Change isn’t easy. In fact, it can be rather frightening. Throw in words like “Muslim Brotherhood” and conjuring up the image of a peaceful green meadow with Arab children democratically frolicking along, waving the American flag and singing songs of peace starts to be a bit of a challenge. Talk about a spooky reputation that precedes them – even if it might not be wholly accurate. The Muslim Brotherhood comes across to the US and others as the dark cousin at the family reunion who’s eerily standing in the corner of the room, eying the party. No one quite knows where they’ve been all these years, but that dirty Harley parked outside and those prison tattoos spell trouble. Plus they keep shoving their hands straight into the queso dip and that’s just disgusting.
Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Especially since there’s a good chance that motor bikes and body ink aren’t quite the Brotherhood’s fortés. Still, solid information regarding their motives for a new Egypt isn’t being fully related to (or understood by) most of the world, even their own people. However, since their Freedom and Justice Party is undoubtedly gathering strength in Egypt’s parliament after recent wins in election rounds this month, it’s a force that is making serious headway in establishing a grounded presence in post-Mubarak Egypt.
What seems to be the consensus among the Western world is that the Brotherhood is a strict, Sharia-law driven group that will bring back the more conservative views of Islam upon a historically moderate Egypt. It seems that the liberal Western-minded revolutionaries that began the uprise really didn’t utilize their educational advantage by truly thinking through what groups might emerge after the removal of a longtime seeded ruler. Bad move rebels. The Brotherhood is here and the key to either working with them or working towards removing them is to clearly comprehend what they’re actually about.
“God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” That’s the credo of the Muslim Brotherhood – which, in all fairness, certainly does read as a rather stark and intimidating set of notions for any progressive Westernized thinker. Plus including the word “death” in your mission statement really doesn’t illicit warm fuzzy feelings. But get this: the Brotherhood is still considered less menacing by a vast majority of Egyptian voters than their competition for Parliamentary seats, the Salafist Nour Party, which is more openly violent and extreme in both political verbiage and action, as compared to the Brotherhood. The ironic thing is that the parties that represent the young modern reformers that famously rose up in Tahir Square, demanding a truly democratic change in Egyptian government are currently pulling a meek 13% in the first round of elections. So it seems at this point, a much more thorough understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely in order, especially since they will most likely be the next installment within the Egyptian government as the ruling party. Translation = it’s time for Egypt to be sat down and talked to about the latest addition to the family that the stork is bringing: a few new Brothers.
On December 9, 2011, Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about his personal experience with Muslim Brotherhood activists that I found rather revealing. He describes being exposed to a sort of enlightenment about misconceptions that have blanketed the Brotherhood’s caricature-like reputation across both the Westernized international community, as well as parts of Egypt itself. In his interactions with Sondos Asem, a 24-year-old middle-class graduate of the American University in Cairo who’s home he dined in, Kristof delved into the issues that commonly arise when speaking on Egypt’s civil unrest, and received rather interesting reactions from Asem and her family.
On The Oppression of Women:
Egypt has always been the cooler older sibling of the Mid-East when it came to women’s rights – although I certainly do use the word “cooler” here loosely. In comparison to more religiously rigid countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, where women are required to wear hijab and are forbidden to exercise many of even the simplest rights granted to men, Egypt has maintained a much less secure chokehold upon its women. My mother and other female relatives tell me stories of how, growing up in 1960′s and 70′s era Egypt, they donned super short mini skirts, wore tons of eye makeup and rocked out to The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Egypt was a country of liberated women under the beloved President Anwar Sadat, who in his time, changed Egypt’s socio-economic direction, among other things. Egypt actually had hippies, if you can believe it.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been thought by many Westerners to be associated with re-instituting the oppression of women – something that Asem strongly denied in her talk with Kristof. She explained that in addition to 50% of the Brotherhood being comprised of women, her own mother, Manal Abul Hassan is running for Parliament under the affiliation of the Brotherhood. Asem also asserts the same notion I referenced previously, that Egypt being religiously moderate is therefore incomparable to Saudi Arabia and the like. Rather, she says, Egypt should be compared to countries like Turkey, where amidst economic prosperity, an Islamic government reigns and where women are not objectified or mistreated, but are incorporated in government as vital participants.
