The absence of clarity about its politics may be its greatest strength.
Just how dangerous is the Muslim Brotherhood? And if it is dangerous, just how capable is it of accomplishing its aims? The answers may not be as clear as one would think. At the same time the lack of clarity may be its greatest strength. It is surprisingly easy to conceive of a theoretical Muslim Brotherhood of far less capability than the one that is regularly characterized as a principal action instrument of Islamic ambition in Egypt.
No less an authority than Al Qaeda’s #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, left the organization in the late 1980s, for, among other reasons, his perception of the Muslim Brotherhood’s crime of public espousal of nonviolence. He turned to the far more reliable murderous proclivities of Osama bin Laden and never once looked back.
These days the Brotherhood is characterized as everything from “an old man’s club of toothless talkers” to a powerful instrument of Sunni political aims. The group dropped out of sight after it was banned for its supposed role in a failed assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Slowly the Brotherhood worked its way back into acceptance in Egypt as a counter balance to growing leftist movements, though Hosni Mubarak’s security apparatus found it to be a possible link to radical Islam and therefore kept it under careful surveillance.
In 1982 the Brotherhood’s international outreach in Syria was crushed. The Shia dominance of the government of Hafez al-Assad felt threatened by the Sunni ambitions personified by the Brotherhood’s covert operations. Trusted units of the Syrian army led by Hafez’s brother destroyed most of the city of Hama and tens of thousands of Sunnis were killed in the process. The Brotherhood’s Islamist insurrection had failed and its broader role in Islamic affairs was stunted for years to come.
The name itself carries a sense of Islamic militancy. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is now expected to win at least 20% of the open Egyptian parliamentary seats, as it did in 2005 running as “independents” after being banned from electioneering under its own aegis. That may seem an inadequate number to create an effective voting bloc, but in this case of a divided electorate a firm 20% can construct a working majority coalition.
In the Egyptian political scene today, no other group can approach the cohesiveness and discipline of the Brotherhood. While spokesmen for the group do not shy away from using the term jihad, it is a social rather than political agenda that is emphasized. It has been said that the Brotherhood’s formula will be close to the winning popularity of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has retained its position by downplaying the link between religion and politics while still observing a strong commitment to Islam. This political camouflage requires charismatic leadership.
In modern Egypt, post-Mubarak, it’s quite possible that an organization with anti-colonial, anti-secular roots that go back to 1928 could be accepted as representing a broad spectrum of voters in spite of its focus on Islam. And that is the key. If the Brotherhood can play the liberal Islamic card, appealing to a younger generation, it may be able to reproduce the success of the Turkish AKP. To do this will take a commitment to a new Egyptian leader and Mohammed ElBaradei is seeking that role.
The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — and calculatedly not an America-friendly political figure — has rushed to gain approval of the Moslem Brotherhood as the sponsoring organization for his run at the new Egyptian presidency. It’s a bold move on the secular ElBaradei’s part and would be equally so for the Brotherhood. The endorsement is still in the “working out” stage within the Brotherhood despite an initial announcement of support in February. The older more conservative members are challenged for leadership roles by a younger generation who tend toward what Cairo analysts refer to as being more modern and reform-minded.
Today’s Egyptian voting public has no memory of the days when Hitler’s Mein Kampf was translated and distributed by the Brotherhood, with Nazism and hatred of Jews as a foundation of their politics. These days the Moslem Brotherhood works its anti-Zionist theme into its political rhetoric mostly in the context of support for Hezbollah and Hamas. This factor becomes key in electioneering as the Egyptian public awaits the Brotherhood’s decision on whether it will make an issue of abandoning Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Menachem Begin that has lasted since 1979.
So far the Moslem Brotherhood has put most of its pre-election effort into emphasizing its traditional and extensive commitment to social enterprises such as health programs and community centers countrywide. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are said to be members of the Brotherhood and they provide an outreach that the organization uses to maintain and expand its political influence.
One of the Brotherhood’s slogans is “Islam is the solution.” As most things Islamic, the meaning is ambiguous and varied in interpretation. One thing is clear, however: the Moslem Brotherhood will be a major factor not only in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, but in Egypt’s future strategic role. The question remains as to what form a future Brotherhood will take and if the secularly committed Egyptian military will accept it in a leadership position.