Over the past ten days or so, the world has witnessed what was, perhaps even a few short months ago, wholly unthinkable in Egypt. Inspired by events in nearby Tunisia, ordinary people took to the streets all over Egypt, demanding their personal and political freedom, governmental reform, and a change in the current regime and its structure. Their most powerful demand, the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, is really more of a symbolic gesture, as he represents the very regime structure that needs to change. The protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, some even festive, and the actions of ordinary Egyptians has instilled amazement and awe the world over – and enormous pride in Americans of Egyptian descent like me.
For a brief moment, I had thought that the incredulous courage and fortitude of the Egyptian protesters would cause the Government to stand down and acquiesce to their demands for a free and open Egypt. How naive I was. In response to the peace of the protesters, the Government responded with force, brutality, depravity, and violence. When a brutal crackdown by security forces did not force the people to cower in fear, authorities decided to take the police off the streets and replace them with criminals and thugs to pillage at will. Yet, that did not thwart the popular uprising, and seeing that their government as abandoned them, ordinary citizens banded together to clean their streets and protect their neighborhoods.
Yet, the Government’s brutality was not to be outdone. As my cousin recently told me, “Firaoun (Pharoah) has got nothing on Mubarak.” In order to break the protests, “pro-Mubarak supporters,” i.e., government-paid thugs and even some plain clothes security officers, viciously attacked unarmed protesters with knives, clubs, and even guns. Dozens have been killed, and hundred have been wounded. And now, there is a systematic attack on journalists of all stripes, in order to silence their reports and keep the world in the dark about what is happening in Cairo.
Witnessing this unmitigated and brutal depravity (I didn’t think the Egyptian Government could sink this low), so many in America rightly asked the question, “We supported this guy Mubarak?” Indeed, Egypt has been the beneficiary of around $60 billion in U.S. aid over three decades, despite the glaring lack of freedom, repression of the populace, and systematic human rights abuses.
Yet, whenever the United States would “tsk tsk” President Mubarak over his brutal policies and treatment of his people, he would consistently dangle the Islamists in the air. “If it is not me,” he would say, “it will be the Muslim Brotherhood.” Indeed, now there are screams of panic from many talking heads on cable television warning that this current uprising may lead to another Iranian “Islamic Revolution.”
President Mubarak needs to be supported, they say, else the Islamists will be whisked into power and the Arab Republic of Egypt will become the Islamic Republic of Egypt. Egyptian Government officials are also playing into this fear, blaming the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for the recent violence that has erupted between pro- and anti-government protesters.
Yet, the United States should know better. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not publicly get behind the protest movement until well after it started. Haroon Moghul, Executive Director of the Maydan Institute, writes:
And while the Brotherhood is an incredibly large and powerful organization, it is today a product of years of suppression, torture, and intimidation. While it seeks to change society, it does not pursue an explicitly political agenda. Rather, it believes that an ideal politics will be achieved once society is Islamized—in other words, enough introduction of Muslim values into popular culture, and society will simply reform itself—and that includes the state. So while they have political ideals, they certainly don’t have an explicit political program.
Some call the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the “godfather of Al Qaeda.” Yet, as the New York Times writes:
American politicians and pundits have used the Brotherhood as a sort of boogeyman, tagging it as a radical menace and the grandfather of Al Qaeda. That lineage is accurate in a literal sense: some Qaeda leaders, notably the terrorist network’s Egyptian second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, have roots in the organization. But Qaeda leaders despise the Brotherhood because it has renounced violence and chosen to compete in elections. “The Brotherhood hates Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda hates the Brotherhood,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “So if we’re talking about counterterrorism, engaging with the Brotherhood will advance our interests in the region.”
They certainly take their Islam seriously. But in many ways this is a very conservative movement. The current general guide is a professor of veterinary medicine. He’s a shy guy. These are not fire-breathing radicals at the top of the organization. And whenever somebody talks a little bit too violently and impatiently, they are told either to calm down or to leave the movement.
He also added:
The concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship to political violence is not based on hallucinations — it is there. In the 1950s and ’60s the Brotherhood did develop this strain of thought that said, the existing government is not Islamic and therefore some kind of armed clash is inevitable. That strain has basically been repudiated by the Brotherhood.
Most experts note that, if the Brotherhood were to participate in free and fair elections, they would receive about 20-30% of the popular vote, not exactly an “Islamic Revolution” by any means. Furthermore, anthropologist Scott Atran wrote in the Times:
If Egyptians are given political breathing space, [Hisham Kaseem, newspaper editor and human rights activist] told me, the Brotherhood’s importance will rapidly fade. “In this uprising the Brotherhood is almost invisible,” Mr. Kaseem said, “but not in America and Europe, which fear them as the bogeyman.”
Thus, the United States needs to get much more sophisticated in its analysis of Islamists. Yes, there are the radical, fire-breathing Islamists such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who have no compunction about killing innocent civilians to get their way. These groups and their ideologies must be fought and defeated. Yet, there are other Islamists that are the antithesis to Al Qaeda, such as the ruling party in Turkey, who have embraced pluralistic democratic systems of government and want to fully participate in them.
Like it or not, Islamic political parties are part of the political fabric in many countries in the Middle East, and it is time we treat each Islamist group as an individual entity, rather than lump them all together as “radicals” and “terrorists.” It is this knee-jerk response to all things Islamist that contributed, in part, to our undying support for Mubarak’s oppressive regime in Egypt.
And as Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution, told the NY Times: “If we really want democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a big part of the picture. Rather than demonizing them, we ought to start engaging them now.” Let us hope the Obama Administration takes heed.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen. His latest book is Noble Brother: The Story of the Prophet Muhammad in Poetry (Faithful Word Press).