Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: Exclusion Breeds Radicalism

by Emile Nakhleh

via IPS News

The Egyptian military’s removal of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power upended the MB’s 20-year old political participation programme. If the new regime aims to achieve genuine reconciliation and political consensus, the MB and its supporters must be included in the restructuring of Egyptian politics.

The Egyptian military in the short-run might succeed in marginalising the MB but will not defeat or silence it.

During his short tenure, Morsi was unable to move the country forward economically, politically, and socially. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, equally failed to transcend their narrow MB partisan ideology.

Elements from the old regime also conspired to make Morsi fail. Yet, political fracturing, which Morsi was accused of promoting, is likely to continue under the new regime.

The symbiotic military-liberal alliance, driven by a visceral dislike of the MB, is destined to be short-lived. Over the next year, the economy is not expected to improve measurably, food and energy prices would not go down noticeably, tourism would remain stagnant, and hundreds of thousands of youth would stay unemployed.

Dissatisfied Egyptians would again hit the streets demanding change. When that happens, will Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi yet again find it necessary to impose military rule? While Islam might or might not be inimical to democracy, military dictatorship most certainly is. Deposing an elected leader by decree is not a harbinger for democracy. What will Egyptian liberals do when they wake up to this unpleasant reality?

It would be naïve for today’s Egyptian liberals and secularists to believe the military could stamp out Islamic ideology from Egyptian society. Forcing the MB out of politics will push many youthful MB supporters to become angry and alienated. As their frustration and disappointment with democratic politics grow, some of them would turn to violence, radicalism, and even terrorism.

Excluding MB ministers from the recently appointed interim cabinet is a formula for failure. The new cabinet would not be able to gain the trust of the Egyptian people if Islamic parties are not in the political mix.

Contrary to the opinions of so many Western talking heads and analysts, Morsi’s ouster does not signal the failure of political Islam or the demise of the MB. Nor does it signal the end of the “Arab Spring”.

“People power”, which toppled Hosni Mubarak and which played a role in toppling Morsi, is a new reality in today’s Egypt. The military was able to ride the popular wave in the Morsi case but should not count on a similar outcome in future power struggles.

The Egyptian MB is down but not out. Islam has deep roots in Egypt, which has underpinned local and national politics for decades, if not centuries. It can’t be wiped out so easily by a new brand of military-liberal secularism.

Nor can Islamic tendencies be muted by the billions of dollars of promised aid from Gulf countries, which for years promoted Islamism against Egyptian-led Arab nationalism and other secular ideologies. The cynical exploitation of Islam and Islamism by these regimes has always backfired on them over the years. It will not be different this time either.

Since its founding in 1928, the MB was in conflict with the Egyptian state for most of the past century. Some of its leaders were jailed, executed, or exiled. Others went underground. Many of its members became radicalised, especially during the Nasser era, and some resorted to violence and terrorism. Others went to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where they were received with open arms.

In partnering with Saudi Salafis and Wahhabis, the anti-Nasser MB preachers and proselytisers who fled to the Gulf articulated a more radical, intolerant worldview of political Islam. Beginning in the late 1960s, these radicalisers embarked on a global plan of proselytisation or da’wa. The call for jihad against the “infidels” and the “enemies” of Islam was funded by Saudi Arabia.

While radical MB activists were busy in the Gulf and worldwide, their “mainstream” MB counterparts remained more active in Egypt, albeit in jail or underground. Despite massive suppression by Egyptian security services under the Mubarak regime, the movement did not fade away.

By the early 1990s, the Egyptian MB concluded it could not defeat the Mubarak regime through violence and opted instead to turn to politics. They refocused their efforts on Islamising society from below, arguing that if they could Islamise society, power would change at the top.

In a conversation with a U.S.-educated MB activist over 20 years ago about transforming society from within, he invoked the U.S. baseball field analogy. He said, “Build it, and they will come; change society from below, and the rest would follow!”

By the end of that decade, the MB had participated in parliamentary elections first as members of the Wafd Party, then as partners with the Labour Socialist Party. Finally, they ran as “independent” representatives. They had to play that game, they argued, because religious parties were banned under Mubarak.

MB spokesmen often reached out to U.S. officials in Cairo telling them repeatedly about their commitment to participate in national elections openly and freely if they were allowed to do so. My CIA analysts and I occasionally met with MB activists in Cairo during the 1990s.

The debate among U.S. policymakers on this issue was whether the MB’s shift from violence to politics was tactical or strategic. U.S. officials generally supported including political Islam in the political process, including elections, on the grounds that the performance of Islamic political parties in national legislatures, not their ideology, should be the litmus test for their long-term commitment to “human-made” democracy.

Numerous Sunni Islamic political parties with MB roots in the Arab world and across many Muslim countries have participated in politics for over two decades. They have served in legislatures in many countries, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, and others. Political Islam is here to stay regardless of the nature of the regime in which these parties operate.

The recent history of Islamic activism tells us including Islamic parties in national politics usually breeds pragmatism and political compromise. When they are forced underground, they become more radicalised, leading fringe elements to turn to violence and terrorism.

Engaging Muslim civil society communities, including political parties, has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, which was of course highlighted in President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech four years ago. As vast majorities of Muslims worldwide reject the radical message and as Bin Ladin’s jihadism fades away, it’s more urgent than ever to continue engaging Muslim youth and other groups worldwide.

U.S. officials should use their influence to persuade General al-Sisi to turn over the Egyptian political system to civilian control in which the MB would be free to participate. The alternative could bring more instability, violence, and chaos to Egypt, and of course to U.S. interests in the region.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.