Brotherhood trial run

The Muslim Brotherhood ought to be brought fully into politics, if only to find out what they truly intend

The Egyptian parliament recently approved controversial amendments to the Egyptian constitution, including provisions that will further curb opposition political parties’ freedoms. Many observers say some of those amendments are targeted specifically at the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those amendments coupled with the recent wave of arrests of high-level Brotherhood associates has struck a blow to the quasi-political participation the Brotherhood had enjoyed in recent years. Meanwhile, Western advocates of democratic reform continue to have knee-jerk reactions to Islamic parties such as the Brotherhood, even when they come to power through an internal democratic process. The problem with this scenario is that it will not resolve any of the longstanding tensions in domestic Egyptian politics.

After the dimming of the liberal alternative in Egypt, the situation has often been portrayed as a choice between the Mubarak regime and the “unthinkable” rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a view oversimplifies the issue and only serves the continuation of the political stagnation that has characterised Egypt’s politics in recent years.

When addressing democratic reform it should be elementary to take democratic premises seriously. A democratic process should facilitate the representation of all significant segments of society through the political process. Whether we like it or not, the Brotherhood is the only opposition force currently in Egypt that has enough grassroots support to mass-mobilise citizens. Just ignoring or repressing this reality is a form of denial that will prove counterproductive in the long run.

Meanwhile, the most important reason to include the Brotherhood is to avoid a situation where a significant segment of society lacks a legitimate channel to affect change. This would drive the movement back underground, causing it to regress towards illegitimacy and possibly violence.

Indeed, many fear that the Brotherhood is insincere in claiming moderation and that it would “drop the mask” if it rose to power. But they have clearly come a long way since some of their more extreme philosophical roots and emphasis on revolutionary change. There have been constant signs that they have realised the futility of such an approach and have chosen instead to try to play the political game.

Furthermore, the Egyptian public is not likely to accept a Brotherhood ruling via ultra-conservative Islamic interpretation. Indeed, fundamentalist Islamist rule has no historical root in Egyptian history and society. If the Brotherhood adopts an extreme posture while in power, it is likely that they would lose a big part of the persuadable, moderate middle.

History has also shown in Turkey, Lebanon, Ireland, Israel and Germany that religious parties can be compatible with democracy. By being co-opted into the political process and given a stake in it, ideological and religious parties are forced to pragmatically moderate their politics, and by association their ideology.

There are steps the Brotherhood should take to make this transition easier for everyone, as outlined by a recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report entitled What Islamists Need to Be Clear About: The Case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Examples of such steps include unequivocally clarifying their position on contentious issues such as the equal rights of Christian Copts and women as citizens, honouring previous international agreements or treaties, specifically the peace treaty with Israel.

It is in the Brotherhood’s interest to address the above since it would help deflect charges of extremism, make it harder to justify their exclusion from the political process, and would decrease the level of internal and external suspicion towards them. Key for the Brotherhood would be to concede that the application of religion is a matter of interpretation that dictates that one cannot as a political party single-handedly legislate and impose one interpretation or another.

Meanwhile, Western powers concerned with democratic reform in the region should not refuse to engage moderate political Islamic movements that are culturally organic and representative of a large segment of these societies. While it is good to talk to and encourage liberal forces, it should be noted that such groups, perhaps unfortunately, lack the broader representation the Brotherhood has. The danger in engaging exclusively with liberal parties, which indeed are easier to find common ground with, is that long-term systemic progress is sacrificed for symbolic immediate movement. If that is the case, democratic reform will progressively turn into a purely ideological and philosophical exercise.

A politically legitimised Brotherhood is not guaranteed to be moderate. Nonetheless, they should be allowed to make those tough decisions; to either enter the political sphere to prove their ability to be moderate, or indeed be seen to fail in allowing their moderate side to prevail. Whatever the outcome, this is a lesson Egyptian political collective consciousness must undertake to evolve. Until then, this unresolved tension will continue to loom over the politics of Egypt.

* The writer is a researcher with the Stanley Foundation in Iowa, USA.