Debunking Three Myths About the Muslim Brotherhood

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Sorting out truth from myths on Egypt's powerful Islamist party.

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New Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi makes his first televised address. (Reuters)

Since Egypt's Supreme Presidential Election Commission declared Mohamed Morsi the winner of the presidential election, there has been a lot of commentary about the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, an engineer by training, was a long time member of the Brotherhood and was a member of its political department. Morsi has resigned from both the Brotherhood and its party, Freedom and Justice, but that is more symbolic than substantive. The Muslim Brotherhood is now in control of the Egyptian presidency, previously the fulcrum of power in the political system and observers are asking, "Who Lost Egypt?" The answer is no one; 51.7 percent of Egyptians voted for Morsi. The race was close and, no doubt, there are Egyptians fearful about their future, but there has been so much mythmaking about the Muslim Brotherhood, it is worth debunking a few.

1. A History of Violence?

It is true that beginning in 1941, the Muslim Brotherhood established a para-military group called the jihaz al sirri or "the secret apparatus" and stockpiled weapons. It is also true that during the late 1940s, the Brothers were among a number of political factions that destabilized the Egyptian political system. In December 1948, a Brother named Abdel Magid Hassan murdered Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi Nuqrashi. Yet since that time -- indeed, since the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al Banna, was assassinated while getting into a taxi in downtown Cairo in February 1949 -- the organization has not been involved in violence. There is, of course, the allegation that the Brothers were behind the attempted hit on Gamal Abdel Nasser in October 1954, but there continue to be questions whether the would-be assassin, Mahmoud Abdel Latif--who was a member of the Brotherhood--was working on behalf of the Islamists or another group intended to discredit the Brotherhood. No one has been able to prove the story one way or the other, but it is curious that not only did Nasser survive Abdel Latif's eight shots fired from close range, but he was unscathed and went on to finish his speech, which was a turning point in his political career. The Brothers were subsequently dismantled and ceased to be a significant force in Egyptian politics until the 1970s, when they officially renounced violence.

Observers often point to the fact that Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Zawahiri were Muslim Brothers to confirm the group's violent tendencies. In the case of Zawahiri, he had a brief flirtation with the Brothers in his teens, though it is unclear whether he was actually a member of the organization. Zawahiri was arrested in 1966 (at the age of 15) for being a Brother, but it is more likely that he was part of a vanguard that split from the mainstream Brotherhood in the late 1950s and 1960s. This vanguard was a radical faction that followed Sayyid Qutb--a Brother and an intellectual architect of jihadism--and whose members wanted to engage in a direct confrontation with Nasser and the Egyptian state. Although the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Hassan al Hudaybi, tolerated the vanguard for a time, the two factions ultimately fell out over doctrinal issues as well as over al Hudaybi's desire to seek an accommodation with the leaders of the Egyptian regime.

2. From Shura to Democracy?

It has become accepted wisdom in some circles that the Muslim Brotherhood is a force for progressive change, even democracy, in Egypt. Since the mid-1980s when the Brotherhood entered electoral politics in a coalition with the allegedly liberal Wafd party, its leaders have embraced the rhetoric of political reform. On the eve of the 1990 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood's then Supreme Guide Mohamed Abul Nasr penned an open letter to President Mubarak in which he boldly stated, "Freedom is dear and it is preferable for you to avoid your nation's anger and riots. It cannot be imagined that any people will remain under subjugation and repression after hearing and witnessing surrounding nations achieve their freedom and dignity...A nation's power is derived not from material power, but from the entire citizenry's liberty, the people's trust in the government, and the government's trust in the people." Those are reassuring (and prescient) words--even 22 years after the fact--but the Brothers have always been rather fuzzy about what democracy means to them, falling back on the concept of shura or "consultation," which could or could not be the foundation of Egyptian democracy. They have also been vague about shari'a. While Morsi and Brotherhood big wallas have said that they will implement Islamic law, members of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party told the American foreign policy establishment during a visit in March that they support "the principles of shari'a, but not necessarily its particular legal rulings." I guess that sounds fine to the uninitiated, but the statement amounts to nothing more than obfuscation.

The Democracy Report

It is entirely possible that the Brothers are democrats despite themselves. Here is the theory: Hammered as they are between the military, which still controls the guns, and other political forces including revolutionaries who mistrust the Islamists and thus can stir up trouble, the Brotherhood could determine that their only source of power is through the ballot box. As a result, the Brothers will seek regularly scheduled, free and fair elections as the only way to legitimate their power. In time, this will transform the Brothers into committed democrats. Never mind (cliché warning) that elections don't make democracy, but this is roughly what happened in Europe and how theocratic parties of the 19th century became today's Christian Democrats. There are many insights to be gleaned from Europe's experiences, but it is important to remember that history can be a guide, but it is not a blueprint.

In the end, the intellectually honest answer about the Brothers' commitment to democracy is, we just don't know. It's an empirical question. Let's pay less attention to what they say and focus on what they are doing.

3. The Brothers and US

If there is any consensus in Washington about the Brothers and the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, it is cautious optimism. Headlines in the Washington Post that declare "Egypt's President is a U.S. critic, but could be an Ally" have contributed to the idea that "maybe everything will be OK," which currently prevails inside the Beltway. Hope springs eternal, but observers should not be so sanguine about the relationship. No doubt, the Brothers need decent relations with the United States given Egypt's dire economic situation, which is why we have been hearing endless tales of the Brothers' vaunted pragmatism. The sky is not falling and the sun will rise tomorrow, but this emphasis on the pragmatism of the Brotherhood may be leading to false expectation. After all, for more than 30 years the Brothers have run against the U.S.-Egypt relationship and they used those ties to discredit both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Cairo's relationship with Washington is also deeply unpopular with Egyptians; it developed precisely because Sadat and Mubarak were authoritarians who, to varying degrees, could disregard public sentiment. It would thus be amazingly unpragmatic for the Brotherhood, alleged agents of democratic change, to continue close ties with the United States.

Analysts should also not forget from whence the Brotherhood comes. As I wrote a few weeks ago,

It is important to remember that the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood lie in Hassan al Banna's dismay over foreign--i.e. Western--penetration of Egypt that damaged traditional values. I am not saying that the Brotherhood hasn't changed since the early 1920s when al Banna first arrived in Cairo, but mistrust of the khawaga is part of the organization's DNA. To be sure, the Brotherhood espoused a pan-Islamic message at times, but at a basic level, the Brothers are good nationalists. Fast forward to the January 25uprising, which was about dignity and national empowerment, and you understand further why a President Morsi is unlikely to make his first international visit to the United States.

We shouldn't expect a breach in relations, but with President Morsi, the U.S.-Egypt relationship is bound to be far more difficult than the previous three decades when Mubarak aligned himself closely with the United States.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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