The Muslim Brotherhood Goes to Washington
by Irfan Al-Alawi
Representatives of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) arrived in Washington DC on April 3, an event that was predictable after the pan-Islamic movement won pluralities in the recent elections in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. The aim of their journey to the Potomac was to improve the organization's image as a leading force in radical Islam. Members of the MB delegation hoped to convince American lawmakers, media, and experts that they represent a "moderate" variety of Islamist doctrine. According to the Voice of America, they were "one of five Middle Eastern Islamist political parties taking part in meetings with U.S. officials in Washington as well as a conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace." In reality, all five parties at the Carnegie conference were branches of the MB: from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Libya.
The MB acolytes were also favored by meetings with officials of the U.S. National Security Agency. As noted in The Washington Post, the MB visitors to the American capital were subordinate figures in the movement, chosen "in part for their fluency in English and their familiarity and ease with American culture. But the delegation did not include the decision makers at the top of the Brotherhood's leadership."
The MB public-relations campaign evidently borrowed tactics from similar efforts by the so-called Justice and Development Party (AKPartisi) of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Playing on the (correct) assumption that Westerners know little of Islam and the Muslim lands, the Egyptian MB delegation repeated the catch-phrases they are convinced will win them friends in the U.S. and Europe: "The priorities for us are mainly economic, political — preserving the revolution [sic] ideals of social justice, education, security for the people," Sondos Asem, a member of the delegation, said.
As Erdoğan and the AKP have emphasized Turkey's economic boom, its commitment to entrepreneurship, and its middle-class support, the Egyptian MB likewise claimed to value practical economic and social improvements for the country's masses over the Brotherhood's traditional vision of an "Islamic state."
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak a year ago, however, the Brotherhood has already alienated Egypt's non-Islamist citizens by its devious behavior: during the Egyptian Revolution and in the period preceding the election cycle, the Brotherhood promised it would not run its own candidate for the national presidency, but it now has such a standard-bearer: business magnate and Brotherhood ideologue Khairat al-Shater.
Additionally, ever since the MB expelled Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futouh, a physician and party stalwart who announced his run for the presidency last year, the Brotherhood's constituency has been divided. Many Brotherhood supporters consider Abul-Futouh a better-known and more credible candidate for the position.
Both Al-Shater and Abul-Futouh could benefit from the disqualification in the Egyptian presidential race of the radical fundamentalist television preacher, Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Sheikh Abu Ismail, an independent Wahhabi (so-called "Salafi," the extreme form of Islam imposed on Saudi Arabia), wants to remake Egypt in the image of Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is likely, however, that he will be removed from the electoral list on the grounds that his mother acquired American citizenship.
Brotherhood intrigues have provoked concern among both Egyptian liberals and Coptic Christians. Both recently walked out of discussions on a new constitution, charging that the MB and other Islamists dominated the proceedings.
Notwithstanding its apparent self-confidence and its supine welcome by gullible Westerners, the Egyptian MB enjoys no certainty in its fight for the presidency. Former Arab League general secretary Amr Moussa possesses the highest level of name recognition and an international profile that is lacking among the rest of the Egyptian contestants. Although he was a political ally of Mubarak, Moussa managed to extricate himself from his association with the former dictator and his circle.
If, as is most probable, the elected Islamists of the Egyptian MB follow the pattern developed by Erdoğan and the AKP in Turkey, they will endeavor to employ economic privatization and "moderate" positions on regional conflicts to cover their more central agenda.
In Turkey, this has meant an energetic penetration of neighbouring countries' markets, plus the disapproval of the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. At the same time and at home, nevertheless, Erdoğan and the AKP pursue discriminatory policies against the large, heterodox Alevi Muslim minority; disregard the interests and rights of Christians, and seek to downgrade women's education, while enhancing the status of official training for Sunni clerics.
Like Turkey, Egypt has a substantial history of military rule, although the Cairo government was never as thoroughly committed to secularism as its peers in Ankara. According to some sources, the Egyptian MB gained 37.5% of the post-Mubarak parliamentary ballots with the approval, if not the direct connivance, of the military. In Turkey, however, the AKP under Erdoğan has attacked the military power sharply, with the encouragement of Western liberals and other observers, who apparently believe a civilian Islamist administration is a preferable alternative to a garrison-led secular state.
The Egyptian MB has drawn away from the Egyptian army in protest against the assumption of power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after the fall of Mubarak. It is doubtful, nonetheless, that the Egyptian MB will choose to confront the Egyptian military in the manner Erdoğan adopted against the Turkish armed forces: by a series of political show-trials during which he accused members of the military of having planned a coup against his rule, and now by a retrospective trial of officers involved in the military takeover of Turkey in 1980.
Turkey had previously undergone years of debate over the limits of military power. The AKP and other Islamists had constructed a widespread network of religious groups able to pose as a civic force. For Egypt, a complete MB break with the army would be a sudden and unsettling move; and, notwithstanding the undeniable success of the MB in organizing an oppositional Islamist subculture in Egypt, it has not achieved the extent or sophistication of the Turkish AKP and its allies.
Although members of the AKP came West during the first decade of the 21st century reiterating their attachment to transparency, accountability, and even secularism in government, as well as frequenting free-market think-tanks and cultivating conservative opinion, the actions of the AKP in power have proven such rhetoric and intrigue hollow.
The Muslim Brotherhood has passed through various phases: a revolutionary party, a political partner of the Egyptian army, and an important component of the global alliance of Islamist fundamentalists. These included the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini (whom it inspired), the Saudi Wahhabis, and the South Asian jihadists. The MB has now reached the summit of its influence as a faction able to hypnotize Western leaders with its "moderate" idiom.
But regardless of its honeyed words and the slick, updated, Westernized vocabulary of its travelling exponents, the Egyptian MB cannot, in its middle sectors, its base, and its fundamental outlook, change. It is a thoroughly Islamist party with a profoundly retrograde vision of a state based on religious dictates. As in Turkey, sooner or later, as soon as the Egyptian MB thinks it is strong enough to prevail, the mask will fall, and the promises it made in Washington and elsewhere in the West will be shrugged aside. Like the Turkish AKP, The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood will be exposed not as the patron of a new period of civil power in Muslim society, but as a party working toward the installation of permanent clerical rule.