Letters: Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood

Letters: Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood

The FP Memo: Brothers in Arms author Marc Lynch gets hit from all sides as A. Fahmy, Joshua A. Stacher, and Martin Kramer air their thoughts on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

I read with great interest Marc Lynch’s memo to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Chairman Mohammed Mahdi Akef (“Brothers in Arms,” September/October 2007). I believe that this memo should have been written not only to the chairman but to all Brotherhood members, as the Muslim Brotherhood is a democratic body whose decisions are always made after proper consultations within its elected institutions.

In his memo, Lynch urges Akef to “use your political capital” and remain committed to democratic processes. But I feel that our commitment to democracy should not be the real concern of Western intellectuals and policymakers; our belief in democratic processes is ideological, not tactical. The real concern should be the negative impact of government crackdowns on moderates and the entire democratic process in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, mainstream movement that is capable of overshadowing radical ideologies, yet we are only able to do so effectively in an atmosphere of freedom.

Lynch advises Akef to “watch what you say.” I may have to partially agree with him on that. Although Akef’s aim is winning the hearts of many Muslims with a war of words, diverting them from radicalism, I believe that winning peace in the world is a higher moral objective. The Brotherhood is playing a unique role in the world today. It acts as a safety valve—and sometimes the valve needs to release excess pressure to avoid explosion.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a large organization representing a reformist school of thought. During its historical journey, different lines of thought have influenced the organization, enriching it by adding diverse ideas and opinions. It is therefore natural that some of the group’s leaders and members are more moderate and tolerant than others. Some are more pragmatic and more willing to engage in dialogue than others. But it has become increasingly clear over the past couple of years that the Egyptian regime has taken a ruthless stance against those moderate leaders.

Dialogue between moderate Islamists and the rest of the world would threaten the very existence of the authoritarian Egyptian regime. The regime seeks international support for its oppression by portraying us as radicals, terrorists, or theocrats. It is only through dialogue that such claims can be proven groundless. Therefore, the regime has tried to prevent such communication from taking place by keeping the moderate leaders of the Brotherhood, such as Deputy Chairman Khayrat El Shater, behind bars, by resorting to illegal measures, and by engaging in a deceptive smear campaign against the movement and its leadership.

Lynch’s memo lays the foundation for healthy dialogue between moderate Islamists and the United States. It seeks answers for questions shared by many Americans, intellectuals and policymakers alike. However, it is important to understand that Islamists, just like other opposition groups in Egypt, are skeptical about the sincerity of the U.S. government in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Americans, just like Islamists, are therefore required to clarify their stances on some issues to achieve mutual understanding and boost the potential for a healthy dialogue. This should include a stronger position toward the ongoing violations of human rights in Egypt—whether it is toward Islamists or other Egyptians.

—A. Fahmy
Leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood
Chief Executive Officer
IkhwanWeb, the voice of
the Muslim Brotherhood in English
Cairo, Egypt

Lynch does an excellent job of capturing the U.S. political establishment’s skewed debate about the Muslim Brotherhood—a debate premised on outdated assumptions. Empirical evidence demonstrates that the Brotherhood is just as committed—if not more committed—to civil nonviolence than other democracy movements that the United States has belatedly supported in places such as the Philippines, South Africa, and Indonesia. Yes, the Brotherhood is socially conservative. But the group is also politically pragmatic, believes in institutional development, and responsibly opposes authoritarian government.

The question for Americans should be: Why are we questioning the Brotherhood’s commitment to nonviolence, and not the Egyptian government’s appetite for repression? The United States provides billions of dollars in military aid to Cairo, yet the State Department remains silent when Brotherhood members are detained without charge, tortured, and referred to military tribunals. The debate would be far more constructive if it focused on U.S. complicity in suppressing civil demonstrators and nonviolent local opposition groups in Egypt. One step toward curbing violence in the country would be to stop participating in it.

