Don’t Fear the Ikhwan Part Two

Why does the Muslim Brotherhood get so much bad press?     Top Egyptian journalist  Ibrahim Eissa, editor of  Egypt’s Al-Dostor newspaper, has a two part series this week on  what he calls an irrational and baseless fear of the Brotherhood reaching power.   Why does everyone talk about the MB reaching power as if it is an  imminent threat to Egyptian society, he asks in the Monday article  ( see my post  here).   Remember, Eissa is a fierce critic of the Mubarak regime and is trying to show that the NDP manipulates this fear for its own purposes.    Trying to undermine this arguement, on Tuesday, he  made the  case that the Muslim Brotherhood will never come to power in Egypt.   

 I translate/paraphrase the Tuesday article called “Ikhwano-Phobia” and then have some commentary below:

Egypt suffers from a local version of the Islamo-phobia that is found in the US and Europe.  Here it is called Ikhwan-Phobia (Ikhwan= Brotherhood in Arabic).   This irrational and totally unwarranted fear of the Ikhwan reaching power is widely present amongst government people, Coptic Christians and intelectuals.   Such fear, however, is totally unwarranted because, as I will show today, the Muslim Brotherhood will never reach power in Egypt due to the nature of Egyptian state, its people, and the Ikhwan itself. 

The Brotherhood itself is a closed organiztion, and not a party open to wider membership that cultivates members from the cradle to the grave.  To become influential you have to have risen through their ranks, not to be an especially talented thinker.   Its by nature a conservative organization which prioritizes survial and is not going to do anything that threats the organization.  Trying to sieze power is the kind of adventure that would threaten the very existence of the organization.  Moreover, the MB doesn’t possess the revolutionary nature of the Islamic Group (Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyaa). 

Some of you might say look at how Islamists came to power in Gaza and Turkey.  First, look at how the MB won a majority of seats in Al-Sharqiya province, that didn’t mean they could win a majority overall.  Gaza is a similar situation.  And the Islamists in Turkey are based on a formula that is vastly different from the Brotherhood. 

The nature of the Egyptian state further makes an Ikhwan rise to power impossible.  Our state is a cumbersome bureacracy that is not susceptive to Revolution or dramatic and fundamental change.  The 1952 Revolution, for example, was not a real Revolution but a coup d’etat.  Egyptians change and are changed very slowly.   The borig nature of our state, which is not susceptible to pressure from mass popular movements,  prevents any dramatic change. 

And this leads us to the nature of the Egyptian people themselves.   Sure, the average Egyptian is very religous and you hear him talk in a way that suggests that he wants Islamic Rule.  But Egyptian religiosity is very superficial and not susceptible to mass religous mobilization.  This is a people that like to pray conspicously at work but as soon as he is done praying he opens his hand to take a little bribe…. The Egyptian people are fundamentally cautious by nature and not the kind that embrace adventures of actions that might rock the boat. 

This brings us to the results of the 2005 elections which are the best evidence that the Ikhwan will never govern Egypt.  Giving it their best shot, the Brothers only won 20% of the seats.  So basically they got 1/5 of the 1/5 of the Egyptians who actually voted.   Sure, there was electoral fraud and maybe they could have won more but not a majority and certainly not an ascension to power.   Remember- this is the same Ikhwan couldn’t even beat the Wafd pre-1952.  Their support has more to do with NDP corruption. 

1)  Not a Revolutionary people.  In my experience in Egypt, which is pretty extensive, I would agree with Eissa that Egyptian are fundamentally cautious and not the type that goes out on a limb.  This is not a people that are going to “sweep” anyone into power….  Eissa surprised me, however,  with his attack on Egyptian religiosity which I think is a gross generalization. 

2)  Why the fear?  Eissa is correct that there is an irrational fear of the Ikwan and its not just in Egypt.  Last December, at a family Christmas party, I was talking to my neighbor, a lawyer in his mid-50s who doesn’t follow the Middle East beyond what he reads in the newspaper.  He told me that he wants to visit Egypt but one of his co-workers of Egyptian descent told him that he had to go soon because it won’t be possible in a few years after the Ikhwan seizes power and bans all foreign tourists.  I politely told him this is ridiculous and totally incorrect.  I see nothing with the Ikhwan that leads me to believe that their ascension to power would be a serious threat to the public welfare in Egypt.  It probably would not be great for US interests, at least in the short term.  The Ikhwan is going to be more socialist and far less likely to toe the US line on foreign policy issues, such as Israel-Palestine and Counter-Terrorism.  They would be something similar to what we are seeing with Chavez in Egypt. 

3)  Parliament= not important.  People in the US focus too much on the significance of the Brotherhood’s 2005 election victory as if it has enourmous implications in te Egyptian political arena.  It really doesn’t because the Egyptian Parliament is pretty much a rubber-stamp.   Furthermore,  Eissa should have mentioned that the Ikhwan’s younger generation actually wants out of politics because they feel its a waste of time and is distracting the Brotherhood from other, more important fields.  Even Sheikh Al-Qaradawi said the Brothers were wasting their time in politics in a  September  interview with Egypt’s Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper:

* ولكنك تعيب علي الإخوان المسلمين من حين لآخر.. وأذكر عنك انتقادك لهم لاستغراقهم في العمل السياسي الذي يستهلك جل طاقتهم وإغفالهم العمل الاجتماعي؟

– نعم، فهم لم يعدوا العدة ليندمجوا في الشعب كما يجب، ولا فهموا احتياجات الشارع كما ينبغي.. وانشغلوا بالسياسة.. وانتقادي لهم من باب التقويم، وأنا والحمد لله لا أميل للمغالاة ولا أرضي بالتفريط ولا بالتشدد.

