These days, everybody’s in the business of panicking over the potential role of the Muslim Brotherhood. But rather than discuss where the Brotherhood has been in the past, I suggest looking to the future. Events on the ground are changing every few hours, so this is an exercise in informed speculation. Here are five reasons why the Muslim Brotherhood will find it very hard to decisively determine Egypt’s relationship with Israel. These five reasons complicate the assumption that if Mubarak goes, the peace treaty with Israel will come to an end.
1. The Discovery Channel Wins
Starting in the 1960s, a wave of Islamist violence rocked the Muslim world. It was a successor to and competitor with socialist and communist revolutionary movements, and a product of the same historical circumstances. In Egypt, there was a brief confrontation with the state, which led to the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, but this assassination did not change the regime. Its violent and frankly moronic agenda was assassinating the head of the state on the assumption that this would somehow initiate a transfer of power to the people who assassinated the head of state.
The last gasp of these small bands of militants came in the late 1990s, when they attacked tourists in southern Egypt. The attack was widely condemned across Egyptian society, leaving the militants with less support than the very little they had before—leading to my point: There’s a special on Egypt on the Discovery Channel every three or four days. Ancient Egypt is one of the few non-European societies we all seem to know about; in fact we often treat it as part of Western history. Countless tourists visit Egypt every year. The Egyptian economy is deeply dependent on tourism of the Pharaonic and Islamic varieties, and cannot long survive alienated from the world.
Aggressive national policy will accomplish nothing for Egypt and the many Egyptians whose jobs depend on the tourist sector. That’s worth keeping in mind when people ask if a new Egypt will be a pro-Hamas Egypt.
2. Why, How Many Tanks and Planes You Have
Any post-Mubarak regime will have to incorporate not only the military’s interests, but reward the military (assuming the revolution succeeds, it’ll only succeed with military support). The same Egyptian military that gets $1.3 billion from the United States in aid every year doesn’t want to jeopardize that aid—for which reason it will look very suspiciously on any political agenda that wants to antagonize Israel and threaten a major source of its funding.
Imagine a cabinet meeting in which a minister, affiliated with the Brotherhood, suggests negating the peace treaty. The military could and would very easily point out to that minister that he wouldn’t be there absent the military’s help. I can almost guarantee the military would keep the Brotherhood far away from any such portfolio.
3. Foreign Policy Requires Power
Here’s the key: At most, the Brotherhood probably commands about 20% of the vote, and even that’s an educated guess. That’s not enough to form or dominate a government.
We live in a post-ideological age. The great narratives that drove Western civilization during the 20th century had parallels in much of the Arab and Muslim world, with grand narratives such as Arab nationalism, Islamism, and Third World liberation often running through one another. The appeal of these ideologies has died for a number of reasons, which I discussed in a previous essay.
Before we hyperventilate over the possibility of an Iran on the Nile, let’s keep in mind that the Brotherhood is not the dominant force in these protests, its political ideology is weakly formed, its political vision is an ambiguous articulation of an ideological moment that has passed; there’s not much reason to assume that the Brotherhood will somehow dominate Egypt in Mubarak’s absence.
The era of Islam as a national political project, seeking revolutionary expansion, was a brief blip in the political and intellectual history of the Muslim world. Its appeal was similar to the appeal of other radical Third World movements, except its religious edge came from the realities of the societies it emerged from.
4. Saying It and Meaning It
It’s also important to keep in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitudes toward Israel are not exclusive to Islamists. Arabs and Muslims and Middle Easterners throughout the region tend to have strong opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was seen even in Turkey, where many analysts and pundits initially expressed surprise by the vehemence of the Turkish government’s reaction to Israel after the Gaza flotilla incident.
But in part it wasn’t a foreign policy decision so much as a requirement to respond to real anger on the ground in Turkey. This doesn’t mean that Egypt is going to go the way of Iran. Even Turkey, for all its rhetoric, attempted to make a gesture of reconciliation during the recent forest fires in Israel, donating several helicopters to help the relief effort.
The Turkish Prime Minister is the only Muslim leader so far who has strongly condemned Mubarak, and who seems to understand the mood of the Arab and Muslim street. He is wildly popular throughout the region, and his remarks should indicate what an Egyptian democracy might look like. In that sense, it’s not so different from the United States. Our politicians tend to issue strong statements, but generally policy continues as it always has. We hear Newt Gingrich say all sorts of things about Saudi Arabia, but do we really think that if Newt Gingrich was in power he would suddenly drop that alliance?
The Brotherhood’s position on foreign policy reflects to some degree a wider Arab and Muslim opinion on the region, and a vacuum in power which has emerged since America’s relative decline in the region has become increasingly obvious. We’ll simply see more countries playing more sides—in a post-ideological age, “power blocs” become redundant. Hence Turkey talks to Iran, but talks to Israel, and Qatar talks to Hamas but also welcomes a US military presence in the region.
I think that the Brotherhood’s position will probably be more in line with a hard bargain: “We’re not going to recognize Israel until we receive certain concessions for the Palestinian side.” But, if they are in power in any capacity, their ability to get any such concessions depends on their having a relationship with Israel—Iran has stood outside Israel for years, and has been unable to accomplish anything for the Palestinians.
5. A Different Brotherhood? Not Likely, But Not Impossible
In the last few decades, the Brotherhood has moved decisively away from violence, and toward a more social, albeit nonpolitical, religious role. Here our traditional vocabulary fails us. Islam is in many ways a public religion, with its congregational prayers and forms of dress, but public and private do not map out over theocratic and secular. Religion in the public square doesn’t mean religion owns the public square (see Hisham Hellyer’s recent dispatches.)
I’m sure there is a lot of thinking going on inside the Brotherhood’s leadership. They’ve missed the boat on this popular uprising, and they cannot get their agenda into circulation—it’s not just bad timing, it’s a deeper sense of losing out on the mind of the moment. The uprising is led by a wide cross-section of Egyptians, many of whom are certainly personally religious, and who even still want a role for Islam in the state, but do not want the Brotherhood’s vision of Islam in the state. Rejecting religious leadership here isn’t rejecting religious leadership, it’s rejecting the claims of that leadership to determine politics.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that the Brotherhood may calculate in the coming months and years that it is more productive for them to concentrate on serving as a minority in Parliament—not aiming to win power. The Brotherhood may want to become the moral consciousness of society (again, as they define moral consciousness): running institutions, clinics, social services and the like, preaching and spreading its idea of Islam, without getting too tangled up in politics.
At the same time, the political leader who comes to power in Egypt will likely be personally religious, proud to identify as an Egyptian, an Arab, and a Muslim. Because Egypt never went through the radical secularization that Turkey went through from the 1920s onward, it is unlikely Egypt will ever become that Westernized of a society, with such stark oppositions in public lifestyle between the religious and the non-religious. But Westernization is not a precondition for democracy, nor is there only one form of secularism in a society either.