Take Advantage of the Brotherhood’s Gains

The recent parliamentary elections in Egypt – in which the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as perhaps the strongest opposition movement in the entire Arab world – could be a trigger for democratic reform, say Nathan Brown and Amr Hamzawy 

Does this development continue to push democratization even if it leads to more powerful Islamist movements? Or does it return to listening sympathetically when regional leaders revive the claim that their autocratic ways are the surest bulwarks against radical Islamists?

The Egyptian election results – where the Brotherhood won 76 seats in the People’s Assembly, up from 17 previously – were startling. However, they should not deter the American government’s newfound interest in Middle East democracy.

Election outcome an opportunity

The election results will not bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, having only led to their forming a sizable opposition bloc. This outcome opens an opportunity for building government-opposition relations on a more democratic basis than has existed in Egypt for generations.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, established 1928, is not Al-Qaeda. Those who view the movement as violent can support their claim with some justification, not so much by the Brotherhood’s actions – it has remained largely peaceful for half a century – than by the fact that it has granted ideological cover to more violent groups, such as Islamic Jihad.

The Brotherhood and liberal political reform

However, in recent years, Brotherhood leaders have also made a strategic decision favoring political participation and gradual democratic openings as the only viable ways to challenge the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The movement’s current platform retains what its own leaders admit is “an emotional slogan,” namely: “Islam is the solution.”

However, its detailed program focuses almost exclusively on liberal political reform. Mohammad Habib, vice chairman of the Brotherhood, has identified the movement’s priorities as abolition of restrictions imposed on establishing political parties, repeal of emergency laws, reinforcement of the power of Parliament and the judiciary against the executive, and the freeing of all political prisoners.

The Brotherhood does not come to its democratic program primarily through idealism. The Egyptian regime’s most troubling authoritarian practices have been developed specifically for use against the Brotherhood and its supporters. And Brotherhood leaders currently feel their popular strength. Democratic reform is very much in the Brotherhood’s interest.

Egypt’s opposition crippled

Decades of limited political pluralism in Egypt have crippled secular opposition parties which, as the current elections proved, are marginal and decaying. By contrast, the Brotherhood has managed to develop networks of support and trust in the society by offering social and economic services. Lacking viable alternatives, many Egyptians are inclined to translate the Brotherhood’s good credit into votes.

Beyond its impressive organizational structures and vast financial resources, the movement has also cultivated an ethos of personal rectitude and community service among its cadres. Votes for the Brotherhood are not merely protests against the existing order, but also affirmations of support for an effective and non-corrupt alternative.

The Brotherhood’s embrace of political reform has not led it to abandon approaches that disturb liberals. Its conception of the role of women, while it has progressed, remains rooted in a conservative understanding of religion. And the Brotherhood’s position on Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority remains ambivalent.

There is legitimate reason to doubt whether the Brotherhood is truly committed to the modern principle of citizenship that it has begun to espouse. It may still lean on more exclusivist conceptions, in which Copts are merely a tolerated minority.

The Brotherhood’s Foreign Policy

American concerns regarding the Brotherhood relate to foreign policy issues as well. Here the movement has tried to calm matters. Its leader, Mohammad Mehdi Akef, has indicated in recent press statements that the Brotherhood would respect all treaties signed by the Egyptian government, including the peace treaty with Israel. Yet the fact remains that the Brotherhood takes political positions and uses rhetoric that are unfriendly both to the United States and Israel.

But democratic transition will not occur by waiting for liberal democratic forces that precisely fit American policy positions. Democracy in the Arab world is far more likely to emerge from the daily tussles of a political process in which the current rulers and their opponents come to realize that they cannot vanquish each other. The strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections can thus contribute to democratization if it leads the regime to find ways to accommodate the movement’s popularity and demands for political reform.

The Bush administration may come under pressure from Mubarak to regard the Brotherhood’s gains as a security challenge rather than a political one. If the U.S. succumbs to this darker view, it may prompt a return to the stalemate of the 1990s, when regimes and Islamist movements battled each other in less polite locations than on the campaign trail.

Nathan Brown and Amr Hamzawy

Nathan Brown and Amr Hamzawy are senior associates in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. They wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.