Don’t Fear the Ikhwan Part Two

Don’t Fear the Ikhwan Part Two

Why does the Muslim Brotherhood get so much bad press?     Top Egyptian journalist  Ibrahim Eissa, editor of  Egypt’s Al-Dostor newspaper, has a two part series this week on  what he calls an irrational and baseless fear of the Brotherhood reaching power.   Why does everyone talk about the MB reaching power as if it is an  imminent threat to Egyptian society, he asks in the Monday article  ( see my post  here).   Remember, Eissa is a fierce critic of the Mubarak regime and is trying to show that the NDP manipulates this fear for its own purposes.    Trying to undermine this arguement, on Tuesday, he  made the  case that the Muslim Brotherhood will never come to power in Egypt.   

 I translate/paraphrase the Tuesday article called “Ikhwano-Phobia” and then have some commentary below:

Egypt suffers from a local version of the Islamo-phobia that is found in the US and Europe.  Here it is called Ikhwan-Phobia (Ikhwan= Brotherhood in Arabic).   This irrational and totally unwarranted fear of the Ikhwan reaching power is widely present amongst government people, Coptic Christians and intelectuals.   Such fear, however, is totally unwarranted because, as I will show today, the Muslim Brotherhood will never reach power in Egypt due to the nature of Egyptian state, its people, and the Ikhwan itself. 

The Brotherhood itself is a closed organiztion, and not a party open to wider membership that cultivates members from the cradle to the grave.  To become influential you have to have risen through their ranks, not to be an especially talented thinker.   Its by nature a conservative organization which prioritizes survial and is not going to do anything that threats the organization.  Trying to sieze power is the kind of adventure that would threaten the very existence of the organization.  Moreover, the MB doesn’t possess the revolutionary nature of the Islamic Group (Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyaa). 

Some of you might say look at how Islamists came to power in Gaza and Turkey.  First, look at how the MB won a majority of seats in Al-Sharqiya province, that didn’t mean they could win a majority overall.  Gaza is a similar situation.  And the Islamists in Turkey are based on a formula that is vastly different from the Brotherhood. 

The nature of the Egyptian state further makes an Ikhwan rise to power impossible.  Our state is a cumbersome bureacracy that is not susceptive to Revolution or dramatic and fundamental change.  The 1952 Revolution, for example, was not a real Revolution but a coup d’etat.  Egyptians change and are changed very slowly.   The borig nature of our state, which is not susceptible to pressure from mass popular movements,  prevents any dramatic change. 

And this leads us to the nature of the Egyptian people themselves.   Sure, the average Egyptian is very religous and you hear him talk in a way that suggests that he wants Islamic Rule.  But Egyptian religiosity is very superficial and not susceptible to mass religous mobilization.  This is a people that like to pray conspicously at work but as soon as he is done praying he opens his hand to take a little bribe…. The Egyptian people are fundamentally cautious by nature and not the kind that embrace adventures of actions that might rock the boat. 

This brings us to the results of the 2005 elections which are the best evidence that the Ikhwan will never govern Egypt.  Giving it their best shot, the Brothers only won 20% of the seats.  So basically they got 1/5 of the 1/5 of the Egyptians who actually voted.   Sure, there was electoral fraud and maybe they could have won more but not a majority and certainly not an ascension to power.   Remember- this is the same Ikhwan couldn’t even beat the Wafd pre-1952.  Their support has more to do with NDP corruption. 

1)  Not a Revolutionary people.  In my experience in Egypt, which is pretty extensive, I would agree with Eissa that Egyptian are fundamentally cautious and not the type that goes out on a limb.  This is not a people that are going to “sweep” anyone into power….  Eissa surprised me, however,  with his attack on Egyptian religiosity which I think is a gross generalization. 

2)  Why the fear?  Eissa is correct that there is an irrational fear of the Ikwan and its not just in Egypt.  Last December, at a family Christmas party, I was talking to my neighbor, a lawyer in his mid-50s who doesn’t follow the Middle East beyond what he reads in the newspaper.  He told me that he wants to visit Egypt but one of his co-workers of Egyptian descent told him that he had to go soon because it won’t be possible in a few years after the Ikhwan seizes power and bans all foreign tourists.  I politely told him this is ridiculous and totally incorrect.  I see nothing with the Ikhwan that leads me to believe that their ascension to power would be a serious threat to the public welfare in Egypt.  It probably would not be great for US interests, at least in the short term.  The Ikhwan is going to be more socialist and far less likely to toe the US line on foreign policy issues, such as Israel-Palestine and Counter-Terrorism.  They would be something similar to what we are seeing with Chavez in Egypt. 

3)  Parliament= not important.  People in the US focus too much on the significance of the Brotherhood’s 2005 election victory as if it has enourmous implications in te Egyptian political arena.  It really doesn’t because the Egyptian Parliament is pretty much a rubber-stamp.   Furthermore,  Eissa should have mentioned that the Ikhwan’s younger generation actually wants out of politics because they feel its a waste of time and is distracting the Brotherhood from other, more important fields.  Even Sheikh Al-Qaradawi said the Brothers were wasting their time in politics in a  September  interview with Egypt’s Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper:

* ولكنك تعيب علي الإخوان المسلمين من حين لآخر.. وأذكر عنك انتقادك لهم لاستغراقهم في العمل السياسي الذي يستهلك جل طاقتهم وإغفالهم العمل الاجتماعي؟

– نعم، فهم لم يعدوا العدة ليندمجوا في الشعب كما يجب، ولا فهموا احتياجات الشارع كما ينبغي.. وانشغلوا بالسياسة.. وانتقادي لهم من باب التقويم، وأنا والحمد لله لا أميل للمغالاة ولا أرضي بالتفريط ولا بالتشدد.

The Ikhwanis who want to play politics are the older generation ( those who came of age in 1970s)  whereas those  in their 20s and 30s agree with Skeikh Al-Qardawi and want to quit politics and focus on Da’wa, education, upbringing etc.  This is an important point that is overlooked in the Western debate about the so-called Islamist threat.  

4)  Islamist movements= 30 years on the march.    Eissa might be right that the Brothers aren’t coming to power any time soon, but does NOT mean a failure of the Islamist movement as it is  sometimes_claimed in the West.   The MB  can not be viewed as a Western-style political party.  Their basic goal is to reform the society by returning it to its Islamic foundations and there are several ways to do this.  Politics is only one of them.  Not succeeding in politics doesn’t mean failure, it just means failure in one of their tools.  Its important to recognize that Islamist movements have been on a forward march since at least the 1970s.