Muslim Brotherhood and liberals: partners for change in Egypt?

Muslim Brotherhood and liberals: partners for change in Egypt?

Washington, DC – Papers around the world have speculated that Hosni Mubarak, the 82-year-old Egyptian president, is suffering from terminal stomach and pancreatic cancer and may not live to see the next presidential elections. This has once again raised the crucial question of political succession in Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country and the most important Arab ally to the United States. Major shifts in Egyptian politics within the next year are needed to bring about change and usher in a new reformist era.

Egyptian liberals, a heterogeneous constellation of civil society actors, thinkers, bloggers and political activists, have a tough choice to make in the next national elections: either decline to collaborate with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and participate on their own with no real chances of securing strong representation in the Egyptian parliament, or join forces with the Brotherhood and compromise temporarily on a philosophical level in order to potentially field a strong candidate accepted by both the liberals and the Brotherhood.

Without the Brotherhood’s numbers, street appeal and potential for mobilisation, it will be difficult for Egyptian liberals to push for change. With the Brotherhood, change is possible but would most likely come at the risk of further empowering a movement whose fundamentalist, religious agenda may increasingly creep into Egyptian political life.

Facing these two choices, liberals could be tempted to collaborate with the Brotherhood, given their many weaknesses and the recent gesture by the Brotherhood to set up an online petition to back former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief and current reform activist Mohamed ElBaradei in his popular campaign for change. The Brotherhood has collected several thousand signatures from other opposition factions, prompting analysts to wonder whether Egyptian society has finally begun creating a powerful and credible political opposition.

But liberals are uneasy about a potential partnership with the Brotherhood for obvious reasons. Ideologically, the Brotherhood as a whole is yet to reconcile its traditional emphasis on the implementation of Islamic law as the overall goal of the movement’s aims with its democratic pretensions. In recent years, the movement has argued that its goal with respect to political reform is a civil state with an Islamic frame of reference.

That the Brotherhood does not have an internally well established commitment to a civil state was demonstrated by the controversy over its draft programme for a political party in late 2007. This draft included several democratic principles, such as the separation of powers, free and fair elections, and political pluralism – but it remained distinctly undemocratic on the right of women and non-Muslims to hold Egypt’s highest political offices.

But the uncertainty is mutual.

A decision by the Brotherhood to more forcefully support and add its weight to ElBaradei’s campaign could put the movement on a collision course with the regime. After all, the Brotherhood is still technically banned from formal politics and watched closely by the regime. Also, the petition notwithstanding, the Brotherhood is unsure about coordinating its efforts with ElBaradei’s party in the next parliamentary elections or about backing ElBaradei himself should he run for the presidential elections in 2011. The Brotherhood refuses to describe its relationship with ElBaradei as an “alliance” because of unresolved ideological differences.

It will not be easy for Egyptian reformers to defeat Mubarak’s regime, given its creation of a political environment that essentially forbids political competition. But there is a small chance. If the Brotherhood and the liberals come together and start a more in-depth dialogue to find common ground and resolve major differences, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. The two reformist forces may not agree on everything, but they would benefit from clarifying where they stand on critical political, economic and foreign policy issues.

If there is sufficient convergence, the Brotherhood and the liberals can move forward and implement their supporters’ demands for reform. If there isn’t, Egyptian society would benefit from an early divorce between the two.

* Bilal Y. Saab is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Assistant at the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).