Engaging the Islamists

Shadi Hamid writes:

Whether we like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s major Islamist group – is going to play a significant, perhaps crucial role in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Too often, American policy makers fall under the illusion that they can somehow have Arab democracy without having the largest opposition groups participate. A “democracy” that excludes a group with hundreds of thousands of members is unlikely to be seen as much more legitimate than the autocracy that came before it.

This brings us back to a critical question: do Islamists, in fact, want to rule Egypt? A careful consideration of the evidence suggests that mainstream Islamists display an odd ambivalence – and even aversion – to executive power. Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood very rarely run full electoral slates. In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy, I looked at the five countries where Islamist opposition groups contest elections on a regular basis – Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, and Yemen – and found that the average percentage of seats the major Islamist groups contest is a mere 36 percent.

Because they put a premium on self-preservation, Islamist groups go out of their way to avoid provoking the government or the international community. As Islamists themselves will often say, the world is not yet ready for them (they even have a phrase for this: “the American veto”).

This is not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t ever try to win an Egyptian election. It just means that it won’t anytime soon. What then does the group want in the interim? It is worth recalling that the last several years saw one of the most intense periods of anti-Islamist repression since the 1960s. The Brotherhood has had businesses closed, financial assets seized, and thousands of its members imprisoned. Its priority, then, is to slowly rebuild its battered infrastructure, boost membership, and sort out internal frictions between “reformists” and “traditionalists.” The Brotherhood is not a political party, so, presumably, it won’t act like one. For a mass movement whose lifeline is social-service provision, preaching, and educational activities, safeguarding organizational interests takes precedence.

With all of this in mind, the Brotherhood has stayed on message since the protests began, emphasizing the need for a “civil, democratic state.” A civil, democratic state is precisely what will grant it the greatest freedom of movement. On the other hand, advocating for something more “Islamic” or adopting a higher profile would threaten to derail the uprising, which benefits from the perception that it is secular. This is the sort of cautious, calculated strategy that will define the Brotherhood’s approach in the coming years.

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