Pragmatic Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood may have to adapt if it is to share power in Egypt
Recent events in Egypt have pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to the centre of the political stage. But can it continue to pursue its brand of pragmatic Islam?
Observers of the recent unrest in Cairo and other Egyptian cities may not know that although the Muslim Brotherhood entered talks with Vice-President Omar Suleiman and other political groups on 6 February, it has been banned in Egypt since 1954.
Alison Pargeter, a Middle East analyst and author of a new study of the Brotherhood, believes the movement – the oldest Islamic political organisation in the world – has fought long and hard to occupy a space in Egyptian society where it is illegal yet at the same time semi-tolerated. Pragmatism, she says, is the Brotherhood's defining characteristic.
"The Muslim Brotherhood's behaviour during the latest crisis has been typical," she says. "Their opportunism has come to the fore – the fact that they didn't jump in in the beginning and get engaged with the demonstrations."
Omar Ashour of Exeter University's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, agrees. "There is an official Muslim Brotherhood ideology but, most importantly, ideology does not determine their behaviour whatsoever. You can say it's a very pragmatic, opportunistic group. Ideology plays a minor role in determining their outlook."
Looking both ways
Indeed, the Brotherhood's chequered history (its members have suffered persecution, in particular in the 1950s and 60s in the aftermath of an assassination attempt on President Nasser) has forced it to look both ways politically in order to survive.
This has allowed detractors inside and outside Egypt to predict that a Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt would sooner or later embrace and impose on the country a radical Islamist philosophy. It also means observers in the west have tended to inflate its size and importance.
To read some accounts of the protests in Egypt in the last fortnight, the regime of President Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, his deputy, stands as the last bastion between the Arab world and a wave of Islamist fundamentalism originating from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet it was the Brotherhood – not Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei nor Liberal politician Ayyman Nour – that Omar Suleiman chose to begin talks with on 6 February. "A very clever strategy by the government," suggests Omar Ashour. "The government is marginalising the liberals and telling the west that if it wants democracy in Egypt, that means the Brotherhood. But I don't think the Brotherhood will swallow it."
Religious, social, political
When, in 2006, Omar Suleiman – now Egypt's vice-president – called the Muslim Brotherhood "neither a religious organisation, nor a social organisation, nor a political party, but a combination of all three", he was simply restating the movement's original aims as laid out by its founder, Hassan al-Banna.
Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on political Islam with the Rand Corporation and author of The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, told Channel 4 News the Brotherhood's social dimension was one of the main reasons for its success. "It intervenes wherever it finds a gap where the state or other institutions do not provide a service: health, employment, even marriage counselling."
What is more, it has learned to adapt to circumstances. In Jordan (the Brotherhood is not confined to Egypt) it has been allowed the freedom to become part of the political system; in Syria, by contrast, it has never been tolerated and has been involved in violent confrontations with the government there. "It tries to find a balance between what it can do and what it can't, without attracting too much attention from the government," says Vidino.
In terms of ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood has always encompassed both hawkish and reformist elements. "It's always had radical currents within it," says Alison Pargeter. "It's always specified that it is a pacific movement. The movement's main theologian, Sayyib Qutb, was very important, but after his death the movement refuted his teachings."
These ideological divisions are reflected in the personnel at the top of the Muslim Brotherhood, where Lorenzo Vidino says there is now a three-way generational divide. He identifies an "old guard" comprising members in their 60s and 70s such as Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood's official leader, who has served several prison terms including a nine-year stint between 1965 and 1974.
Commentators see Badie's accession to the role of General Guide in January 2010 as a victory for conservative elements within the Brotherhood. The outlook of Badie and his supporters has been shaped by their experience of imprisonment and torture, and they are "less modern" when it comes to democratic ideas.
Badie has nonetheless evolved considerably since the 1960s, according to Omar Ashour. And he has reaffirmed his organisation's commitment to gradual and democratic reform.
The second tranche of Brotherhood leaders are now in their 50s and 60s – organisers who cut their political teeth in the late 1970s, in the more politically liberal atmosphere of Anwar Sadat's presidency. Lorenzo Vidino says of them that "they use the language of democracy and of human rights".
