Why Is America Reaching Out to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?

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As the final results of Egypt’s parliamentary elections come in this week, the country’s Islamists are walking away the biggest winners.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s projected 40 percent electoral victory brings an added benefit – international legitimacy, enhanced recently by reports that the U.S., which had long formally shunned the Islamist group, is now engaging with it. Al-Nour, a Salafi political block of more hardline and ultraconservative Islamists, also did unexpectedly well, taking about 25 percent of the vote in preliminary counts.

FRONTLINE talked to Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and a fellow at its Saban Center for Middle East Policy, to explore what’s behind the latest U.S. efforts to engage with the Brotherhood, and what’s at stake – for both the U.S. and the Brotherhood – with the Salafis’ unanticipated success.

What kind of U.S.-Brotherhood engagement is happening right now and how significant or unprecedented is this contact?

“The Brotherhood has very strong nationalist credentials, it has very strong anti-American credentials, so it can actually counterintuitively get away with being closer to the U.S.”

We shouldn’t overstate the degree of engagement. It’s still fairly limited at this point. It’s just a couple meetings here and there.

But as recently as October, [U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Ann Patterson was quoted as saying that she personally wasn’t comfortable meeting with members of Muslim Brotherhood. That’s pretty concerning. And I think that’s illustrative of where the U.S. has been and the challenges it’s going to face. …

Today, the U.S. still hasn’t worked out a coherent policy toward Islamist parties in the region, and maybe they don’t want to. There’s no grand strategic vision. It’s one thing to meet a couple leaders of the Brotherhood every other month; I think it’s another to have a substantive strategic dialogue. I think the latter is what’s necessary, but the former is what we have right now. So the question for U.S. policymakers is what are the objectives for engagement? What does this all lead to? …

Why now? What factors are at play in these more public contacts with the Brotherhood right now?

The [parliamentary] elections are the big difference here. The results are in and they’re unmistakable: They have confirmed that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the dominant political player in Egypt for the foreseeable future — and this could be 20 or 30 years or God knows how long. It’s going to take a considerable period of time for liberals to ever replace Islamists in that respect. …

I think that reality is now dawning on U.S. policy-makers in a very serious way. The Brotherhood is a fact on the ground, and you have to find a way to work with it, to talk with it. The U.S. is now forced to try to find a way to co-exist with the Brotherhood. It requires a mental shift on the part of U.S. policy-makers.

But I don’t think we should give the Obama administration too much credit on this. They should have been doing this earlier, because anyone who was watching Egypt knew that the Brotherhood was going to be the most important player in a democratic Egypt regardless.

If the U.S. was really ahead of the curve it would have been engaging with the Brotherhood in 2005 [when candidates affiliated with the group won 20 percent of the vote in the country's parliamentary elections]. That way there could have actually been an established relationship between them, an established degree of trust.

But now they’re starting from square one, and it’s going to take time to build and develop that relationship.  It’s never going to happen overnight, considering how much mistrust there is between the two sides historically.

Is American frustration with Egypt’s military a driving force in this engagement?

I don’t think it’s a driving force, but it’s a part of it.

The more the U.S. engages with the Brotherhood, the more it sends a message to the military that it’s willing to diversify its alliances and relationships. The military has been banking on the notion that the U.S. is kind of in its pocket because the U.S. is afraid of Islamists coming to power and for that reason it’s going to support the military to counterbalance the Islamists.

Is the rise of the Salafis an impetus at all for the U.S. to engage with the Brotherhood? Could there be a “good Islamist vs. bad Islamist” factor at play?

Even if U.S. policymakers don’t like the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood looks a lot better head to head [with] the Salafis.

The Brotherhood was always thought to be the right wing of Egyptian politics — I think incorrectly, but that was the perception. Now it’s very clear that the Brotherhood is not the right wing. It’s a center-right political force; that’s it. It’s the Salafis who are the far right populists. …

The Brotherhood takes no positions that are radical by Egyptian standards. The vast majority of Egyptians believe that Sharia should play a major role in political life. The vast majority of Egyptians believe in implementing specific aspects of Sharia law. The Dec. 2010 Pew Poll, which you can take with a grain of salt, is illustrative of broader trends: 77 percent of Egyptian respondents said they believe in cutting off the hands of thieves, and 82 percent said they support the stoning of adulterers.

So I think people miss the real story in Egypt. People were trying to convince themselves during the revolution that Egyptians were going to turn out to be a bunch of fluffy liberals. Americans were projecting a lot of their own desires onto Egyptians. They said, “Wow look, here are these young liberal revolutionaries who use Facebook and Twitter.” I think there’s something very patronizing about that. … At some point you have to respect the will of the people. They like Salafis, to some extent, and they like the Brotherhood to a great extent.

