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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 00:30 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 00:30 | SYDNEY

It\'s not the Muslim Brotherhood, stupid



4 February 2011 10:50

While we watch the still uncertain outcome of Cairo's unrest, I want to comment on the fear being articulated in parts of the media, but also internationally, that we might be witnessing the birth of an Islamic republic of Egypt. This is nonsense, and here are the reasons why.

First, the protests were not begun, nor have they been led by, Egypt's largest and best organised opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimoon). Indeed, when the protests were first called for, the Brotherhood was equivocating about getting involved. That it did subsequently back the protests after a couple of days reflected its own assessment of how serious the situation was. In fact, because the Muslim Brotherhood is so well tapped in to the public mood, this was an important early indication that the regime was in trouble. 

That said, the Brotherhood undoubtedly had people in the protests even before it backed them publicly, and since then has undoubtedly lent its considerable organisational capacity to the protests on the ground, for example in keeping the anti-government protests peaceful and in organising food and medical assistance (and don't be looking for guys in beards, many Brothers don't have them).

Critics of my view might point to the fact that the Iranian revolution was also not initially led by the Islamists who subsequently seized power, but Egypt in 2011 is NOT Iran in 1979. For one thing, there is no charismatic figure like Khomeini among either the Islamist or non-Islamist opposition in Egypt for the people to rally around. 

For another, Khomeini's thesis relied on a revolutionary seizure of political power to change society; the Muslim Brotherhood's approach does not. Its goal is to transform society, but to proceed from the grassroots. Involvement in politics is just one part of its activism; it also works in eduction, social welfare, religion (obviously) and culture. 

The Muslim Brotherhood will see the current unrest not as an opportunity to seize power, but to relieve the great pressure that has been on the movement from the state. This has particularly been the case since 2005, when the regime began a massive campaign of arrests and seizures of the Brotherhood's assets after its startling victory in that year's parliamentary elections.

It is true that more revolutionary strands of thought emphasising the seizure of power have emerged from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood over the generations. But these individuals and ideas have consistently been expelled from the movement, which has stuck to its incrementalist and grassroots approach. 

If there is genuine change as result of this current unrest — and beyond pushing aside the Mubarak family's pretensions to dynastic rule, it is not clear there will be — I would expect the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in any free and fair elections. It may even finally form its long-promised and internally debated political party. But I don't see it putting up a candidate for president and it would probably be wary of accepting any cabinet posts. 

The Muslim Brotherhood knows there are fears both inside and outside Egypt about what it is planning. It also understands well the pressures that actual participation in government places on ideological principles. For both reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to sacrifice greater opportunity to achieve its long-term aims for any short-term — and possibly short-lived — grab for power.

The other thing that should not be forgotten is that, if there is a genuine democratic opening in Egypt, other actors will emerge. The Brotherhood might have a head start, but expect to see new secular and Islamist parties emerge, all of whom would compete with the Brotherhood. In this regard, Egypt is more likely to resemble post-Suharto Indonesia than post-Shah Iran. 

Critics have long pointed to the weakness of secular political forces in Egypt, and many of their criticisms are valid. But remember that one of the big reasons secular alternatives to the regime did not emerge was because they were not allowed to. In this regard, while Mubarak made constant use of the Islamist threat as a reason for not democratising Egypt, his real fear was of a secular opponent: witness the rough treatment his regime dealt out to Ayman Nour when he emerged as a possible opposition candidate for president.

It is time for everyone to get over their Ikwanophobia. For too long, Western governments have been prepared to sacrifice pressure and support for democratic change because of these fears. Some things the Brotherhood advocates are objectionable, but the movement will face real pressures to change as it tries to reconcile its ideological principles with the demands of political participation and even perhaps participation in governance. 

If you need any further convincing, take a look at the pictures of the protesters bloodied by the regime's plain-clothed goons and hired thugs. Is this really the kind of regime we want to be standing behind' Are these really the kinds of hostages we want to make to our often ill-informed fears'

Photo by Flikr user Erik.

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