Examining the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood at NORTHCOM

Last week I was invited to Colorado Springs, Colorado to deliver a lecture on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at the USNORTHCOM headquarters located on Peterson Air Force Base. My lecture was based on an academic paper (PDF) I delivered earlier this year at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy‘s 8th Annual Conference. The program itself was divided into a 45-minute lecture followed by 45 minutes of questions and answers.

I began the lecture with a broad historical overview of the organization. I noted the shift from a peaceful social welfare organization in the late 1920s to a radicalized and politicized group by the mid 50s and early 60s due mainly to a series of external pressures such as repression by colonial and post-colonial governments and co-optation by Saudi-based Wahhabis and internal weaknesses like divisions within the Brotherhood over ideology and tactics.

However this change from what was originally a liberal, modernist Salafi creed into a radical reactionary ideology started to reverse itself in the late 70s and early 80s with a new influx of activists. The Brotherhood began to evolve back in a more liberal direction. I ended the historical section by pointing out that in the latest parliamentary elections the MB won 88 out of 454 seats (20%) in November 2005.

Using the elections as a transition point I briefly discussed why Egypt is strategically important to the United States, by pointing out that it constitutes 1/3 of the Arab population, has been a political trendsetter in the Middle East and has been a major hub of Islamic intellectualism.

After that, I provided a glimpse of my findings and the framework I used to conduct my research. Being that my paper was more geared towards religious freedom issues, I briefly skimmed through my data and went directly into its analysis. (For those interested in a more thorough examination of the paper, you can read it here. (PDF))

I found that the MB’s reform agenda varies from one issue to another, clear to vague. Generally, the more detailed and consistent the public statements of Brothers, the more conducive their positions are to a liberal democracy, but the more vague and inconsistent the statements, the greater the tendency for some illiberal positions to be espoused.

The reasons for the contradiction and vagueness on certain issues is not due to duplicity, as has been alleged by some, but has to do with the evolving nature of the MB and what are its causes for its ongoing change. They revolve mainly around three variables (PDF): 1) Age–the middle aged reformists like Abdul-Monem Abul-Futuh are more ideologically moderate and flexible than older members like Mahdi Akef; 2) Acting as a religious and political organization–this dual nature forces its members to try to balance religious ideology with political pragmatism; and 3) Pandering to the electorate – the MB must try to act pragmatic while not alienating its religiously conservative party base of support.

However, there are also cases where the MB is explicit about where it stands on certain issues, yet it maintains an illiberal position. This is caused by an authoritarian political structure that politicizes Islam and forces ideological competition between state-controlled religious institutions like Al-Azhar and independent non-government actors like the MB. Rather than engaging in scholarly debates, both sides try to “out-Islam” each other for political popularity and end up driving national religious discourse toward greater social conservatism.

Based on an analysis of 20 State Department public statements between 2005 and March 2007 (that was about a month before the paper was first presented), I pointed out that the US government policy in Egypt has been very inconsistent and very counterproductive. The American government would selectively express support for any secular opposition group that professes a commitment to democratic process and speak out when secular opposition members get tortured and arrested, yet when the same occurs to the MB it is silent.

The presentation ended with the acknowledgment that the MB’s political trajectory is uncertain. On one hand there have been some very disturbing events taking place which could reverse the Brotherhood’s liberalization, such as the most recent amendments to the Egyptian constitution, increasing repression against reformist leaders, and possible control issues over some grassroots youth activists. On the other hand, in spite of these authoritarian measures from the state, the Brotherhood continues to press along with plans to separate its political and religious activities and recently unveiled a new political platform that emphasizes a civil state, not a theocracy. The trajectory of the MB will depend on the actions of the Egyptian state, American foreign policy and the Brotherhood’s own actions while under its current political stress.

The question and answer session was extremely lively, offering a lot of give and take between myself and some of the attendees. The questions centered mostly on the Brotherhood’s democratic intentions vis-à-vis certain ambiguous statements, their relation to violent movements like Gama’a Islamiyya and Al-Qaida and Israel.

In response I reminded my audience that the several analysts paying close attention to the Brotherhood – ranging from secular Egyptian grassroots civil society activists, to US democracy promotion advocates, to conservative foreign policy realists (PDF)–have noted a considerable change in the organization over time. Furthermore, based on their meticulous investigations, as well as research by other experts, they have found little basis for the claim of doublespeak—allegedly putting on a moderate face to international observers while revealing its true radical message to its followers.

In response to the inquiry about its relation to militant organizations such as Al-Qai’da, I pointed out that the so-called jihadis and the Brothers absolutely despise each other. Although it is true that many of the ideologies behind today’s Muslim religious terrorist organizations came directly from the MB, these individuals were kicked out precisely because they were against the group’s more moderate and peaceful ideology. In addition, although some radicals splintered away from the group to form their own violent groups, there have been splits in the other direction, toward even more moderate, yet religious groups such as the Wasat party. The Brotherhood, like the broader Islamist movement is hardly monolithic; moderate and hard-line tendencies exist within the same organization.

Finally there is the question of Israel and the Brotherhood. One panel felt that any engagement with the Brotherhood would be unethical and undermine Israel’s security on the grounds that it espouses “an intolerant hypocrisy” by not recognizing the legitimacy of the Israeli government and showing a willingness to “kill any Israeli on sight.” Although I saw this charge as overblown rhetoric, at the heart of the issue is a legitimate question as to the Brotherhood’s relations with Israel if it ran the country. From a military perspective this is of great concern, potentially adding greater instability to a region with enough problems as is.

However in my analysis I see little reason for Israelis to currently fear the Brotherhood if were to come to power in Egypt. Politically speaking, while members such as Mahdi Akef have made bolds statements vowing to put Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel to test in a national referendum, he has also reportedly said his organization would respect all international treaties, including the peace treaty with Israel. Yet, to focus on Akef would be foolhardy since he is someone viewed by people outside and within his organization as a “doddering, slightly embarrassing old uncle”, who, representing the old conservative wing of the MB, uses “demagogic posturing and populist rhetoric” and is “prone to weird outbursts when you ask him anything having to do with Israel.” A more moderate response is from the up and coming Abdul-Monem Abul-Futuh, who, representing the increasingly influential middle-aged reformist wing, is on record saying—in Arabic—that while the Brotherhood would prefer to accept a secular bi-national state, it is also open to the idea of a two-state solution.

Although trends within the MB exist that acknowledges the reality of Israel’s existence, the strength of these opinions is uncertain. Perhaps the biggest factor safeguarding Israel’s security during a Muslim Brotherhood-run government is the military balance between the two countries. While conservatives like Akef talk tough, it is unlikely that they would back it up with any real action. The military balance is overwhelmingly stacked in Israel’s favor, possessing a significant quantitative and qualitative advantage, conventionally speaking, over Egypt’s forces. (This is does not take into account Israel’s WMD capabilities vis-à-vis Egypt’s non-existent ones.) Furthermore, Egyptian security apparatuses, suffer from a series of bureaucratic and political cultural problems stemming from an authoritarian government that hinders military performance. On the battlefield, hands down the Israeli forces would win. All of this does not even take into account the economic and political ramifications, of which I did not have the time to devote in the program, nor in this blog entry.

In spite of these arguments, not all were convinced, but there were some who were more receptive to my analysis than others. Regardless of the analytical differences with a few, people nonetheless expressed their respect for my work. For my part, I am grateful for the experience to discuss these issues with some of the military’s sharpest minds and to hear their perspectives as well. A special thanks goes out to my friend who invited there and to the intelligent men and women who I had to opportunity to debate and dialogue with that day.

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