Essam El-Erian, a senior spokesmen for the movement, has been arguably the most prominent Muslim Brotherhood member during Egypt's recent unrest. A medical school graduate, El-Erian survived a cull of senior Brotherhood leaders at the start of last year and, says Alison Pargeter, "speaks the language of the west". In an interview on the Brotherhood website, he talks about Egypt embarking upon "genuine democracy or… a path towards genuine democracy".
'Highest form of jihad'
Another Brotherhood spokesman and leader of its moderate, reformist wing is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Born in 1951, Fotouh enrolled as a medical student at Cairo University in 1970. Interviewed in the Al-Ahram newspaper several years ago, Fotouh recalls being talked down in 1977 during a student encounter with the late President Sadat, from which he concludes: "The highest form of jihad is to utter a word of truth in the presence of a tyrannical ruler."
In the same article Fotouh reinforces his moderate credentials, asserting that "Mass popular action must take Egypt’s stability into account – after all, we seek reform, not chaos."
Although Fotouh has lost his seat on the movement's Guidance Bureau, the movement's governing body, he has appeared on Al-Jazeera in recent days to restate the Brotherood's position that President Hosni Mubarak must stand down in order for Egypt to make progress towards democracy.
Both El-Erian and Fotouh have recently been at pains to nuance the Brotherhood's stated positions against a prominent role for women and Christians within the movement and in favour of the integration of sharia law into Egypt's legal system (though in an interview from more than a decade ago, El-Erian asks: "Why would anyone find it a far-fetched idea for the Brotherhood, 100 years after its establishment, to see their movement bear fruit – a country that applies Islamic Sharia (law)?"
The Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc is led by Saad Al-Katatni, a university professor and – ike El-Erian, Fotouh and fellow parliamentarian Muhammad Mursi – a pragmatic advocate of involvement in mainstream politics. Al-Katatni has pushed the movement to support and join the National Association for Change, a grouping led by Mohamed ElBaradei which advocates political reform within Egypt. He now serves as the Brotherhood's main representative within the group.
The "third generation" within the Muslim Brotherhood comprises street activists, mainly under 40 years old. Omar Ashour calls them "the Facebook generation". He says young elements from within the Brotherhood have actually formed their own youth command in Tahrir Square during the latest protests.
Power and responsibility
The opacity of some of the Muslim Brotherhood's recent utterances makes it hard to divine where exactly it hopes to go during the present unrest.
Dr Kamal El-Helbawy, a UK-based spokesman for the Brotherhood, was reflecting the position of his colleagues in Egypt when he told Channel 4 News: "I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood joined the recent events… and they were not the initiators. They are laying at present a role in organisation, keeping security and participating in public committees required for this protest to continue."
He also defended the movement's decision to enter talks with the regime last weekend, saying: "The Muslim Brotherhood attended hopeful of finding a safe solution for the crisis, not for themselves and not to compromise. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the regime has fallen down and should leave the country in peace."
The Brotherhood's low profile since the protests began on 25 January has allowed it to emerge with its image relatively unscathed in Islamist-paranoid west. It has suffered scant condemnation from heads of state in Europe or the United States. As a recent article on the Foreign Affairs think tank's website notes, "The Brotherhood is too savvy, too pragmatic, and too cautious to squander its hard-earned reputation among Egyptians as a responsible political actor."
But if it is to become part of any solution to the turmoil in Egypt, the Brotherhood may find it has to come off the fence and embrace some of the pro-democratic demands being made by Tahrir Square protesters, while at the same time articulating clearer positions on such contentious issues as sharia law and the state of Israel. As the Liberal Democrats in the UK have found, with political power comes the responsibility for difficult decisions.
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Who are we talking about?
Hosni Mubarak became president of Egypt on 14 October 1981, following the assassination of President Sadat.Connections: 4 (See map)
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman
Essam El-Erian is a spokesman for Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.Connections: 0 (See map)
Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood
Mohammed Badie became General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in January 2010.Connections: 1 (See map)
Nobel peace prize winner
Mohamed ElBaradei was director general of the International atomic Energy Agency from 1997 to 2009. In 2005 he and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel peace prize.Connections: 1 (See map)
Omar Suleiman was appointed Egyptian vice-president by President Hosni Mubarak on 29 January 2011. He is also head of Egyptian intelligence.Connections: 2 (See map)