Opinion: Don’t fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Opinion: Don’t fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Concerning Egypt: There is a meme taking root in the op-ed pages of power. "The Muslim Brotherhood is coming. Watch out!"

I say, stop this meme! Kill it before it multiplies! Unfortunately, once an idea appears on the pages of the New York Times or Washington Post it may already have fatally infected people who actually make policy.

Yesterday, Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post, "The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be lying low. Is this a reflection of weakness or canniness? The Brotherhood remains the only well-organized institution in Egypt other than the military."  

Yossi Klein Halevi chimed in at the New York Times, that in Israel " … the grim assumption is that it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power."

Meanwhile, in The Daily Beast, Geoffrey Wawro compares what is happening in Egypt to the Iranian revolution, warning its outcome could be oppression in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.

So we know that a serious position has been staked out, even before the outcome of Egyptians’ extraordinary expression of people power has reached its climax.

It is unlikely that those propagating the meme have ever actually spent time with the Muslim Brotherhood. I have, so let me put forward a counter theory about the its power.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, I made the trek through Cairo’s unimaginably gridlocked traffic to the headquarters of the Brotherhood to interview Essam al-Arian, sort of the CEO of the group. His calm assurance about his organization’s place in Egyptian society and its political strength was impressive. For proof he offered the fact that so many of his members were in prison. The fear felt by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak toward the Brotherhood was a demonstration of their power within the society.

And the regime’s fear was justified. A community center near the Brotherhood’s headquarters provided social services beyond the capability of the corrupt Mubarak government. In some neighborhoods, the Brotherhood operated as an alternative government.

It was impossible not to feel respect for the organization’s strengths and shudder at its anti-Semitism. At a madrassah I watched children about 7 or 8 years old memorize a hadith (a biographical story of Mohammad) in which the prophet outsmarts some Jews trying to trick him. It was only later in places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, that I learned that the group represented just one strand of Islamist thinking — and not even the most radical one.

Like Richard Cohen, Yossi Klein Halevi and most GlobalPost readers I have watched the Egyptian uprising from afar. Like most people with some experience of Egypt I was waiting to see what the Brothers would do and was surprised at how little they seemed to be involved with the demonstrations. On Friday I caught a glimpse of al-Arian walking with some of his members to Tahrir Square. He didn’t look a decade older but he looked tired — and out of his depth.

The days went by and still no assertion of the Brotherhood’s supposed power.  Yesterday, as hundreds of thousands convened in Tahrir Square, it became apparent that the high tide of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism might well have passed.

When I spent an hour with al-Arian a decade ago his movement had crested. It basked in the  reflected glory of the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is hard to convey the oscillating emotions of people in the Arab world about that event. Most people condemned it and yet the same people felt that America — an abstract concept — maybe had it coming.

I think the Brotherhood rode on that crest through the invasion of Iraq, which galvanized the Arab street against the United States and its partners, like Hosni Mubarak.

But the Iraq insurgency changed things. Most American news coverage focused on attacks on U.S. troops during that horrifying period from May 2004 through the surge in 2007. It was easy to forget that the overwhelming number of people killed were ordinary Muslims. And they weren’t just innocent bystanders. Schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers, the best of civil society, were dragged away by people acting in the name of Allah. Their mutilated corpses proved that their murderers, dressed up as the party of God, had neither compassion nor mercy.

The bloodshed  caused a backlash against groups like the Brotherhood, which purports to speak in the name of Islam — as do the killers in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and those who mete out vigilante justice in Hamas-stan. This is not just true in Egypt. Deep questions are being asked within the Muslim community about the violent minority who are killing so many of their fellow Muslims in the name of Islam. At least that is my impression from speaking with Muslims in Britain, people who come from all over the Islamic world.

Another reason not to fear the Brotherhood is this: They have never had to play politics in a real political system. It was easy to become the leading opposition force when there were no real politics in Egypt. Organized in the street and in friendly mosques, the Brotherhood became the one viable organization where those dissatisfied with the regime could take a stand. If there had been many different parties, the brothers might have remained in the background.

One other force I learned about in Egypt a decade ago and was reminded of this week may trump the Muslim Brotherhood: Egyptian national pride. It is more powerful than Islam and it is unique among nationalisms. The faces in Tahrir Square are identical to those on monumental statues preserved in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which houses King Tut’s treasures, the mummies and the gargantuan relics of ancient temples. 5,000 years have gone by and the same nation is still living along the Nile. That’s not the case in the country I come from or where I live now.

More than one Egyptian I spoke to in 2001 reminded me of the long connection of the people to the place.  "We are the first civilization" is a mantra in Egypt. For most people the pyramids are a tourist destination. For Egyptians they are an assertion of primacy. Every country has nationalistic feeling, but Egypt’s is unique, because the evidence of the claim is visible through the haze at the edge of Cairo.

I was reminded of this when a young man marching toward Tahrir Square yesterday schooled a TV reporter on this history. The man had a neatly trimmed beard and already was developing the permanent bruise in the middle of his forehead that is the mark of Muslims who pray five times a day. Maybe he was a member of the Brotherhood, maybe not. But he was for certain a proud Egyptian.

Here’s a new meme: Egyptian nationalism is the likely force to emerge from this glorious chaos, not the Muslim Brotherhood. Propagate it.