Doing dialogue in Cairo

Doing dialogue in Cairo

I”m just back to the US, and now I can say a bit more about where I was and what I was doing. Some readers might recall that last month I published an essay in Foreign Policy magazine, “How to Talk to America”, cast as a memo to the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Mehdi Akef. So last week I flew to Cairo, where I spent four intense days of meetings and discussions with more than 25 people. I got to talk with most of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood which isn”t currently in prison, about a dozen Muslim Brotherhood bloggers and activists, a number of Egyptian analysts with keen insight into the Brotherhood such as Diya Rashwan and Khalil el-Anani, and of course the usual journalist suspects (i.e. my friends). I was also interviewed by al-Masry al-Youm and al-Dustour, which may prove entertaining depending on what gets published. My deepest thanks here go to Abd el-Monem Mahmoud (who you might remember him as the MB blogger arrested and tortured several months ago); Monem was my constant companion over the last week, and I can”t say how much I appreciate his tireless good humor and flexibility and tolerance for my occasional struggles with his Alexandrian colloquial Arabic!

I”m not going to go into great detail about what I found, since I am going to be publishing articles very soon exploring each of the three main topics of my research, but I thought I could at least give an idea of what I was doing.

The visit had three main objectives. First, to actually begin to talk to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood about the possibilities of dialogue with America – not, I must stress, as any kind of channel but simply to explore their responses to my memo and their thoughts about the future of the organization”s relations with the United States. Most of the leaders had read the memo, and came into the meetings with some detailed criticisms and complaints – I was impressed that Akef made the effort to thank me for the “good advice” in English (though other than that all the conversations were in Arabic).


With Mohamed Mehdi Akef, Supreme Guide of the MB

I found people at all levels of the organization delighted to talk to me, and very generous with their time and ideas, but few were particularly forthcoming with regard to the idea of dialogue. Most emphasized that they valued dialogue in principle, and some went so far as to say that they would be happy to talk with any American government – even Bush – if it admitted American mistakes and changed US polices. But overall, I did not come away with a sense that many Brotherhood leaders saw much value in any official dialogue with the US right now: discussion with researchers such as myself, yes, but not political dialogue of any sort. This didn”t really surprise me, since it”s consistent with what they”ve been saying in their interviews and public statements for quite some time (including in Akef”s contentious interview published in al-Dustour the day I arrived, where he basically said that the Brotherhood had nothing to do with calls for dialogues with the West such as mine).

The discussions were still valuable, though. Many of the MB leaders are clearly keen to be better understood in the West, and bitter over what they see as misconceptions about them. I tried to push back against their understanding of what this entailed, which actually reminded me of nothing more than the Bush administration”s concept of public diplomacy: they see the problem lying primarily in misunderstandings on the other side, so the problem is to better explain themselves and correct these false impressions. I tried to convince them that the problems went deeper than that, and that they needed to engage in real dialogues which might expose their own inconsistencies and shortcomings and not only “fix” faulty American understandings. I pushed the Brotherhood leaders quite hard in explaining where Americans had doubts about their intentions and emphasizing the need for actions which matched their words. I also tried to emphasize the need for active rather than passive steps: when an Islamist radical files a “hisba” suit against a liberal, or declares takfir on someone, it isn”t enough to just disagree privately or say that the MB doesn”t have anything to do with such things – strong, clear, public condemnation would have much more of an impact. I don”t know if any of this had any effect, but they seemed to listen carefully. Anyway, I”ll be writing this up in an article quite soon; stay tuned.