We’ve talked about why you believe it’s in the U.S. interest to engage with the Brotherhood. But for the Brotherhood, what are the benefits? What do they get out of it?

International legitimacy. The Brotherhood is very concerned about how outside actors view it. It wants to be seen as a respectable actor, and that’s important in terms of attracting foreign investment, improving its economic situtation, boosting trade with Europe and the U.S. On all of these counts, the Brotherhood is going to need to develop strong relationships with people who can help rebuild its economy. For better or worse, the U.S. and Europe are still going to be primary economic interlocutors here. …

Now the whole world is watching, so the pressure is on them to present a positive image to the rest of the world and rebrand itself, which is part of what it’s doing now. …

Are there any costs for the Brotherhood to engaging with the U.S.? For example, does it hurt their Islamist credibility to have ties to the West?

The Brotherhood, like all other political groups in Egypt right now, is being very careful about their relations with foreign actors because there is a media campaign to target people who seem to be close to America or Israel.

That said, it’s kind of like a “Nixon goes to China” thing. The Brotherhood has very strong nationalist credentials, it has very strong anti-American credentials, so it can actually counterintuitively get away with being closer to the U.S. No one is seriously going to accuse the Brotherhood of being American stooges. And even if they do, people aren’t going to buy it because the Brotherhood has a long history of pro-Palestinian advocacy, anti-Israel agitation. So their credentials are strong in that respect.

On the other hand, people tend to assume that liberals are American lackeys and are getting foreign funding from Europe, the U.S., and USAID. So I think liberals in some way have to go out of their way not to appear to be American stooges. So the Brotherhood has more leeway in this respect. …

How has the Salafis’ rise affected the Brotherhood’s politics? Has the unexpected success of this hardline group made the Brotherhood’s political party more conservative?

It’s always tough to answer this question because we talk about the Brotherhood as if it’s a unitary actor, as if there’s one Brotherhood and we can state very clear what their position is on one issue or another. That’s not the case.

The Brotherhood is a massive organization with hundreds of thousands of members, and different members have different opinions on various matters. And it’s not as if they centralize their messaging. As hierarchical as the Brotherhood is, they let a lot of different people speak, not necessarily on behalf of the organization, but in their capacity as Brotherhood members. So you have different people making contradictory statements.

So the Brotherhood’s strategy is to try appeal to all different audiences simultaneously; they’re trying to be a big-tent party. But that means they’re trying to move to the right, they’re trying to move to the left, they’re trying to move to the center, they’re trying to appeal to the U.S., they’re trying to appeal to anti-American sentiment, they’re trying to advocate for a free market, but also social justice. That might sound very incoherent, but I think they’ve made incoherence into an art form, in a way. …

But, for example, in some parts of Egypt like the more rural areas, the Brotherhood is reasserting its religious rhetoric and credentials. They’re trying to go head to head with the Salafis and say we’re just as authentically Islamist as they are. They’re not afraid to use religion that way in certain parts of the country.

But in Cairo, they’re more interested in putting forth a more sensible, moderate face to the public, because Cairo is a different constituency, or at least some parts of it are. It just depends who they’re talking to and what they want to do. …

But aren’t the Salafis, who seemed to come out of nowhere, putting pressure on some of the Brotherhood’s leadership to be more conservative? Are they moving the Brotherhood to the right?

The Brotherhood was caught a little bit by surprise just like everyone else was. The Salafis exceeded even the highest expectations anyone had for them.

The Brotherhood has been doing this for 80 years. They’re experienced at politics. They take it seriously. But in the matter of a year, these Salafis come out of nowhere, and are able to get 25 percent. So I think there’s almost a kind of a resentment that the Salafis didn’t pay their dues, while the Brotherhood certainly did. They had to pay a very high price over decades.

It’s also that the Salafis are forcing the Brotherhood to talk about issues it doesn’t want to talk about. The Brotherhood doesn’t want to get too much into the issue of Islamic law; that’s for 10 or 20 years down the road. But now the Salafis are saying we want to implement Islamic law now, and that forces the Brotherhood to engage in an uncomfortable conversation that they don’t want to get into right now. They want to focus on two things: boosting the economy and reorganizing Egypt’s political institutions. But now the Salafis are threatening to shift the debate in an entirely different direction.

Should American policymakers be afraid of the Salafis’ rise?

