Thursday, June 4,2009 04:54
By Tim Fernholz


Michael Crowley and Marc Ambinder both have items about leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood -- more colloquially, the Ikhwan -- attending the President"s speech in Cairo tomorrow, and both seem to have a pretty shaky understanding of the group. Mike, for one, is surprised he can meet with the group"s leaders, but the Ikhwan are pretty ubiquitous in civil society; while I lived in Egypt in 2006, getting interviews with leading members wasn"t a challenge, and few hid their affiliations. One of my favorite memories from Egypt were college political debates between Egyptian students fronting respectively for the Ikhwan, Liberalism, President Hosni Mubarak"s National Democratic Party, communism and Pan-Arabism. It makes College Dems versus College Republicans seem pretty tame.

Marc choose to focus more on the Ikhwan"s fraught history, and he"s right that the group became followers of Sayyid Qutb"s radical Salafist teachings, but he seems to miss that in recent decades Egyptian Ikhwan leaders have vociferously repudiated Qutb and embraced their more moderate founder, Hasan Al-Banna (pictured). This occurred after the Egyptian government cracked down on a particularly radical Islamic terrorist group called Jamaa Al Islamiya in the nineties, then led by Ayman Al-Zawhiri, and effectively convinced both the Ikhwan and the Jamaa that violence wasn"t acceptable. Since then, the Ikhwan have strongly espoused democratic methods, worked within workers syndicates and made some political alliances with Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt"s population. While they have some connections to Hamas, those connections have more to do with common history than agreement on tactics or strategy.

Since their peak around 2005, the Ikhwan have become more stagnant, as Egypt"s government has clamped down on fair elections, but they continue to have the largest opposition bloc in Parliament. Despite the various abhorrent policies espoused by the Brotherhood -- predictably, their views on religion"s place in the state, woman"s rights and Israel make them unacceptable to Western liberals -- but they are an organic political group committed to democracy. Interestingly, their younger members are very tech savvy and have been participating in an increasingly robust internal debate with their older leaders that kicked off in 2007 with dissent about how moderate the group should be after leaders issued a particularly rigid party platform.

It"s good that Ikhwan representatives are attending the speech (when I was in Egypt, embassy officials could not even meet with them, a prohibition I believe stands to this day). Unlike the more liberal dissident Ayman Nour, the group doesn"t represent the kind of politics that Americans would prefer to see in Egypt, but on the other hand, neither does Mubarak"s regime. Demonstrating that American officials are willing to engage respectfully with moderate Islamist groups is important to our overall standing in the Middle East and the prospects of negotiating successfully with groups like Hamas and countries like Iran. An on-going mistake in American foreign policy has been the idea that the United States can simply choose who to talk to or who represents a given polity. Recognizing the facts on the ground means talking to the people who have popular legitimacy about shared interests.


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