Engaging the Islamists

February 4, 2011 Topic: AutocracyCivil SocietyDemocracyReligion Region: Egypt

Engaging the Islamists

Opposition groups prize survival above all. Engage them early and often.


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.

Despite being the country’s largest opposition group, Brotherhood leaders have said they have no leadership aspirations. It is not clear what exactly this means. But what does seem certain is that the Brotherhood will, in the coming years, have its first ever experience in government, most likely as a minority coalition partner with liberal and leftist groups (which will undoubtedly become stronger with the opening of political space).

Joining a government will inevitably bring up the “what about Israel?” question that has long dogged the organization. In the summer of 2006, during the Israel-Hezbollah war, I remember interviewing the Brotherhood’s General Guide Mahdi Akef, known both for his hot temper and spirited anti-Western posturing. I pushed him to explain how the Brotherhood would deal with Israel if it ever had a role in government. Visibly irritated, he assured me the Brotherhood would never accept Israel’s existence. After a few minutes, he said he had had enough and asked me to leave. Meanwhile, the more pragmatic Brotherhood leaders would tell me that, while they would never accept Israel “in their hearts,” they would resign themselves to reality if necessary. Beliefs, then, are not necessarily an accurate predictor of behavior.

Understanding the Brotherhood’s position on key U.S. security concerns is one thing. The more challenging (and relevant) task is doing something about it. A government that includes the Brotherhood will almost certainly be less amenable to American interests, at least in the short term. But even without them, any democratically elected government is likely to adopt a more independent foreign policy. After all, part of the reason President Mubarak is so unpopular is that he’s seen as too close to the U.S. and Israel.

With that in mind, the U.S. should initiate a substantive dialogue with opposition groups – secular and Islamist alike – before they come to power, and, preferably, as soon as possible. The Egyptian opposition wants something from the U.S. (more pressure on Mubarak), so this is the point at which the Obama administration enjoys the most leverage with them. During such discussions, a range of difficult issues can be dealt with, including the matter of Camp David. The U.S. can request assurances that the peace treaty be respected.

This is why the case for Islamist engagement was always a powerful one. Invariably, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will one day come to power. Yet the U.S.-Egypt relationship was always focused on the current leaders of Egypt, at the expense of its future leaders. We may now be paying the price. Today, the U.S. only seems to have leverage with one side – the side that is losing.