Big Brother Politics: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Article excerpt

As Egypt moves from the euphoria of revolution to the less heady questions of timetables, candidates, and elections, the Arab world's oldest and dominant Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, is again stepping into die Egyptian political and global media limelight. The country's military rulers have just announced that voting for the People's Assembly will begin on November 28 of this year, marking the first parliamentary elections since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Amid fears that the vote would divide Islamist parties and youth secular groups, however, the Muslim Brotherhood appears confident in its role in the transition process from military to civilian rule. Although attention has centered predominantly on the group's future policy directions, the Brotherhood's key significance lies with its historical role in shaping the very institutions that will determine the power of Egypt's democracy.

As the best organized force among Egypt's political actors, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its widespread and deeply entrenched grassroots network, is eager to play its part in Egypt's post-revolutionary regime. Western commentators are quick to raise apprehensions about the Brotherhood's potential for radical Islamist, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli policies, potentially akin to post-revolutionary Iran. However, the Brotherhood's composition, structure, guiding ideology, and political history discount such fears.

The Brotherhood has revoked violence as a legitimate strategy decades ago under leaders such as Hassan al-Hudaybi and Umar al-Tilmisani, and radical groups such as Al Qaeda have long scoffed at the Brotherhood's involvement in politics. Moreover, the Brotherhood recruits members from lay professionals instead of clerics, and its guiding ideology affirms the belief that an ideal politics will follow, not lead, a

society polished by Muslim values, belying the idea of a government that will strong-arm its people toward more overt expressions of faith. Under the Brotherhood, shari'a law may have greater influence in legislation, hut as a complex organization deeply imbedded with its grassroots and parliamentary procedure, this influence will do more to reflect than force popular beliefs. Finally, while the Brotherhood's views on Israel are negative, this is hardly the mark of an outlier in the region.

More importantly, whether publicly supported or not, personal or organizational attitudes are not the only factor that will influence the Brotherhood's Peace and Justice Party when in government. The Brotherhood's participation in the People's Assembly reveal a shift over the decades from religion and morals to practical issues of legal and political reform, socioeconomic policies, and human rights. It will likely continue to act in a politically pragmatic manner, and any new government will be aware of the significant economic and bureaucratic issues it must prioritize before catalyzing geopolitical challenges.

In sum, the Brotherhood's political history foretells a group that will govern in the pragmatic, wary way it has thus far guided itself. Moreover, the dominance of inquiries regarding the Brotherhood's likely actions in government unfortunately overshadows the immediately relevant question of where, in the coming months, it will stand. The stability and depth of the transition will largely depend on both the youth and the liberals, who want larger social and political change, and the military, which has a status quo bias as it currently benefits from involvement in many of Egypt's key industries. Such a spectrum includes elections as well as a more fundamental shift in Egypt's power structure that encompasses trials of former regime members, reforms targeted at correcting institutional corruption, and potential retreat of the military's influence in the economy. …