The Ikhwanis who want to play politics are the older generation ( those who came of age in 1970s)  whereas those  in their 20s and 30s agree with Skeikh Al-Qardawi and want to quit politics and focus on Da’wa, education, upbringing etc.  This is an important point that is overlooked in the Western debate about the so-called Islamist threat.  

4)  Islamist movements= 30 years on the march.    Eissa might be right that the Brothers aren’t coming to power any time soon, but does NOT mean a failure of the Islamist movement as it is  sometimes_claimed in the West.   The MB  can not be viewed as a Western-style political party.  Their basic goal is to reform the society by returning it to its Islamic foundations and there are several ways to do this.  Politics is only one of them.  Not succeeding in politics doesn’t mean failure, it just means failure in one of their tools.  Its important to recognize that Islamist movements have been on a forward march since at least the 1970s.

‘Why does everyone hate the Brotherhood?’

Ibrahim Eissa, a fierce critic of the Mubarak regime and the editor of Egypt’s Al-Dostor newspaper, has a very interesting set of articles on the  hysteria surrounding the possibility of the  Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt.  Why do so many prominent voices disparage them and act as if their taking power would represent as serious threat to the public welfare?  What has the Ikhwan ever done to deserve such negative PR?  And more importantly, what evidence is there that suggests any imminent possibility of the Ikhwan actually taking power?

My translation/ summary:
“I heard an Egyptian businessman say that he was going to liquidate all of his assets if the Muslim Brotherhood took power.  I wondered what caused him to have such fear  since the Ikhwan has never reached power, in fact the only thing they have reached is Tora Prison. … A government person once complained to me that “you want to government to permit free elections and avoid intervention so that the Brotherhood wins and takes over the country.”    I replied ” Isn’t this an acknowledgement that the NDP’s platform has failed and has so little popular support that they need to manipulate elections to keep the MB from taking over?”   This wasn’t the first time I heard from high-level NDP officials that they need to manipulate elections for the interests of “the people.”   Everyone in Egypt, from the Government to the Opposition, even the people themselves, seems to think they have a unique understanding of what the people want.  As if  the the people are little kids who can’t think for themselves. … This is also the story that Gamal Mubarak and his allies sell to the US and the West to justify their interference in elections.

The Coptic Christians are equally frightened of the Ikhwan.  Notice how the Church maintains a silence on most issues, except for one occasion — when an MB candidate is running for office.  In this case, they break their silence and call on people to vote against him. … Coptic fear is manipulated by State Security who spread rumors such as  that the MB is trying to convert unmarried Christian women to Islam. 

There is also strong anti-Ikhwan  sentiments  from certain Intellectuals despite the fact that they are snobs who don’t “meet with the masses except in their elevators of buildings,” nor do they even know their neighbor’s names.  Yet, they still feel qualified to talk, in the name of the people, about the dangers of Egypt becoming a “theocratic” state.  (Of course the masses don’t know what a theocracy means). 

What’s strange/ unfortunate  is that these rumors reached their high-point during the Israeli aggression on Gaza whose people began to pay the price for being governed by a Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.  All of this talk about the danger of the Ikhwan reaching power in Egypt leads people to lose their judgement and to believe that what Israel is doing is only a natural attack against Hamas terrorism.  As a result, the Palestinian Resistance pays the political price of this local hatred of the Ikhwan and leads to a preference for Ramallah- based forces which are a tool of Israel. 

Given this anti-Ikhwani hysteria, now we are compelled to take a serious look at the question “Is it possible that the MB can actually reach power in Egypt?’  Tomorrow, God willing, I will try and answer this question.  But I want you to remember that he Brotherhood has been around for 81 years and never reached power.    Tomorrow,   I will tell you the end of the story-  that the Brothers will never reach power in Egypt, either through elections or by force.”

Expect part two tomorrow along with my thoughts.

Hamas-Jordan Rapprochement

Clearly, Jordan is moving closer to the Hamas camp, at least when it comes to Peace Process negotiations.  A few weeks back, I posted  on Abu Rumman’s article about rumors that Jordan was going to replace Egypt, seen as biased against Hamas, as the intermediary between the Arabs and Israel.  Such a step would be pretty dramatic, and is not likely to happen, though Hamas (and many on “the Arab street)  would not mind.

What does seem to be  happening is a Hamas-Jordan rapprochement, reported recently by Al-Hayat.   The government of Jordan, wary of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abass’s commitment to the refugee issue, is moving closer to Hamas.  The story notes how when Abass goes to Lebanon he makes statements about the refugee problem being a priority in the negotiations, but he doesn’t say the same things about Jordan, causing the Jordanian government to question his commitment.  Hamas makes no doubt about their commitment to the refugee problem.  

Such a new approach is not without risks:  The story notes how Fatah has only one goal- create a Palestinian state. Hamas, on the other hand, has deep ideological affinities with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, a rival to the government, so such a rapprochement will be tricky.

Muslim Brotherhood and Blogging

Jeffrey Fleischman has an interesting article in the LA Times  on blogging by the younger generation of the Muslim Brotherhood.    This is an important trend because Mr Egypt has been telling me to look into it now for several weeks.   What a coincidence, Hassam Tamem, also has an article on the same exact topic at IslamOnline.  For some context, Tamem is either the best or one of the best commentators on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  He is a MUST-LISTEN-TO VOICE.