In the battle over the Muslim Brotherhood's future, the United States should engage with the good guys.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo’s Tahrir Square during her first visit to post-revolutionary Egypt last month, I watched the news unfold from several miles away in the damp, sparse offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary leaders.
"Why doesn’t she meet with us?" asked one Brotherhood member.
"We know why," said another.
And then they both fell silent.
I was in Cairo to understand that confusing silence. In days packed with meetings with leaders and grassroots activists of the Islamist group, Egypt’s largest and best organized, I pressed them on their views toward hot-button issues like the role of sharia in government, human rights, Israel, and global terrorism. In meeting with Brotherhood members hailing from all walks of life, I found an array of diverse and even contradictory views that refuted the conception of the Muslim Brotherhood as a monolithic, anti-Western organization.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, it was easy to ignore the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned and occasionally tolerated. Nobody’s ignoring the group anymore. The Brothers are on the march to power. Their sheer numbers, political legacy, and ability to mobilize crowds make them the single most potent political force in the country. The Washington foreign-policy establishment’s reaction to the movement has ranged from caution to outright hostility. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, recently raised fears that the Brotherhood would "hijack" the revolution.
One does not have to look hard for evidence to support this view. In a wealthy Cairo suburb after evening prayers, I met with Mahdi Akef, the 82-year-old former head of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of its most popular leaders. Over mango juice, this elderly but vigorous man roared about the great future that he sees for Egypt. In one breath, he praised al Qaeda for "resisting American occupation," and in another called it an "American production."
"Mr. Akef has spent more years in jail than Nelson Mandela," one of his many admirers reminded me. Strictly speaking, that is not true — Akef spent 20 years to Mandela’s 27 — but it does explain the mythology of the man. Akef’s years in prison, however, did not transform him into Egypt’s Mandela. Far from pursuing peace, Akef imagines an uncompromising Islamist future for Egypt, in permanent resistance to what he sees as the colonialist ambitions of Israel and the West. Akef’s clarity and boldness have earned him the loyalty of the Brotherhood’s suburban grassroots members.
When I asked him how he could support al Qaeda’s operations given that they had killed more Muslims than the U.S. soldiers who he claimed were occupiers, Akef said that I was plainly wrong — it was Blackwater, the American private military company now known as Xe Services, that killed Muslims, not al Qaeda. It was only in the West that we blamed al Qaeda — in essence, al Qaeda was innocent.
He preferred not to mention Israel by name, but only as "the Zionist entity" that would one day be eroded from the region. He was conscious that Arab countries were currently weak, but insisted that fact should not deflect them from "stating the truth" that "the Zionist enemy" was illegitimate. Without reservation, he supported suicide bombings in Israel and wanted Egypt’s new government to support Hamas in every way possible to help it bring an end to Israel.
Clinton has not met with the Muslim Brotherhood because it is a home for thousands of men like Akef. But the United States should not make the mistake that it has made so many times in the past — that of ignoring the political reality on the ground, most notably as it did following the Iraq war and in the 2006 Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas to power. The Brotherhood is more complex than Akef, and its political development has profound implications for not only Egypt, but the entire region.
What happens in Egypt, a country that has historically wielded immense intellectual influence in the Arab world, doesn’t stay in Egypt. As the mother ship of all Islamist extremist groups around the world, the Muslim Brotherhood’s tone and tenor in Cairo will impact Islamist activists from Gaza to London. Fortunately, despite Akef’s grandstanding, the Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing intellectual and organizational transition. Like every other group in Egypt, the Brotherhood is wondering how best to respond to new sociopolitical circumstances. Unlike other Islamist groups, it does not have a fixed political dogma — and this pragmatism may be its saving grace.
Akef’s suburban appeal does not speak to the aspirations of a newly visible tendency inside the Muslim Brotherhood: the rising force of the under-40s professionals who were vital in the Tahrir Square protests that toppled Mubarak. A leader of this emerging trend is Mohamed El-Shahawy, a country leader for the American multinational conglomerate 3M. Sophisticated, articulate, English-speaking, and involved in the protest movement from day one, El-Shahawy led a group of Brotherhood members that marched from the suburbs of Cairo, overcame police barriers, and joined the revolution.
At his family home, El-Shahawy showed me X-rays of the bullet shrapnel residing beside his spine, left there after he was shot by the police during the protests. Taken to the hospital, he escaped his bed — leaving his two young children, wife, and mother — to rejoin the revolutionary youth at Tahrir Square. "Before anything else," he told me, as he put down the X-rays and tears swelled up in his eyes, "I am an Egyptian. I was prepared to die for my country, sacrifice everything."
El-Shahawy and thousands like him are in open revolt against older, conservative elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing for a political party that does not carry the baggage of its extremist past. They want women and Christians as equal citizens, not subjects of ridicule as they were under Akef’s tenure. This new generation of Twitter and Facebook activists stood in the line of fire, overthrew Mubarak, and now has new alliances with Egypt’s secular opposition.
It falls to Mohamed Badie, the 67-year-old current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a veterinary doctor by trade, to bridge the divides between these different groups. Viewed as a member of the religiously conservative wing of the Brotherhood, Badie was the one who smuggled out the incendiary chapters of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones — the Communist Manifesto of global Islamism — from prison in the 1960s.
