Published as an op-ed for the CNN on February 9, 2011
Since the eruption of the Egyptian revolution last month, I have been on Tahrir Square with millions of other Egyptians calling for freedom and dignity. Over these weeks the square has been filled with people from all walks of life: young and old, Muslim and Copt, rural and urban, rich and poor, secularists and observant Muslims.
Keeping a conspicuously low profile, the Muslim Brotherhood — the largest and most organized opposition movement in Egypt — has issued no formal slogans or distributed leaflets. Furthermore, the group has repeatedly denied that it had any role in organizing the uprising and insisted that any of its members participating in the protests are doing so alongside numerous other opposition groups.
The group has declared that it merely wants to be recognized as a legitimate player in the Egyptian political scene, adding that it will not field any candidates in the upcoming presidential elections.
Abroad, many view the cautious stance of the group with skepticism — some well-founded but much of it exaggerated and I believe harmful to efforts to build a new, open and democratic Egypt.
Within Egypt, there are also many people — leftists, secularists and members of Egypt’s Coptic minority — who suspect that the group’s true intention is not simply to gain legitimacy, but rather to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s detractors point to the group’s past announcements that it does not believe in equality between Muslims and Copts nor between men and women.
Hosni Mubarak has told his Western allies that the Brotherhood’s social and welfare activities were only a façade hiding more sinister intentions. As part of the attempt to present Mubarak’s regime as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, the intelligence chief — and now vice president — Omar Suleiman demonized the Brotherhood in a 2006 WikiLeaks cable.
He asserted that it had spawned 11 Islamist extremist organizations, most notably the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Gama’a Islamiya (Islamic Group). But these two, at least, had split from the Brotherhood because they were impatient that it had renounced violence and given up on armed struggle.
For three long decades, the United States and its Western allies have mostly believed this alarmist line, while turning a blind eye to the regime’s systematic suspension of basic rights and atrocities committed in the name of “combating Islamic terrorism.”
Now the U.S. is in a bind. It is haunted by the specter of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which started as a broad-based, mostly secular revolution against the tyrannical rule of the shah, but was usurped at the eleventh hour by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his fellow clergymen.
Convinced that Mubarak’s days are over, the Obama administration appears nevertheless hesitant to call for his immediate ouster, likely out of fear of a repetition of the Iranian scenario. In an interview with NPR this weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of “timelines” for transition, but the administration’s urgent demands that Mubarak leave appeared to have receded.
For its part, Israel appears gripped by fear that the Brotherhood is only biding its time, poised to establish an Islamic theocracy at its southern borders. As a result, Israel has come out bluntly in support of Mubarak and his corrupt regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres recently said, “Elections in Egypt are dangerous. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be elected they will not bring peace. Democracy without peace is not a democracy.”
But to insist on leaving the Brotherhood out in the cold can only add to the instability of Egypt’s political scene. Outlawing the group has not decreased its popularity over the years; if anything, it has allowed it to assume the moral high ground.
A group with some hundreds of thousands of members and one that controlled some 20% of the 2005 parliament cannot be excised from the Egyptian political equation. Doing so would only lead to its increased radicalization and militancy.
Propping up the defunct Mubarak regime in an attempt to contain the Brotherhood would be a grave mistake. The U.S. must realize that Mubarak has cynically used the Brotherhood card only to postpone implementing deeply needed reforms. The result was not only 30 years of U.S.-backed tyrannical rule, but the exporting of terrorism to other countries. It has to be remembered that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, is very much a product of Egypt’s dungeons and torture chambers.
And Israel has to realize that it is only able to claim that it is the sole democracy in the region not because of some genetic deficiency from which Arabs suffer, but largely because the West has long supported the despotic governments that the Arab peoples are now struggling to get rid of.
It is time for Israel to realize that if it wants to secure a peaceful future in the region, it must cease being an apartheid state and reach a just peace with the peoples of the region — not only with their despotic rulers.
A victory for the democratic revolution in Egypt is indeed a frightening notion for Israel, not because the Muslim Brotherhood might end up usurping the revolution and abrogating the Egyptian-Israeli 1979 peace treaty, but because such a victory is sure to inspire millions of Palestinians — just as millions of Egyptians had been inspired by Tunisians who rose against their president’s tyranny.
In Egypt, so long as the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to operate under a new constitution that upholds the principle of equality of all citizens, irrespective of religion and gender, then it should be welcome to build a new Egypt, one in which all citizens will, at long last, enjoy freedom, justice and dignity.