Until that happens, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders and supporters have little incentive to court the approval of American politicians and academics. Until the U.S. government repudiates Hosni Mubarak’s repressive state, it would be imprudent, to say the least, for the Muslim Brotherhood to try to win hearts and minds in Washington.

—Joshua A. Stacher
Postdoctoral Fellow
Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
Syracuse University
Syracuse, N.Y.

“I never thought you were a bad consigliere, Tom. I thought Santino was a bad don.”

Like the consigliere to the Corleone crime family in The Godfather, Lynch gives sound advice to the supreme guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But what good is sound advice to a bad don? Mohammed Mahdi Akef is an old-guard Muslim Brother who has left behind a trail of anti-American incitement as long as the Nile. He has proclaimed, “We have no relations with the U.S. It is a Satan that abuses the region, lacking all morality and law.” The prospect of his becoming America-friendly is nil.

Lynch urges Akef to “demonstrate that, despite many policy differences, you share two fundamental goals with the United States: democracy in Arab countries and curtailing the influence of al Qaeda.” But promoting democracy and defeating al Qaeda isn’t what Akef sells to his followers—they wouldn’t follow him if he did. The Muslim Brotherhood sells Muslim empowerment. It wants the Jews out of “Palestine” (that includes Israel) and the United States out of Egypt, Iraq, and everywhere else. Those “fundamental goals” have kept this movement going for almost 80 years and through trying times. Why should the Brotherhood adopt American goals? And why now? Akef has even stated that he “expect[s] America to collapse soon.” Unfortunately, he hears plenty of American “experts” announcing that they expect something similar. Lynch himself slips into double talk when he downgrades the divide to “policy differences.” Importantly, Akef doesn’t have “ambivalence” toward Hamas terror; he supports it. Lynch also misleads Akef by claiming that there is a debate about engaging the Muslim Brotherhood raging in Washington. There isn’t. Because as tough as Hosni Mubarak can be, he shares several “fundamental goals” with the United States: stopping Islamist terror and keeping the Pax Americana.

—Martin Kramer
Wexler-Fromer Fellow
Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Washington, D.C.

Marc Lynch replies:
Joshua Stacher and A. Fahmy both argue that the repressiveness of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, not the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy, should be the core issue of discussion on Egypt. I agree wholeheartedly with condemning the illiberal practices of a close American ally, but the Egyptian government cannot be the sole focus of critical scrutiny.

The Brotherhood thus far has demonstrated considerable commitment to the democratic game in spite of the regime’s crackdown, which has earned it the backing of a wide range of human rights and democracy advocacy groups. But, ultimately, both Egyptians and Americans want to know what the Brotherhood would do if it were actually to come to power—and it is simply wrong to claim that no doubts about its intentions remain. The political party platform that it released to a small number of Egyptian intellectuals a few weeks ago, with its references to a religious council with power over legislation, shocked many people and has only exacerbated those doubts.

I agree with Fahmy’s suggestion that the real focus should be the rank and file of the Brotherhood—the activists who form the base of the organization. But Mohammed Mahdi Akef is, in fact, the leader of the organization, leaving the Brotherhood open to critiques like that of Martin Kramer. Perhaps Akef’s inflammatory statements are simply “red meat” to his base. But does that not tell us something about the views of that base?

Kramer is right that the Brotherhood supports Hamas and generally opposes U.S. foreign policy. He does a disservice, however, by reducing our vision to those issues at the expense of a wider view of the value of democracy and the need to combat extremism—two goals that many Americans share, and to which the Brotherhood might meaningfully contribute. Finally, Kramer succumbs to his own wishful thinking when he claims there is no debate in Washington about engaging the Brotherhood. My own participation in those debates aside, the evidence against his view can be found in the recent publication of articles exploring this question in the two leading foreign-policy periodicals in the United States: Foreign Affairs, with Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke’s “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood,” and … Foreign Policy.

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