February 20th saw the arrest of the editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood's English language website, Khaled Hamza. As it goes, the arrest tends to fade into the background of the hundreds of arrests of Brotherhood figures and the general tightening of Egyptian civic and political life in recent years. But this arrest is important because it fits into a broader pattern of strategic repression of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past few years.
In the interests of full disclosure I know Khaled fairly well. During my research on the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the tracks I pursued was contacting them directly. Unlike some, I believe it is important to actually meet with Muslim Brothers before writing about them, and so I emailed their website outlining my research interests. Khaled contacted me a few days later and he worked tirelessly to set up interviews and make introductions for me. Partially because of his intercessions, I was able to speak with high level Brotherhood leaders, including officials on the guidance council as well as the Supreme Guide Muahmmed Mahdi Akef.
Through over two years of extensive phone conversations I also got to know Khaled himself, who helped me understand some of the Brotherhood's stances on controversial issues and the varying factions inside the group. Khaled was an Islamist, and he wouldn't shy away from saying so. But he also made it known that he was committed to democracy and transparency in Egyptian political life. And though a healthy dose of skepticism should accompany claims from anyone affiliated with an organization as controversial as the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled's willingness to publicly stand up for the civil rights of his ideological opponents-as well as his own cohorts in the group-was a very encouraging sign.
I learned much about Khaled and his role within the Muslim Brotherhood. He was a quiet, professional reformer who worked diligently inside the often Byzantine and strictly hierarchical structure of the group to try and encourage engagement with the West. The English language website is an important part of this effort. He also voiced his support for the Brotherhood to chart a political path for the group that appeals to the widest section of Egyptians. Khaled was an important figure in an emerging trend inside the Brotherhood-itself among young, politically and technologically savvy members-to work for reform and greater cooperation with other prodemocracy forces in Egypt, as well as the group's outreach efforts to Westerners.
Because this effort was bearing fruit, and momentum seemed to be gaining for some type of reappraisal of U.S. views of Islamists, the activities of men like Khaled were seen as a threat. Over the past few years, the Egyptian regime responded by taking many of these moderates and activists committed to dialogue out of circulation, including senior members Khairat al Shater (you can read a good story about his case here, from someone who really knows) and Essam al Arian. Muslim Brotherhood students have been arrested en masse at Egyptian universities, and more have been arrested in the streets in the wake of the Brotherhood's decision to contest upcoming local elections.
Khaled's views on the United States are also of note. Shadi Hamid has written eloquently of Khaled's sentiments, but I want to add an additional anecdote: Khaled told me that as a teenager he had a giant American flag hanging on the wall of his room. Coming from a region where American flags are as likely to be burned as hung in a bedroom, this was surprising to say the least. On another occasion he was quick to condemn Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef for ridiculing President Bush, arguing that "I understand his anger at the man, but he is the President. You have to give him some respect."
Though this moderate trend in the Brotherhood is probably not the strongest, it is certainly in the interests of the United States to see it grow. Arresting and holding Khaled-and the others like him-is intended to send the message to Muslim Brothers that their efforts to engage with the West are doomed. As one savvy Egyptian observer has written, this increasing repression of important moderates is not only radicalizing the group, but Egyptian society as a whole. We should keep this in mind as we ponder the point of this latest arrest.
Steven Brooke is a research associate at The Nixon Center in Washington, DC.