Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Is Not Going Away

by Jasmin Ramsey

Almost 1,000 Egyptians have died, according to the official count, since Aug. 14 when Egypt’s armed forces began clamping down on Muslim Brotherhood-led protests against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. That number well exceeds the 846 people who officials say died during the 18 days of protest that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in Jan. 2011.

The democratically elected Morsi, a leading member of the MB, has not been seen in public since Jul. 3. But Mubarak has been released from prison into house arrest while he faces retrial. Egyptian media has for the most part adopted the language of the army in framing the unrest — Muslim brotherhood members are alleged “terrorists” who are trying to destroy the country.

While the US, who the Egyptian media claims conspired with the Brotherhood, has cancelled military exercises with Egypt and urged both sides to halt violence, it has so far resisted calls for halting military aid to its strategically positioned ally.

The rapid turn of events in Egypt, from a revolution to perhaps a “counterrevolution”, has left US President Barack Obama in quandary. Having eventually supported the fall of Mubarak, the US looks hypocritical in continuing its relationship with the military as authoritarian rule is restored.

In an interview with IPS, Emile Nakhleh, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Islamic Strategic Analysis Program, explained why repression will not prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from continuing its existence as a rooted, cultural and political force. Continued repression could also push the Brotherhood’s younger members to embrace violence as a political tool.

The US should pursue its own interests in Egypt, which “do not necessarily equate with dictatorial repressive regimes,” the Middle East expert told IPS. “In the long run, democratically elected governments will be more stable than these autocratic regimes.”

Q: There are different accounts circulating, especially in the Egyptian media, about what the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) actually is. Can you provide some background?

A: The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 as a social, religious, educational, political and partly military movement. It was founded against British colonialism and with it came the fight for Palestine, starting in the early 30s. Its main ideology is as follows: Islam is the solution. And the 3 D’s in Arabic, which translate to Islam is faith, state and society. There is to be no separation between the mosque and state in any of these.

The Muslim Brotherhood spread more than any other party in the Middle East in the last 85 years. It focused heavily on Islam, but took all those other things into consideration. And then of course they got involved in politics. That put them in conflict with the monarchy at the time. In 1948 this conflict became violent. Muslim Brotherhood members assassinated the Egyptian Prime Minister and in turn, the regime assassinated the founder of the MB in 1949.

By the mid-90’s, the Brotherhood decided to forgo violence and move toward their original mission, Da’wa, to proselytize their doctrine by Islamizing society from below. They wouldn’t allow themselves to be removed by force; they saw what happened in Algeria in 1991 and redirected their ideology to society itself, modeled after that American baseball-feed ideology, you know, you build it and they will come. So you Islamicize society from below and once society becomes Islamicized, you can establish a position in government and become a Shari’a-friendly government.

This process started in the late 80s, when the MB entered 4 or 5 parliamentary elections as independents or in alliance with other parties, such as the Wafd Party and the Labor Socialist party. Why? Because the government passed Law 100, which prohibited religious parties from participating in politics.

In the 2005 election, the MB won 88 seats in parliament, the largest ever for the MB. But they ran as independents. They emerged as the largest opposition party in parliament after Mubarak’s ruling party. In their 85-year history, the MB has been banned and repressed by regimes — from King Faruk to Mubarak; that’s why they’re not going away. They’re part and parcel of the religious foundation of Egyptian society.

With every regime Egypt has had since 1948, the relationship with the MB has always initially been good and then soured toward the end. Gamal Abdel Nasser was the same. He reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954 and by 1955-6, when a plot to assassinate him was uncovered, the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed and exiled. Then in 1966 Nasser’s government hanged one of the MB’s conservative thinkers, Sayyid Qutb.

Q: Is that what’s happening now, with the army’s arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie?

A: Qutb was actually more of a radical thinker than the mainstream MB. It’s also very interesting to note that a number of MB activists were exiled to Saudi Arabia where they established a more radical view of Islam. That view led Saudi Arabia to oppose Nasser’s actions in Yemen and other Arab nationalist projects.

Q: The Saudis welcomed the MB because they were Salafis?

A: The Saudis welcomed the MB with open arms because they were Salafis and because they were opposed to the secular Arab nation ideology that was preached by Nasser. The MB’s relationship with Nasser soured until 1970 when Nasser died and Anwar Sadat came to power. Sadat also began to court the MB as a countervailing force against leftist and Nasserist nationalist ideology.

The MB’s influence really began in the 1970s when they reconstituted themselves as a religious party that underpinned society. The constitution reflected Islam and allowed them freedom to preach and participate in associations, so much so that by the 1980s, the MB, through elections, controlled almost every professional association and university student council.

That scared the hell out of Hosni Mubarak, who also tried to court the MB in the beginning. It was, by the way, Mubarak who approved a change in the constitution to say Sharia is the source of legislation.