The Salafis stand very little chance of really being in power. It’s very difficult to see how Salafis could be the number one political force in Egypt and eclipse the Brotherhood. I think there’s a ceiling on Salafi support just because there are considerable fears about them in Egypt, even among Islamists, even among the Brotherhood types.

But the Salafis could play a role like the Tea Party plays in the U.S.. … That’s the way we should look at their participation in politics. They’re going to be a swing vote, they’re going to be maybe even a kingmaker and they’re going to be very influential, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to legislate or implement their agenda in a serious way, unless they are able to convince enough people who aren’t Salafis to come on board with their agenda, which I think is unlikely. …

That said, Salafis, like everyone else, are capable of changing. They’re capable of adapting. Maybe it will be harder for them to do so because the whole basis of their appeal is that they are uncompromised, while the Brotherhood is compromised by politics. … So it’s in the interest of the U.S. to engage in dialogue with them as well. There’s no reason they shouldn’t, as long as they’re playing by the rules of the game. What is there to lose by engaging with Salafi parties? …

Wouldn’t U.S. engagement with al-Nour lend support to the party, and their ultraorthodox, hardline views?

They already have legitimacy. They’re the second largest party in Parliament. They’re a fact on the ground.  We don’t have to like what Salafis believe, but Salafis represent a large cross-section of the Egyptian public. There’s a lot of sympathy towards Salafi readings of Islamic law. I think the U.S. would stand to benefit from understanding them better.

And if we can play a role in influencing them in a more “moderate” direction, then great; if not, then what are we to lose? [Then they're just] the same as before. It’s better to constrain Salafis within the rules of the game rather than forcing them outside  of the political process, because that’s when they can play the role of spoiler. …

A recent story in Foreign Policy reported concerns among some Egyptians that the military could strike a deal with the Salafis to undercut the Brotherhood’s influence in Parliament. What’s the relationship between the Salafis and the military?

No one does a divide and rule better than the military. I think [what that report] was pointing to was something that has the potential to happen based on what we know about Salafis.

Salafis are not yet democrats; that’s not their top priority, so they could really care less if there’s a military that is intervening in the democratic process as long as their own interests are protected. …

Ultimately, the issues Salafis care most about is Islamic law. If the military is willing to help them on that and encourage that kind of Islamization, in return for not opposing the military, the Salafis can cut a deal like that. … That’s the problem when you have parties that don’t prioritize democracy. They’re willing to put other interests ahead of democracy, Just like the military is willing to put its own interests ahead of Egyptian democracy. So in that sense the Salafis and the military work in similar ways.

What’s the relationship between the U.S. and the military today? How badly have their relations deteriorated as a result of the military’s interference in the democratic process?

The U.S. is certainly frustrated. The raids on Egypt’s NGOs were a red line for the U.S. and that has damaged the relationship somewhat.

That said, this is not anything new. The military has been acting in an anti-democratic manner since literally day one. They’ve killed dozens of people, they tried more than 10,000 people in military tribunals, they’ve restricted freedom of the press, they’ve unleashed a war on NGOs since the spring, torture, virginity tests – it’s a very long list. The military has been absolutely disastrous in its management of the transition. So if the U.S. wasn’t frustrated by now, what would it take?

The U.S., again, took a very long time to do what I think it should have been doing a very long time ago, which is express very strong displeasure with the military and begin to put pressure on the military to alter its behavior.

The question is whether it is too late now. The military has poisoned the well. It’s threatened the success of the transition. Egypt is in a very difficult situation. I’m confident that Egypt with muddle through, because Egypt has a tendency to do that, but we’re not going to see a Tunisian success story here, and that’s unfortunate. Egypt had the potential to have a smoother more successful transition, but now that’s going to be more difficult even if the military begins to improve its management of Egypt. … They’ve lost the trust of much of the Egyptian political elite, of the revolutionaries, the political parties, so I think we have to think about a post-military Egypt. The question is how do you get there, because the military is very intent on holding power behind the scenes. …

Bonus

Mohamed Abbas, Running for the RevolutionGlobalPost‘s Charles M. Sennott investigates how Mohamed Abbas, an architect of Egypt’s uprising and the subject of the FRONTLINE report The Brothers, is trying to change the Egyptian political system from the inside.

Why Egypt’s Salafis Are Not the Amish — Council on Foreign Relations scholar Ed Hussain writes that left-leaning policymakers in Washington arguing that Salafis are “harmless, pious, and orthodox Muslims” are wrong. Instead, he warns that Salafis’ “ideas of literalist sharia as state law (hakimiyyah), manifest hatred of non-Muslims (al-wala wa al-bara), and excommunicating Muslims (takfeer)” are threats that can lead to both violent and nonviolent extremism.

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