U.S. is betting on Muslim Brotherhood

February 17, 2012


President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood began three years ago in his famous June 2009 speech in Cairo. Ten members of the Brotherhood were invited to listen to the address, and they heard a passage crafted especially for them:

“America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn’t attend the speech, but there was a message for him, too, when Obama said: “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” Obama certainly had that right.

The Obama administration has made what might be described as a “cosmic wager” on the Muslim Brotherhood’s peaceful intentions. By courting them in 2009, the U.S. helped legitimize their political aspirations; by refusing to come to Mubarak’s rescue during the Tahrir Square protests a year ago, the U.S. all but guaranteed that the Brotherhood would emerge as a dominant political force in a new Egypt. The Brotherhood is now ascendant, with its “Freedom and Justice Party” having won nearly 50 percent of the seats in Egypt’s post-revolutionary parliament. Its officials have issued soothing statements and pro-free-market position papers. There’s even a Muslim Brotherhood rap video on YouTube, with a catchy beat and this benign refrain: “Freedom we will protect, and justice we will maintain.”

It all sounds reassuring. But the Brotherhood’s reliability as a partner is still largely untested, and even administration officials concede that the democratic transition in Egypt has gone worse than expected. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is driving the opposition movement in Syria.  

The Brotherhood is so important to the future of the Arab world — and is, still, such a mysterious organization in the West — that it’s useful to review its history. What’s clear is that from its inception, the Brotherhood has stressed the importance of liberating Muslims from Western manipulation. This aspiration for dignity and independence is the Brotherhood’s strongest appeal, but it may make the organization a difficult partner.  

The Brotherhood was formed in 1928 by Egyptians who opposed British colonialism. The founder, a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, gathered six friends who worked for the Suez Canal Co. To fend off informers, the group developed elaborate initiation procedures.

The movement, at once political, cultural and religious, took off quickly: By one estimate, it grew to 200,000 members by 1938. Banna was assassinated in 1949, after the Brotherhood had attacked the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk.

The anti-Western message was honed by the Brotherhood’s other great martyr, Sayyid Qutb. He was a brilliant essayist whose encounter with America in the late 1940s proved poisonous. After visiting New York, Washington, Colorado and Los Angeles, he concluded that “the soul has no value to Americans.”

Qutb’s abhorrence of the oWhen Qutb returned to Egypt, he joined the Brotherhood. He refused all efforts by the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser government to recruit or co-opt him, and he was executed in 1966.

Facing unrelenting repression, the Brotherhood’s mainstream gradually evolved into a political movement that, on paper at least, disavowed violence; it put down deep roots in Egypt’s professional organizations and won about 20 percent of the seats in parliament when it was allowed to run in 2005. It learned to speak a more conciliatory language.

It was in this tone of reassurance that Brotherhood officials said they would contest only 30 percent of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections; in fact, they ran in nearly every district and won a near-majority. The Brotherhood also organized a decisive 77 percent win in last March’s constitutional referendum, which they pegged as a vote to protect language that promises the Islamic Shariah as “the main source of legislation.”

Olivier Roy, a French expert on the Muslim world, argues that the Brotherhood will learn democracy by doing it: “Democratic culture does not precede democratic institutions; democratic culture is the internalization of these institutions,” he says. That, in essence, is the wager Obama has made.  

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.


Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 3 months ago

“the soul has no value to Americans.”

That's quite a blanket statement. I think that perhaps Sayyid Qutb noticed a great deal of diversity in the United States, and perhaps he had a very different definition of soul than many of the people that he spoke with did.

A cultural barrier can be very great, and he probably didn't overcome it very well. I've been led to believe that the diversity in the United States is a great part of our strength.

"The first thing you need to understand about another culture is that you cannot understand it." - Ron Holzwarth

cato_the_elder 6 years, 3 months ago

"U.S. is betting on Muslim Brotherhood." That headline says it all.

As current events in Egypt demonstrate on a daily basis, Obama's foreign policy decisions have been disastrous, starting with his unilateral sellout of the Poles' and Czechs' promised missile defense shield in return for the Russians' assurance not to assist Iran with nuclear enrichment. We all know how that turned out.

Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." Obama's philosophy on foreign policy is, "Trust, and then bend over and pick up the soap."

booyalab 6 years, 3 months ago

If the U.S. is betting the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't lost sight of it's original goal of worldwide domination under Sharia, then we won't be disappointed.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 3 months ago

In an arena where good choices simply do not exist, the Muslim Brotherhood might just be the best option among a variety of bad options. Time will almost certainly judge this to be a bad decision. Of course, we will never know what might have been, had we gone down another path. And a complete disengagement has problems of it's own.
I'm happy I don't have to make these decisions and I'm happy history won't judge me.

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