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s game is thus very dangerous. It will fail because the MB is the most organized and the most disciplined in Egypt and because they have been used to repression from Farouk to Nasser to Sadat and to Mubarak. Sadat allowed the MB to reconstitute itself and invited MB exiles to return home, but by the late 1970s, the MB broke with Sadat because of his trip to Jerusalem and the peace treaty with Israel. At that time, the entire Arab world broke with Sadat.

Although Sadat warmed up to the MB, he never recognized them as a political party, only as a social religious element, which was great for the MB. This gave them freedom to penetrate the soft ministries, education and welfare, and establish all kinds of religious schools, alongside al-Azhar University. Because of that, religious education under their guidance began to expand tremendously.

Q: Should military aid to Egypt be stopped?

Aid should be cut off. We supported the removal of Mubarak so we can’t support the resurrection of a military dictatorship. The cut-off by itself is not enough. It should be accompanied by a high-level conversation about Egypt’s future in accordance with the ideas of Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. In Bahrain, we should make it very clear to the al-Khalifas that repression and exclusion of the Shia majority cannot continue.

Q: How much does Egypt need the US and how much does Egypt — especially the Egyptian army — need the US?

A: Don’t forget that most of Egypt’s military aid is spent in this country for weapons systems. But that’s not the main reason for the aid. U.S. military aid to Egypt has been a tool of American national interests, which are to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, give us priority over the Suez Canal and flights over Egypt, etc, and to help us with the war on terror, especially since 9/11.

There’s a side interest, too: Egypt’s role with the Palestinians and Hamas and the push for negotiations. The main interlocutor with Hamas over the years has been Egyptian intelligence folks like Omar Suleiman.

Q: Does the Egyptian military truly fear the US stopping aid?

A: The military would be devastated if the US stopped aid because of the training the US provides and also because of the prestige. All the statements by Egyptian officials contradicting this notion is just talk.

Q: What if Saudi Arabia steps in to support the military more than it is already supporting them, as it has offered to do?

A: The Egyptian military doesn’t want to be beholden to Saudi Arabia. One of Sadat’s primary goals in reaching out to the US was to reestablish relations with the US after the October 1973 War, specifically so Egypt could acquire that training and prestige. Threatening to halt aid will be met with tremendous consternation by the Egyptian army.

Q: So the US stops the aid. Then what?

A: It’s a 2-way street. Consider our national interests, but it’s also in Egypt’s interest to maintain the peace treaty, by the way. Even Morsi wasn’t going to touch it. And when there was terrorism in the Sinai, he worked with the Israelis in fighting it.

The president’s speech in Cairo in 2009 was important because, at least rhetorically, it reflected the belief that the Islamic world is diverse and there is a distinction between the majority and the minority who are the radicals. We need to engage mainstream Muslims. He believed in that and has been interested in engaging mainstream parties that have been elected through peaceful and fair processes. That’s why he accepted to work with the MB and the Freedom and Justice Party.

Q: There was an article article in the New York Times on July 10 suggesting that the ouster of Morsi was actually planned from early on. What’s your take?

A: Morsi appointed el-Sisi himself and el-Sisi turned against him. Elements of the old regime and the so-called Egyptian liberals, who never accepted the election results, plotted from day one to undo Morsi. That’s not to say that Morsi did not make mistakes. He reneged on most of his promises. He promised to include women and Egyptian minorities in the country’s decision-making processes and he did not. But the old guard and the military never forgave Morsi for finally removing Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. So even after Morsi’s hard work, he brought in el-Sisi. Well, el-Sisi pretended that he supported Morsi but in fact he didn’t. There’s an unholy alliance between the military, the old regime and Egypt’s so-called liberals against Morsi. It’s also a fact that the revolution removed Mubarak but it did not remove the regime. So after Morsi came to power, the ministries and their bureaucrats began to torpedo his program. There were lines in Cairo after the flow of oil was restricted and somehow they disappeared shortly after Morsi was toppled.

And then el-Sisi called on people to go to the streets and give him a “mandate” to act in the national interest and remove Morsi. In January 2011, people went into the streets to remove Mubarak, and in 2013, by el-Sisi’s request, they removed Morsi. Very soon they are going to discover that this is a military dictatorship and they’re going to go into the streets again.

Q: Why is the military so revered in Egypt?

A: In addition to everything else, they have a first-rate propaganda machine. They have a tremendous public relations operation. They are masters at what we call strategic communication with the public. They probably control more than 30% of the Egyptian economy, much like China, Pakistan and Iran

The military claimed during the Nasser regime and then under Sadat that it did a great job in its wars with Israel and it was the politicians who actually undermined their missions. They are always blaming someone else. So it has emerged as symbol of national sovereignty. Nasser gave that impression when he took over the Suez Canal in 1956.

