Ed Husain – “No Need to Fear the Rise of the Brotherhood”

Ed Husain – “No Need to Fear the Rise of the Brotherhood”

 I was in Egypt last week to witness the rise of Islam as a political force in the Arab world’s most populous country. In the past when I visited Cairo people would only whisper the name of the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood for fear of unwanted attention from the authorities. Not anymore. The movement now stands on the point of sharing power in Egypt and shaping the future of the country and the wider region. The mothership of all Islamist movements, its political offspring have already won office in Gaza, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia.

In many ways, the elections in Egypt — the second phase of voting continues today — is a referendum on Islamism. Egyptians told me that they had either voted against the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or for it. The Brotherhood has taken to Twitter and other media, and its leaders have done walkabouts at the Pyramids to reassure Egypt and the West that it can be trusted.

We should not fear the march of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is far removed from al-Qaeda and the supporters of violent jihad. Despite dreaming of recreating the Caliphate, a state encompassing all the Islamic world, the Brotherhood is deeply pragmatic. It is not about to plunge Egypt into a theocracy where adulterers are stoned and women swathed in burkas.

On bread and butter issues — jobs, healthcare, housing and education — Brotherhood policies are hazy but it has a clear platform of stamping out corruption and regenerating the economy. It has vowed not to impose veils or ban bikinis and alcohol, knowing that Egypt needs tourists and that the secular Egyptians of Tahrir Square will revolt if women are forced to wear headscarves.

The Brotherhood wants to earn international kudos and legitimacy just as the governing AK Party has in Turkey. So, at least for now, it will avoid actions that seem an affront to the West. Members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s party, tell me that they cannot make Egypt more prosperous without Western help and guidance.

But what of the Brotherhood’s 80 years of hostility toward the West? Just as Mikhail Gorbachev, a product of the culture of Soviet grandstanding, steered the Soviet Union towards the free world, I believe the Brotherhood can be encouraged to do the same. But it is not inevitable. The West must accept that Islamism is here to stay.

Pressuring Islamists to accept liberal secularism or to recognise Israel risks derailing the Arab democratic experiment and making conflict flare up in the region. It would be unrealistic to expect the Brotherhood to accept French-style secularism which denies that religion should have a public role; it would lose its raison d’être if it did. But Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist intellectual pioneer and founder of the Ennahda Movement, the largest party in Tunisia, has spoken favourably of the US or British model of a secular state. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, has gone further and appealed to the Egyptian Brotherhood to maintain secularism because a secular government would be best able to religious freedoms for the majority and minorities. This trend within global Islamism is encouraging.

In the many meetings I have had with the Brotherhood and other Islamists in the Middle East this year, animosity toward the West only arises when Israel is discussed. Anti-Western sentiment among Islamists depends largely on Israeli conduct — Israel will not enjoy the relations it did with Cairo under Hosni Mubarak.

There is no stamina for war with Israel but this generation of Arabs will not recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Trying to force them to will not only fail, but will further compromise Western influence. It is wiser to maintain peace treaties, neighbourly relations, allow for the passage of time and help the Palestinians to realise their dream of a dignified, free state.

There are, however, two serious difficulties. First, most Egyptians are shocked by the rise of al-Nour, a hardline Islamist party that has picked up a quarter of the vote compared with Freedom and Justice’s 37 per cent. Denouncing democracy while using the ballot box to create a state that adopts its literalist, rigid reading of sharia as state law, the Salafis of al-Nour have beaten secular parties in the first round of elections.

Their presence on private satellite channels, control of mosques and university campuses is creating panic. We have seen in Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, that where there is Salafism, jihadism follows.

The Muslim Brotherhood may opt for pragmatic politics, but it must share responsibility for al-Nour’s rise. By claiming that “Islam is the solution” it has allowed the Salafis to enter the public space as more Muslim than the Brotherhood. Containing Salafi radicalism in Egypt will be an immediate challenge.