Abd al-Monem Abou el-Fattouh clarifying the text of the political party platform


Second, I wanted to explore the controversial political party platform which the Brotherhood circulated to about 50 Egyptian intellectuals last month, which aroused quite a public controversy because of the presence of several inflammatory new ideas such as a “Higher Ulema Council” and a rejection of a Christian or woman president. Again, I”m not going to go into too much detail about what I found out on this topic, simply because I will have lengthy article coming out about it in a few weeks. The background, for those who haven”t been following the story, is that the Brotherhood has been working on a political party platform. Several earlier drafts which were published in al-Masry al-Youm newspaper and Islam Online closely resembled earlier MB programmatic statements, and were consistent with the MB”s evolving political discourse. But the platform which was distributed in preliminary form to the intellectuals shocked everyone (including me), and sparked a fiercely negative public response. Analysts hostile to the MB went to town on it, claiming that it revealed the true, despotic, radical face of the MB: Abd al-Monem al-Said, for instance, called it a program for MB religious state along the Iranian model. Even analysts sympathetic to the MB such as Amru Shoukbi and Diya Rashwan were fiercely critical. Personally, I was quite taken aback since the draft was such a major departure from the two previous ones – leading me to put on hold an article about the MB and democracy which had been almost ready for the copyeditor until I could look at this more closely.

After my conversations, it is clear to me that the Brotherhood”s leadership is divided about the party platform, with some defending it as written and others bluntly stating that of course it will be changed. The draft party platform isn”t the “true face” of the MB, but it is one face of the MB and it is profoundly unclear whether it is a more powerful trend than the more pragmatic political trend which had produced earlier documents. Some of the criticism has gone public (Abou el-Fattouh and Gamal Hishmet have both publicly dissented, while Essam el-Erian on his release from prison said that he hadn”t even seen the program before it”s release – it seems likely that the fact that Erian, Kheirat al-Shater, and several other of the key pragmatists in the organization were in prison at the time let the more conservative faction rewrite the platform into its current form). They were all keen to explain to me that the controversial Higher Ulema Council would only be advisory, not compulsory, and that sovereignty would still rest in the elected Parliament and the Constitutional Court. They argued that their purpose had not been to create a new religious authority, but rather to create a new body which would be elected and independent of the Executive Branch – taking power away from al-Azhar rather than imposing Shia-style religious authority. Abou el-Fattouh, in the picture above, was going through the program line by line to show me that this what it actually said. But most seem to recognize that they have a problem, since one of the main objectives of the platform was to reassure other Egyptians about their intentions – something which has spectacularly backfired and left them open to all kinds of attacks from skeptics. It will be very interesting to see if it really does change – and an important test of the internal balance of power in the MB and the depth of their interest in responding to the concerns of their fellow citizens (and, of course, the West).



Finally, I wanted to follow up on an article I wrote about Muslim Brotherhood bloggers earlier this year, to learn more about this new generation of Brotherhood bloggers and activists.   This was a smashing success, as I got to meet a wide range of young activists from different trends – mostly, but not entirely, from the Brotherhood (including several very impressive young women – don’t be fooled by the picture above).  I’m running out of steam now and don’t have the time to go into those meetings in as much depth, but it was really fascinating.  The MB bloggers represent an important new phenomenon.  I was struck by the point made by many of them that it isn’t only Americans who usually don’t know any MB members personally – even in Egypt, most people don’t know any MB members personally. The blogs, argue the bloggers, humanize the MB and have let them start building connections and relationships among themselves and with non-MB youth.   MB bloggers have also raised some of the most biting public criticisms of the organization itself, such as Abd al-Monem Mahmoud’s critique of the political party platform – which generated over 50 comments, cross-blog controversies, and a spirited public argument which offers a fascinating glimpse into the controversies and ideas within the MB youth.  Some of the older MB clearly worry about exposing these disagreements in public, but others – including the imprisoned Kheirat al-Shater – have encouraged the MB blogging phenomenon as a way of revitalizing the organization and energizing its youth.   I’ll have much more to say about this soon.   I do want to thank Abd al-Rahman Ayesh, who participated in one of my meetings with the MB bloggers, for the nicest thing anyone said about the whole trip:  in his post about our meeting, he called me “young”… just as chatting with these young, spirited activists in a giant mall in Cairo had driven me to gloomy reflections on the fact that I could no longer fit anyone’s definition of “youth”.

Oh, while I was there the Egyptian independent press went on strike for a day in protest over the lawsuits against Ibrahim Eissa and other editors.  More on that later.