Is the Muslim Brotherhood part of Egypt’s democratic future?
Thursday, November 17,2005 00:00
By Arabist Network,

Is the Muslim Brotherhood part of Egypt’s democratic future?

Two smart Arabist diplomats disagree
By John Stuart Blackton

"If only our government relied on people who knew the language and the culture we might do better at achieving long term sustainable goals in the Middle East".
Bob Dreyfuss’ book gives us a useful insight into the limits of this hopeful notion that there might be a "silver bullet" solution for our not terribly successful Middle East policy experiments  if only our diplomats were more skilled.  He explores a little-known, but quite relevant, policy difference between two of our most skilled ambassadors to the Arab world:  Bob Pelletreau and Ed Walker.

Both ambassadors  are arabophone and francophone (Ed speaks Hebrew as well).  Both have a nuanced grasp of Arab culture and history.   On a very important question that is central to the themes of Dreyfuss’ book, however, Pelletreau and Walker differ sharply.

As Ambassadors to Egypt, both Ed and Bob had to address a very practical problem.  The United States generally favors increased democratization in Egypt.  The strongest single group in the political opposition in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood.  Hence a conundrum:  do we work with the Muslim Brotherhood (which is an illegal organization under Egyptian law) because they represent a genuine element of the country’s democratic future? Or do we strive to work around the Muslim Brotherhood because we don’t want to help the Islamists triumph in the transition from Egyptian dictatorship to Egyptian Democracy?


Ambassadors Walker and Pelletreau are subtle, nuanced guys.  Both would object to my over-simplified structuring of the dichotomy, but for all their nuance, each one is basically on a different side of this divide.
Pelletreau, who had extensive experience in dealing with the PLO leadership during their Diaspora years in Tunis, was inclined as Ambassador in Cairo to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood despite strenuous efforts on the part of President Hosni Mubarak to discourage these contacts.  Ambassador Walker, by contrast, was much more wary about direct Embassy contacts with the Islamists.  He was both more deferential to the sovereignty aspects of the dilemma and more worried about the implications of abetting the possible rise to power of Egypt’s Islamists.

Interestingly, Egypt is in the midst of parliamentary elections this month.  The elections are being implemented in three phases, and the Muslim Brotherhood (since they are illegal their candidates run as "independents") has done exceedingly well in the first round this week, winning at least 33 seats of the 164 in this round, with prospects of doing equally well in the upcoming second and third rounds.

Is this a good thing because it reflects the will of the Egyptian people? Or is it a bad thing because it portends a transition of a pro-American dictatorship in Egypt to an anti-American Islamic government in Egypt?

Ambassadors Pelletreau and Walker are smart, savvy diplomats who know the region well and they have reached different positions on this conundrum.  Bob Dreyfuss’ book illuminates their differences nicely.

Interestingly, this Egypt conundrum is very much alive for the Vice President’s daughter.
Liz Cheney is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Near East at the State Department and the overseer of our Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - a fund for financing pro-democracy activities in the Arab World.   Liz, unlike Walker and Pelletreau is not an Arabist, and has not lived in the region.

So far, Cheney has leaned in same direction as Ambassador Walker, avoiding giving comfort and sustenance to the Brotherhood.  As the Brotherhood emerges from this month’s elections as the clear centerpiece of the democratic parliamentary opposition in Egypt, however, Ms Cheney may be hard-pressed to yield a little ground to the Pelletreau side of the debate.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood part of Egypt’s democratic future? 

Re: Is the Muslim Brotherhood part of Egypt’s demo

by Ellen on Nov 17, 2005 -- 10:49:35 AM EST
Frankly, a couple of hundred thousand dollars to support some Islamic party’s publishing and recruiting efforts doesn’t sound too interesting.
Now, if you want to talk about Mossadegh, Arbenz, Lumumba, Allende, and Chavez(?) and whether the best and the brightest of our spooks are prepared to undertake these sorts of activities on behalf of Islamists, you’ll have something.


Re: Is the Muslim Brotherhood part of Egypt’s demo

by issandr on Nov 17, 2005 -- 03:19:39 PM EST
Egyptian officials have recently scuttled the Forum for the Future in Manama, much to the anger of US officials, partly because they make the argument that the US is too naive about its democracy-funding initiatives. The money earmarked for democracy-building, they say, could end up in terrorists’ hands. But I really don’t see why the US would have to give money to the Brotherhood or any initiative that would specifically benefit it. There have already been a number of USAID or MEPI-administered programs that have bypassed the Egyptian government (much to its displeasure) and been targeted at democracy-building programs for all Egyptian politicians (I believe no member of the Brotherhood participated, though.) But at the end of the day, this is not just about pro-democracy project funding. It’s about whether US policymakers are prepared to take the risks of stopping to support a dictator, his senior military officials (with deals that also benefit US military industry) and take its chances with what is now an almost guaranteed initial popular backlash that would favor the Brotherhood. In my experience (as a journalist covering these issues in Egypt), the Mubarak regime has so successfully made life impossible for the secular opposition that the US is not interested in destabilizing it and leaving room for the Islamists, the only organized and popular opposition force. In the meantime, their money is best spent on boosting the secular opposition indirectly and pressuring for legal reforms that will make its life easier. That, or try to deal with the Brotherhood.