But though Badie might be the official leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, true power lies elsewhere. In the event that free elections were held today inside the group, it is unlikely that he would win. The liberals dislike his conservatism, and the hard-liners dislike his reluctance to roar in public about an Islamic state for Egypt and the imminent destruction of Israel. He is also seen as out of touch with the popular membership because he steered the Brotherhood away from internal reforms, prevented the greater involvement of women, and blocked transparent election of the leadership. "He issues orders from Cairo without consultation with ordinary members," one member told me. "He still thinks like we’re living under Mubarak."
Fear that liberal youth would abandon the Muslim Brotherhood led Badie to issue an edict on March 15 forbidding group members from leaving to create political parties, arguing it was religiously forbidden to do so — haram. Hastily, his office announced the creation of the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party, headed by a Badie stalwart and former head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Saad el-Katatni. The youth complained: Who, they wondered, had elected Katatni as head of the political party? On March 26, hundreds of young Brotherhood members gathered, without Badie’s blessing, to propose ways in which to democratize the Brotherhood, give women more prominence, and change the composition of the national body that elects a leader.
But the wily Badie knows edicts from the center cannot hold back the revolution within the Muslim Brotherhood. To placate the grassroot demands, he has turned to the one man within the movement who is more popular than even Akef: Khairat al-Shater, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood and a leading Egyptian businessman. Shater was imprisoned by Mubarak on trumped-up charges and lost an entire decade of his life behind bars. Now in his early 60s, he is a bridge between the elder leaders and the new revolutionaries.
Shater is not only a self-sacrificing party loyalist, but a shrewd businessman who raised funds for the Muslim Brotherhood during difficult times. His influence over the movement’s younger generation is more than emotional — it stems from his financial ability to bankroll their ideas and initiatives. Interestingly, his various banking board memberships give him access to free market businessmen who are not Islamists but trust the Brotherhood to be a fair and equitable party in government.
Again and again, as I met young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, they repeatedly said that they were due to meet Shater soon with their demands: greater transparency within the movement, better relations with the West, and a stronger platform for women. It is in Shater, not Badie, in whom they have invested hope. When I asked the leader of a Brotherhood branch at Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University whether he saw Shater as a future leader of the organization, he responded calmly that Shater "is qualified and popular enough to become not just the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, but president of Egypt one day." Despite this enthusiasm, Shater remains politically untested, and it is uncertain which direction he will take.
The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2005-2010 parliamentary bloc also represent another crucial segment within the movement that breaks decisively with Akef’s al Qaeda sympathies. I met with Mohamed el-Beltagy, a medical doctor and university professor who served as secretary-general of the bloc, and it was apparent that he was a statesman in the making. Beltagy’s political clout is such that Prime Minister Essam Sharaf shared a platform with him in Tahrir Square immediately after the overthrow of the previous prime minister. Savvy and results-driven as any Western politician, Beltagy’s calm demeanor, direct rebuttals of extremism, and, most importantly, his willingness to engage with America represented an important indication of the Brotherhood’s future political role.
Unlike Akef, Beltagi remains a political practitioner — a former MP who knows that a constituency can vote him out. For that reason, he was most focused on jobs, health care, education, and housing — the real priorities of ordinary Egyptians. When asked about Israel, he expressly said he was "not interested in removing any country from the map," but "most interested in creating a sustainable Palestinian state."
Across the board, all members of the Muslim Brotherhood became animated when addressing questions involving Israel. Although most insist on maintaining peace with Israel (at least for now) and do not wish to go to war, it is clear that the kind of relations Israel enjoyed with Egypt in the past can no longer be taken for granted. Egyptians will demand greater justice for Palestinians — and the Arab-Israeli conflict will take center stage again as events unfold in the region.
These changes may appear troublesome for American and Israeli audiences, but they are hardly the most dangerous threat in Egypt’s future. As one young Muslim Brotherhood activist told me, when it come to relations with the West, "the Muslim Brotherhood is a headache, but it is not cancer."
The cancer will be the Salafi and jihadi groups that attempt to out-Islam and outflank the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Iraq and Pakistan following their regime changes, the short-term prospect of increased terrorist activity in Egypt is real. Hundreds of jihadi prisoners have been released, previously violent Islamist organizations are regrouping, and their commitment to a government along strict Salafi lines is strong. Fostered as a counterweight to the Brotherhood by the Mubarak regime, today Salafists in Egypt openly talk about contesting elections to create an Islamic state — contradicting even Badie, who refers to a "civic state." Following a new surge of Salafi violence on popular Muslim Sufi shrines, the Brotherhood’s clerics — led by Abdul Rahman al-Barr — and its English website, Ikhwanweb.com, published a call for unity among democracy activists against revived Salafi intolerance. These are telltale signs of the coming disorder.
In this period of short-term turbulence, and beyond, the Muslim Brotherhood will be an important player. It would be disastrous for the United States to continue to treat the Brotherhood as a monolith and boycott interaction with the organization in its entirety; such a step would fail to distinguish the "headache" presented by the Brotherhood with other truly dangerous developments in Egypt’s political scene.
For the last three decades, the United States has engaged with Arab leaders through three prisms: oil, terrorism, and Israel. This is no longer enough. In this new Arab era, Washington will need to interact with ordinary people and their elected representatives in parliaments. The Muslim Brotherhood is undeniably a part of that wider Arab population, and Washington should attempt to engage progressive and pragmatic strands within the movement in order to tilt the debate away from extremism and confrontation to nation-building and dialogue. It can be done. Islamists can change.