By Geneive Abdo
Over the past several weeks, leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have placed on public display the lessons they have learned as Egypt’s officially banned but most influential social and political movement by trying to pre-empt alarmist declarations that the country is now headed for an Iran-style theocracy.
Members of the venerable Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by an Egyptian school teacher to revitalize Islam and oppose British colonial rule, have so far stated no plans to run a candidate in the next presidential election, and they surprised many by their halting participation in the transitional government, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. They also have made it clear that they have no desire to seek a majority in the Egyptian parliament, when free elections are held, as promised by Egypt’s current military rulers. In fact, the Brotherhood has voiced its commitment to work with all groups within the opposition – including the secular-leaning youth who inspired the revolution – without demanding a leading role for itself.
These gestures have produced two reactions from Western governments and other international actors heavily invested in Egypt’s future: Some simply see this as evidence that there is no reason to fear the Brotherhood will become a dominant force in the next government.
Others view the Brotherhood’s public declarations with skepticism, saying the promises are designed simply to head off any anxiety over the future influence and scope of the religious-based movement. For example, British Minister David Cameron, who last week became the first foreign leader to visit Egypt after Mubarak’s downfall, refused to meet Brotherhood leaders, saying he wanted the people to see there are political alternatives to “extreme” Islamist opposition. Such simplistic characterization of the Muslim Brotherhood simply echoes Mubarak’s long-term tactic to scare the West into supporting his authoritarian rule as the best alternative to Islamic extremism.
But the future on the horizon for the Brotherhood lies most likely somewhere between these divergent views. Now that Egyptians have freed themselves from decades of restraint and fear, a liberalized party system will logically follow, reflecting the values, aspirations and religious beliefs of Egyptian society as a whole.
What the outside world seems to have missed during the many decades since the Brotherhood was banned is the fact that the movement has never been a political and social force somehow detached from Egyptian society. Rather, the widespread popularity of the movement – which is fragmented along generational lines – can be best explained by the extent to which it reflects the views of a vast swathe of Egyptians.
The Brotherhood has waited patiently for society to evolve beyond the Free Officers movement of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Beginning in the early 1990s, it was clear that Islamization was taking hold in Egypt. In my book, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, which documented the societal transformation from a secular to more religious Egypt during the 1990s, I made it clear that the Brotherhood was on the rise. This was in part responsible for the Brotherhood’s strong showing in parliamentary elections in 2005, when they ran candidates as independents because Egyptian law prohibits religiously-based parties to run candidates in elections.
The question now is whether Egyptian society has moved beyond the Brotherhood. Did the January 25 revolution create a new set of priorities apart from the fundamental tenets of the Brotherhood? These include:
- Enforcing sharia as the primary source of legislation in Egypt. Now, it is primarily applied only to family law, even though Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution states sharia should be the primary source of all legislation.
- Establishing socially conservative policies, such as a ban on the public sale of alcohol, , which Islam forbids.
- Rescinding a number of foreign policies supported by the United States, in particular Egypt’s 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
From the television coverage of the revolution centered in Tahrir Square, it might appear that Egyptian society has moved on beyond the Brotherhood to a population of secular, Westernized, young street protesters who are just as detached from the Brotherhood as the Free Officers were in the 1950s. But this is a superficial reading of where society stands in its relationship to the Brotherhood.
There is also a practical reason the Brotherhood could wind up with a significant portion of seats when parliamentary elections are held, even though Brotherhood leaders have stated in recent days that they would seek no more than 30 percent. Assuming elections are held next fall, the Brotherhood will be one of the few groups organized enough to run effective campaigns. The only organized parties under Mubarak were those loyal to the regime, such as the National Democratic Party, and they have now been discredited. It will take years for other political groups to become effective voices in the political debate.
One political party, al-Wasat, founded by Abou Elela Mady, was just legalized, after a 15-year ban. Although the party is far less conservative than the Brotherhood – its leaders split from the Brotherhood long ago – nevertheless al-Wasat is Islamist in its leanings.
A military council, which now rules Egypt, has announced that elections for parliament and president will be held within the next six months. Given the new political landscape and values and beliefs of Egyptian society, religious considerations can be expected to play a prominent role in the new parliament.
Egypt offers the best example in the Arab world where Islam means many things to many people, and there is a sizable part of the population which believes that religion should inform the new, post-Mubarak political system. This does not mean Egyptians want anything like a theocracy – but, then, neither does the Brotherhood. But it is a safe bet that many of the ideas the Brotherhood has advanced for many decades will factor into any new Egyptian government.
Geneive Abdo is director of the Iran program at the National Security Network and The Century Foundation, two Washington-based think tanks. Formerly the Iran correspondent for The Guardian, a regular contributor to the Economist, and liaison for the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations, Abdo is also the author of Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11 and No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.