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 tailored 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 United States helped legitimize their political aspirations; by refusing to come to Mubarak’s rescue during the Tahrir Square protests a year ago, the United States 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 the United States 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 open sexuality he saw in the United States is clear in this passage quoted in “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright: “A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh.”
When Qutb returned to Egypt, he joined the Brotherhood. He refused all efforts by the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser 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 that 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 sharia 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.