Is the World Too Easy on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Leaders?

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President Mohamed Morsi's government is getting unusual latitude, maybe because the Brothers may have built up some credibility.

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Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi during an interview at Cairo's Presidential Palace. (Reuters)

It has certainly been an interesting month in Egypt. As of a few weeks ago, President Mohammed Morsi had consolidated his power by ousting the military's senior command, firing the chief of General Intelligence, and canceling the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' June 17 constitutional decree that gutted the powers of the presidency in defense and national security policy. It is important to note that bringing the military to heel is a positive development because it helps create an environment more conducive to the emergence of democratic politics. At the same time, however, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood -- or more precisely, the Freedom and Justice Party -- have made a number of questionable moves that raise concerns about the Brothers' commitment to democratic change.

Despite seeking to shut down a television station, throwing the editor of the daily al Dostour in the dock for insulting the president (he was subsequently released when Morsi changed the law), reaffirming the state's ownership of a variety of media outlets, and assuming legislative authority, Morsi and his colleagues have largely gotten a pass. To be sure, Dennis Ross, the former Middle East hand for Bush (41), Clinton, and Obama, published a critical op-ed in the Washington Post and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Eric Trager did the same in the Wall Street Journal, but these were the exception rather than the rule. The Post's editorial page--which has made democratic change in Egypt a matter of principle over the last decade--mildly chided President Morsi, stating that the new Egyptian president "must learn to live with a certain amount of criticism." Before going any further, let me stipulate that I agree with my colleague and pal, Marc Lynch, who has pointed out that because Egypt is so polarized that whatever Morsi, the FJP, and the Brothers do, someone is going to see it as sinister. Still, while the Brothers and the Salafist al Nour party have assailed some of Egypt's alleged liberals for backing the SCAF as a bulwark against the Islamists instead of supporting democracy, the Islamists and their followers have done something similar when they make excuses for Morsi and the Brothers' actions that seem to be more interested in institutionalizing their power than upholding the principles of the revolution.

The Democracy Report

So given all the hopes and expectations Egyptians have about building a just and democratic order, why do Morsi and the Brothers get away with it? There are three reasons why the Brotherhood's illiberal inclinations are met with a collective shrug instead of the outrage that occurred when the now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) put pressure on its opponents and engaged in all kinds of non-democratic chicanery under the guise of reform:

First, some observers and partisans have argued that it is still early, that Morsi has only been in power for two months, and that upon assuming office he was confronted with powerful forces opposed to his presidency. In an-ends-justify-the-means type of argument, if Morsi needs to resort to legal, but non-democratic measures to secure his rule and thus the prospects for democracy, so be it. When al Dostour's Islam Afifi was hauled in by police for offending the president, social and traditional media outlets lit up with commentary. A fair number of people who no doubt consider themselves supporters of democracy argued that this action was within the framework of the law. The problem with this argument is, of course, we do not know that Morsi and his colleagues intend to build a democratic system. More importantly, the way to support democracy is to support democracy. Inherently anti-democratic acts like prosecuting editors and shutting down televisions stations--no matter how distasteful--simply do not advance the cause of freedom.

Second, President Morsi and the Brothers have credibility. I remember five or six years ago when Egypt was first dealing with the avian flu outbreak. I was having dinner with my friend Hatem and his wife. They weren't supporters of the Brotherhood, but they shared the generally conservative values of Egypt's vast center. Hatem had the bare outlines of a zabeeba--a callous on the forehead from prostrating fervently during prayer--and his wife wore a headscarf. They told me that when the government announced that there was no danger in eating fowl, they continued to avoid it. Yet when they saw members of the Muslim Brotherhood on television enjoying grilled chicken, Hatem and his wife knew that they could once again eat poultry safely. That kind of credibility is political gold and it has given Morsi political leeway during his early days in power.

Third, primarily Western analysts and a good chunk of the American foreign policy establishment have come to believe that the Brothers can be a genuine force for progressive political change. This conclusion is based on an alleged evolution of the Brotherhood that is reflected in its discourse about reform and democratic change. Observers also point to the Brothers' past performance as parliamentarians when they sought to hold corrupt governments under Mubarak accountable. If neither of these arguments is convincing, it may not matter so the theory goes because circumstances will force the Brothers to become democrats despite themselves. Left without the means of coercion, the only resource the Brothers have is their popularity and as a result, they will go back to the ballot box again and again in order to outmaneuver their political opponents. Eventually the principles and practice of democracy will become institutionalized.

As I have written before, much of this is based on hunches, wishful thinking, or historical analogies that are interesting but are hardly predictive of the Brotherhood's political trajectory. Still, if the reception that the Freedom and Justice Party received in Washington last March is any indication, these arguments hold sway and insulate Morsi and the Brotherhood from the widespread denunciation they deserve when they pursue non-democratic policies.

It is too early to draw any firm conclusions about the Brothers in Egypt, but it certainly seems that their first inclination is to advance their agenda by any means necessary while expressing fealty to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square. It has become a cliché, but what the Brothers do is more important than what they say. After all, doesn't anyone remember "New Thinking and Priorities"? The NDP was also adept at the language of political change and reform, but hardly anyone believed it. Of course, the FJP is not the old ruling party, but in order to ensure that it does not become some variant of the NDP, liberal-minded Egyptians and foreigners (yes, foreigners) need to speak up loudly when the Brothers do illiberal things.

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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