Even the gruesome issue of female circumcision was brought up by Kristof, and Asem’s declaration of the Brotherhood’s stance on this topic was clear: the Brotherhood is against the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. However, I gathered no further elaboration from Kristof’s interview with Asem on this particular subject, as the topic seemed to quickly shift to the Brotherhood’s views on economic policies and illiteracy – which Asem attributes to women’s real problems within Egyptian society. Suffice to say, the particular issue of genital mutilation was not one that Asem seemed to want to linger on for any length of time – which I found disconcerting since the unbelievably cruel practice is one that an immense number of Egyptian girls now commonly experience. I should note that the Mubarak administration – oddly enough – actually made some effort to stop this ridiculous custom. Go figure.
On Peace With Israel:
When Kristof approached this touchy subject with Asem, she dismissed it – along with the issue of alcohol consumption and wearing hijab – as policies that the Muslim Brotherhood do not plan on making any changes to. Claiming that creating jobs is the number one priority for the Brotherhood if it were to take over the Egyptian government, Asem explained that the country’s current economic disparity is what needs to be tackled immediately; and therefore the primary concern would be to reform the current economic system and eliminate the corruption that has reigned under Mubarak’s regime.
Even Kristof’s later interview with former foreign minister and Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, was optimistic regarding the Brotherhood’s stance on continued peace with Israel: no matter what happens, Egypt will continue to nurture its good relations with the US and remain loyal to its peace treaty with Israel. When rebuilding a nation Moussa says, “You cannot conduct an adventurous foreign policy…We must have the best of relations with the United States.” If only Mr. Roger’s were still alive, I bet he’d invite them into the neighborhood. Well, maybe.
On Governing A Modern Economy:
Among the Brotherhood supporters and activists that Kristof spoke to, were liberal Egyptians who were a bit more skeptical of the Brotherhood’s motives – and ability to actually govern a modern Egypt. Many insisted that they [The Muslim Brotherhood] may exude a mild, peaceful demeanor now, but that there may be an intolerant streak that emerges later down the line. Talk about schizophrenia. Not to mention, many progressive Egyptians claim that the Brotherhood simply does not have the experience or political know-how to actually manage a modern Egyptian economy, with all the complexities that inherently emerge when any rebuilding of this magnitude takes place. What worries these modernists is that when push comes to shove, the Brotherhood will rely on Sharia-law or other rules of religion to make decisions that ultimately move the country back into the religiously conservative realm. It’s what tends to happen here in the US, when people aren’t quite sure how to handle things. Let’s just ask God.
What I truly reaped from Kristof’s intriguing experiences was that the Muslim Brotherhood is still a mystery to many – and as with most mysteries, it’s best to explore all the evidence, assemble all the clues and do all the research before declaring that Colonel Mustard must’ve done it in the library with the wrench. What the Brotherhood (and Salafists) did that was a politically ingenious maneuver to gain serious momentum in the elections: infiltrate the poorest, most uneducated portions of the Egyptian countryside and the like and convince those people – many times with bribes of food and money – that they are the best choice for a new Egypt. What did the progressive revolutionaries do to implant that same notion for their parties? Wait, they didn’t. Hence their current failure in gaining any sort of ground to compete with the Brotherhood. Which leaves us at…
Understanding the true nature of the Muslim Brotherhood is what is going to shed light on whether or not Egypt is moving towards a democratic, economically stable (and hopefully forward-thinking) society, or not. The idea of the Arab Spring in Egypt was to remove the corrupt, suffocating grip of a crooked regime and adopt a real working democracy. Let’s just hope – by trying to truly understand the entity that may be ruling – that the next wave of progress is done under the blanket of peace, fairness and clear thinking. After all, it took the United States of America a shade under a decade to get it right ourselves – the Constitution was written 7 years after the battle at Yorktown. When it comes to change, ‘scary’ really can be an understatement. But its an assumption that can be overturned by something much more potent: knowledge.
- Op-Ed Columnist: Democracy in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Birthplace (nytimes.com)
- Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood slams military rulers (sfgate.com)
- Muslim Brotherhood to Review Peace Treaty with Israel (israelnationalnews.com)
- Ed Husain: The Arab Street – A Poor Response From the Muslim Brotherhood (cfr.org)
- 2001 Egyptian Revolution (wikipedia.com)
- Arab Spring: An Interactive Timeline of Middle East Protests (theguardian.co.uk)