Score that as Islamists 3, then, given how badly this backfired on 11 September, 2001, after which the US demonized the Ikhwan before changing tack and wooing them again.  None of this convinces the skeptical reader of the depth of American ties to the Ikhwan, much less whatever it might imply about America’s ability to constrain the Brotherhood’s dominance of Egyptian politics in future.  Johnson, perhaps sensing this, abandons that line of reasoning and heads off in another direction entirely: now he paints the Ikhwan as “using an interesting mixture of fundamentalism and fascism (or reactionary politics and xenophobia)” to explain to its middle class constituents the reasons for their “backwardness” and then he adds a chilling, if disjointed, series of anecdotes about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Ikhwani dislike of Christian and female political power.  One suspects there is more to the Brotherhood’s appeal than this, and that there are more compelling reasons to believe they are not about to hijack the revolution.

It is important to remember that the Ikhwan in its current form in Egypt is as much a product of the Mubarak regime as every other political organization or actor in the country.  This is not to say the Ikhwan actively colluded with the regime.  Quite the opposite: until the revolution it was Mubarak’s only large-scale opposition.  But after thirty years of dictatorship, opposition itself is a kind of partnership.  Ikhwani choices about political strategy have been shaped by the need to find a space between state repression and the violence of more radical offshoots like Islamic Jihad and the Gama’a al-Islamiyya.  The current Ikhwani leadership is the Darwinian survivor of the Mubarak regime’s imprisonment and torture of its members, which also sent rival leaders into exile and created the usual ideological divisions between inside and outside factions.  And, most of all, Mubarak’s long suppression of every other group seeking political change inadvertently left the Ikhwan with an unnatural monopoly on resistance in Egypt.  As a friend from a village in Upper Egypt once told me, “Growing up, if you were against the regime you either became a journalist or a Brother — there was no other path ahead of you.”

How many Egyptians who once supported the Ikhwan really wanted change of a different ideological stripe?  No one knows that answer, because until the revolution there was never enough political freedom to test it.  Now, there are many political paths ahead and, for the first time, many who are at liberty to challenge the Brotherhood’s vision of what should come after dictatorship.  The Ikhwan built a much-vaunted grassroots organization but until very recently their only real competition for the hearts and minds of Egyptians has been a stagnant kleptocracy with not a single political idea to sustain it beyond the perpetuation of its own power.  It remains to be seen how many will follow the Ikhwan path now that Egyptians are free to take their country in any direction they want.

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Sean Rocha is a former columnist for the Cairo Times, which was Egypt’s leading independent news magazine.  Click here to read about the politics of foreign investment in Egypt or here for the empty promise of the Arab free trade area.

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Update 9/29: An article in the New York Times today describes in some detail the post-revolutionary ideological competition outlined above; in particular, the spectacular fracturing of the Islamist stream into everything from hard-line Salafist (of whom very little had been heard in the Mubarak era) to what, in a European context, would be called Christian Democratic.  The Muslim Brotherhood has come to occupy just one part of that spectrum.  Thus far, the secular and civil society groups do not appear to have been as effective in reconstituting themselves as political parties to compete for votes in free and fair elections.

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