Every president since the end of the monarchy in Egypt has come from the ranks of the military. So they remove their military uniform, don a suit and become president. Morsi was the first president since 1954 who didn’t come from the military and the military didn’t trust him. I’m not a defender of Morsi, he made many mistakes, but this was the first freely, fairly, democratically elected leader since Egyptian independence. All the others were selected through sham elections with a lack of viable political opposition.

Q: What do Saudi Arabia’s explicit calls to back up the Egyptian military financially in battling the Muslim Brotherhood say about US-Saudi relations?

A: The Saudis are terrified of the MB as a reform movement. Now Saudi Arabia is also playing a dangerous game. A coalition of Arab autocrats is trying to stifle democracy because they do not like these revolutionary movements and are terrified of seeing them in their own countries. That’s why the Saudis sent troops to Bahrain to control the Shia, they said. When no one bought this argument, they said they were battling terrorism. And they say they are trying to kill it in Egypt, which is the main Arab country. If it’s killed there, they will feel more comfortable in their rule.

But this is not about the MB in Egypt or the Shia in Bahrain. Its about reform movements and opposition to repressive regimes in those countries.

Q: What options does President Obama have at this point?

A: The president had to face a new reality with the Arab Spring. He decided on going with the pro-democracy movements and that’s why he supported the removal of dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Now, he has been a bit silent on Bahrain, even though the American ambassador has spoken out. I think the United States has got to create a clear balance between national security and our democratic values and it has to communicate such a balance to the American people and to peoples in the region clearly.

We should still pursue our own interests, but they do not necessarily equate with dictatorial repressive regimes. In the long run, democratically elected governments will be more stable than these autocratic regimes.

Q: Which means the US should be willing to make some sacrifices in the short-term?

A: I think so, yes. You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach to the whole region. For Bahrain, you should emphasize that if the ruling family wants to maintain its rule, they should seriously engage in dialogue with the opposition, should stop human rights abuses, release political prisoners from jail and provide the Shia majority equal access to employment in government sectors, including the military and security services.

Q: Won’t these autocratic regimes worry that implementing reforms will present more challenges to their rule?

A: They believe that they can maintain power through repression, but they should know by now that staying in power can’t be guaranteed without popular support. Look at what we’re seeing in Egypt, in Syria, in Libya…

What concerns me is that in Bahrain and Egypt, our personnel are being threatened; our ambassadors are being vilified in the media, which in Egypt and in Bahrain are the mouthpieces of the regime. The autocratic regimes in both countries run sophisticated PR campaigns. The al-Khalifa in Bahrain believe the US supports Bahrain’s Shia! The Egyptian military and some liberals believe the US supports the MB and Morsi.

So this lack of clarity in our positions is generating personal threats to our diplomatic personnel, journalists and private citizens in those countries.

Q: Is Egypt becoming a military state?

The military regime is making it clearly so. Arresting the General Guide of the MB, at el-Sisi’s instructions, which no previous regime has done, signals that the military regime is here to stay.

I worry about Egypt. I really think by moving to reinstate military rule, the el-Sisi regime is inviting more violence.

Something worries me more. In the last 20 years, the MB and other mainstream Islamic political parties have supported man-made democracy and rejected al-Qaeda’s calls, including its calls against participating in this election. And now, with democracy being torpedoed by the military, this is something that the younger generation is going to tell the older leadership within the MB — that we tried democracy and it failed and the only alternative is violence.

We might see the rise of a youthful generation in the MB that no longer believes in democracy as a viable political system.

Q: Where is the Egyptian revolution heading?

A: El-Sisi has presented himself as a guardian of national sovereignty, not a new Mubarak. It’s going to be a while before the so-called liberal and mainstream Egyptians begin to see the reality of the new military regime in Egypt. And in the meantime, the youthful members of the Muslim Brotherhood are going to turn to violence if their peaceful protests continue to be violently repressed.

Q: So far the only country where the so-called Arab Spring has had seemingly stable results is Tunisia, where a moderate Islamic government remains in place. What do you see in Egypt’s future?

The toppling of Morsi in Egypt doesn’t mean the failure of Islam or Islamic politics. It represents the failure of a particular leader in a particular country at a particular time. In Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki and Rachid Ghannouchi avoided the mistakes that Morsi made. The ruling party, Ennahda, has tried to be more inclusive and consult with other groups and parties and be more open. That’s why by comparison, Tunisia has succeeded despite the killing of two senior opposition members.

To be fair, the MB and Morsi inherited a very dysfunctional economy. The economy in Tunisia was much better by comparison. And frankly, there’s no way in hell that any party in Egypt would have been able to address Egypt’s economic issues in 1 year. If the military stays in government in the next year and they also don’t address Egypt’s severe economic problems, including unemployment and tourism, people are going to ask again, what have you done for us? That’s why I argued earlier this year that if they had just waited for Morsi to finish his term, he would have never been re-elected. We should never worry about the first election; we always should look at the 2nd and 3rd elections.

*A version of this article appeared on IPS News.

Photo Credit: Charles Roffey

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.