Should we fear the Muslim Brotherhood?

The hysterical reporting, in some mainstream media outlets, about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is rooted in ignorance.  In his recent article in Truthdig, “Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman,” Juan Cole attempts to enlighten us about the history and current status of this organization in Egypt. Stoking the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to take over Egypt and turn it into an America-hating, Islamic fundamentalist society may sell advertising on Fox News, and on the conservative National Review Online, but it doesn’t have much to do with reality. Statements from neoconservatives like John Bolton that Egypt needs a US backed dictatorship to “maintain stability” are equally untrue.

Cole offers a few facts about the Brotherhood that may put those fears to rest:

The United States has actively promoted Muslim Brotherhood branches in other countries when it suited its purposes, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood held only 20 percent of the Egyptian lower house of parliament, and has tended to side with the Mubarak regime. For example, it failed to support the nationwide campaigns for better wages and working conditions that eventually spawned the January 25 demonstration. The Brotherhood joined the protest movement only at the last minute and was never a leading force in it.

In an attempt to appear relevant, “the Brotherhood called upon the new military regime to release all prisoners of conscience including young protesters incarcerated during the past three weeks. Its leaders also asked for an end to the state of emergency laws that allow the government to suspend civil liberties. It further suggested that a cabinet minister be appointed to investigate government corruption under the old regime.”

The Brotherhood issued a statement praising the Egyptian military high command for its role in stabilizing the country and taking it toward democratic civilian rule. The fundamentalist group denied that it sought to dominate Egypt, pledged that it would not field a candidate for president in the upcoming elections, and would not strategize to try and dominate the new parliament.

Opinion polling in Egypt finds that the Brotherhood would not be able to dominate parliament even if it wanted to. Although its leaders have called for putting the peace treaty with Israel to a popular referendum, the powerful Egyptian military would not allow it, and even if it did, polling indicates the peace treaty would win.

According to Cole, some of the falsehoods being spread in mainstream media are: The Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, that Ayman al-Zawahri of al-Qaida is in this group, and that the fundamentalist party Hamas in the Gaza Strip is under the control of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

But perhaps some facts are in order, and Cole offers the following:

The Brotherhood was begun in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, as a revivalist movement that also protested the influence of British colonialism. Contrary to what Paul Berman and other neoconservatives have alleged, al-Banna thoroughly condemned Hitler and Mussolini as execrable racists, and his movement had nothing in common with European fascism. In a reaction against the British reoccupation of Egypt during World War II, the organization developed a terrorist cell in the 1940s and early 1950s. But the massive crackdown on it that its violence provoked drove the organization underground and marginalized it.

In the 1970s, Sadat rehabilitated the Brotherhood and stipulated that if it would eschew violence and become a civil society association, the government would let its members out of jail and allow them relative freedom. It was this bargain, to which the Brotherhood has faithfully adhered, that drove radicals such as al-Zawahri, now al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, to break with the Brotherhood and to denounce it virulently. Sadat was not assassinated by the Brotherhood, contrary to what was alleged to the great Mideast expert Sean Hannity by the great Mideast expert Andrew McCarthy. The president was felled by militants who rejected both him and his ally, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Cole goes on to say that the Muslim Brotherhood is a decentralized organization. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is a different organization from the Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hamas takes no orders from Cairo.

What is true is that the Muslim Brotherhood is a reactionary, anti-semitic, fundamentalist organization that is hostile to women’s rights. It would like to move Egypt away from a secular society to a conservative one steeped in medieval Muslim traditions. It is not going away, it will continue to have a presence in Egypt, but it’s not going to be its future.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a sclerotic organization of old men. The youth of Egypt, whose uprising was driven by secular aspirations, are in ascendance.

Egypt is not Iran, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Tunisia, or Muslim Indonesia. It is a cosmopolitan country with its own unique culture and history. Whether the Egyptian people will be successful in creating the truly representative secular democracy they want remains to be seen.