Inside Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
The new constitution will be an invitation for the Brotherhood and Salafists to struggle over how to properly define and implement sharia
How does the Brotherhood compare to Hamas?
Both ascribe to the exact same credo, “Allah is our objective, the Koran is our law, Muhammad is our leader, jihad is our way and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” However, they interpret that credo somewhat differently. Hamas views “jihad is our way” as endorsing terrorism, while the Muslim Brotherhood views jihad not to mean terrorism, but trying very hard. Which isn’t to say they aren’t violent: They’ve used violence against protesters and they’ve run torture chambers, which are well documented. They are similar in that they’re part of the same international organization that has branches in 72 countries, including America, and both are extremely hostile toward the West. The theory that undergirds the Brotherhood’s philosophy is known as Islamic modernism. It’s a school of thought that emerged in the late 19th century, early 20th century, with the question, “Why has the Muslim world fallen behind Europe?” This came at a time when Europe had superseded the Islamic world scientifically, developmentally and politically. The modernists responded to that reality and to the fact that societies were increasingly moving away from religious practice. They believed the answer was to reconcile Islamic ideas with the best of Western practices so that they could better resist the West. If you read the early writings of Hassan al-Banna, there is a deeply anti-Western tone. That is embedded in Brotherhood ideology, and it indicates that much like Hamas, the Brotherhood will not be a long-term ally of the United States.
What is the role of the U.S. in Egypt now?
The role of the U.S. is similar to what it has been in the past. It continues to provide military and economic aid and support an IMF loan to Egypt, which is actually the problem. The administration seems to think that it can find a new stability in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood. Recent events, in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab has catalyzed massive protests against it, should put significant holes in that theory. I think the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood will come to like us is delusional, and the only way to get them to act responsibly, since you’re not going to change their ideology, is to force them to make some very tough choices that will lead them toward behavioral moderation.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s stance on the peace treaty with Israel?
Despite their claim that they will keep all treaties, it is important to check under the hood. They’ve been seeking a variety of strategies in which they can wiggle out of the Camp David Accords, one of which is putting forward the idea that they would put up the Camp David Accords for a referendum. That way it wouldn’t be them getting out of the Accords; it would be presumably the Egyptian public. Another strategy they’ve been pursuing is that the Parliament would need to approve the Accords, which of course would not happen, so it would be the Parliament voting down the Accords, not the Brotherhood. There are a series of statements going back decades that suggest the Brotherhood simply cannot live with the peace treaty, the most obvious of which was when immediately after the Gaza cease-fire, the Supreme Guide (Muhammad Badie) in his weekly statement called for jihad for Jerusalem. Also, it’s important to remember that this is not an organization that tends to keep its oral commitments. They promised they would not run a presidential candidate, they promised they would run for less than 50 percent of the parliamentary seats, they promised they would work cooperatively once Morsi was elected—and they’re now accusing many of the people to whom they made that promise of being thugs.
What impact has the Brotherhood’s rise to power had on Egypt’s relationship with Israel?
The Egyptian president no longer meets with his Israeli counterpart, and contact between the ministers of defense is also nonexistent, from what I understand. Security relations with Israel remain, but they’re less constant than in the past. Morsi has also effectively outsourced his Israeli-Palestinian policy to his intelligence officials. What you can see is a very rapid downgrade of relations that people aren’t paying attention to because from their standpoint, they’re just pleased that relations exist at all and that the peace treaty has survived. It’s a very low bar that is a recipe for disaster.
How have Israeli leaders reacted?
Israeli leaders have suggested that they are worried about Egypt but don’t know what to do with it. For the most part, the Netanyahu government has stayed silent and tried in very small ways to reach out to Morsi through letters and public statements, but it seems to understand that it’s not going have a relationship with Egypt. It’s just trying to keep it from deteriorating into something more confrontational. I believe the Israeli government has handled the situation very responsibly, especially considering how frightening it is.
How did the Muslim Brotherhood ally itself with Egypt’s powerful military?
The Brotherhood has had a very difficult relationship with the military, historically. It was the military that effectively cracked down on it in 1954, and that’s something the Brotherhood never forgot. What’s changed in the past six months is that after a very tense period in which the military executed a court order to disband the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and the military appeared—at least to some people—poised to deny Morsi the elections, Morsi got the upper hand by firing the general who posed the greatest threat to his authority. He essentially reached a deal with the military under which he would take full political control. Under the new constitution the military is able to keep many of its perquisites and avoided parliamentary oversight of its budgets. It’s allowed to keep its military courts, and the minister of defense has to be from the military and can’t be a civilian. If you look at recent history, it would be hard to believe that the Brotherhood will abide by its agreement with the military indefinitely, because the Brotherhood doesn’t abide by any of its agreements indefinitely.
Why does the military support Morsi?
The military believes it got everything it wanted from Morsi. That’s not to say that the military totally trusts Morsi. The generals are quite concerned about what he’ll say on foreign policy and how that might affect their own relations, for example, with the United States. But for the moment, the fact that they’re getting a constitution, which gives them most of what they want, is reason enough for them to stand by him.
How much power does Morsi really have?
The military holds the guns, but the Muslim Brotherhood has the mobilization. These are the two most powerful forces, and if you can get them on the same page, which is what you have now, it is a very hard-to-beat union.