Revolution in Cairo

Interview Shadi Hamid

Shadi Hamid

Director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, he says the Muslim Brotherhood functions as "state within a state" in some ways, but does not have a clear vision of what it wants for Egypt. Hamid argues that the U.S. has to learn to live with political Islam, and should start engaging with the Brotherhood now. This is the edited transcript of two interviews conducted on Feb. 9 and Feb. 12, 2011.

Does America understand the Muslim Brotherhood?

The U.S. doesn't understand the Brotherhood, at least not yet. There are a lot of misconceptions about the group. I think one mistake that a lot of Western observers make is that they look at it as a fundamentally political organization; that this is a group that wants to come to power. It's much more complicated than that. The Brotherhood engages in a whole diverse array of activities, and the social and educational side of what they do is very important.

“One mistake that a lot of Western observers make is that they look at [the Muslim Brotherhood] as a fundamentally political organization; that this is a group that wants to come to power. It's much more complicated than that.”

And that's really their lifeline. When we're trying to understand why the Brotherhood has gained the support it's gained, we have to look at that. So we're talking about a community of members, of believers, who work together, who take part in a whole range of activities with each other. It is, in that sense, a way of life for those who are a part of the group. For example, every Brotherhood member is part of something called an usra, or a family, where they meet on a weekly basis. And they take part really in educational curriculum, or they read certain texts and discuss certain issues.

So in that sense, it's different than a political party. It's not like the Democratic Party in the States, where it's just about political activism or voting or elections. That's not really what the Brotherhood is about at the end of the day. There are people who join the Brotherhood who have no interest in politics, but really, for a lack of a better way of putting it, want to get into heaven and feel that the Brotherhood is a mechanism for becoming a better Muslim.

When you talk about this community, how large is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? ...

We're talking about hundreds of thousands of members and millions more supporters and sympathizers. So we're talking about the largest opposition force in Egypt by far. No one really comes close.

So who would come close? Give us some relative sense of the next largest opposition party compared to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The next largest opposition party would be the liberal Wafd party, which has been around for decades, one of the kind of old establishment parties in Egypt, but we're talking about just a membership in the tens of thousands, if that.

The history of the Muslim Brotherhood is long. It's measured in decades. Walk us through some of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood. [How was it founded? Tell us about its early years.]

Well, the group was founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, and he would go around to coffee shops and to gathering spaces and would really just talk to people on a one-to-one basis. And that's really how the Brotherhood became, just through word of mouth, from building things from the bottom up.

So in that sense, it really is a grassroots organization. And the Brotherhood at its peak in the 1940s had -- some estimates say -- around 1 million people. And the Egyptian population, at that point, was about 20 million. So we're talking about a group that really had a big part of Egyptian society on its side, being part of what they were trying to do. So that's incredible when you think about it.

… And then there's this fateful moment where there is the attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser, [the second president of Egypt]. Is that the next big chapter of history? Explain that to us.

So it's actually interesting to note that the Brotherhood was allied with Gamal Abdel Nasser initially, and they provided logistical support for the 1952 revolution. And there was a sense that they would become part of this new Egypt and play even a governing role.

Abdel Nasser turned on the Brotherhood, because the Brotherhood was really the only real threat to his hold on power. Everyone else had been really erased from the political scene. The Brotherhood was the last group standing. And there were growing tensions. The Brotherhood wanted to see Egypt moving in a different direction. Nasser was never really an Islamist and really had a more kind of a socialist, modernizing vision that the Brotherhood eventually felt less comfortable with.

So he turned on them really starting in 1953, and then really intensifying in '54. And that's where we see a very brutal crackdown on the group. There was an assassination attempt on [Nasser], and that was really the pretext for saying, "This is going to be the decisive blow against the Brotherhood." And they were rounded up and put in prison. And we saw executions as well.

One of the big stories was the torture that took place in Nasser's prisons. It's remembered today as really the worst period in the Brotherhood's history. And if we want to understand how Islamists really radicalized over time, I think we can really find the root of that in the dungeons of Nasser's regime.

That's interesting. I think Nasser is such a beloved figure in Egypt. He's remembered so fondly. That brutality, that side of the history of Nasser is often forgotten. And yet the botched assassination attempt on this beloved national figure is remembered. And does that still color the way Egyptians perceive the Muslim Brotherhood?

Well, there's some debate about who exactly was involved in the assassination. Was it a rogue member of the Brotherhood? Some Brotherhood members think that Nasser actually planned the attack because he needed a pretext. So there's different perceptions of what exactly happened, but it's unlikely that the organizational leadership organized and planned the attempt.

But just from talking to some people, they'd say, "Well, the Muslim Brotherhood, they tried to kill Nasser." And it sort of feels almost like a historical strike against them from the start. Is that your perception? ...

I think there's a general sense that the Brotherhood has had a violent and in some ways dark past. I think there is a general sense that they were different then, and there was a period that they engaged in activities that don't make them look very good.

So I think there is certainly is that perception. When we're trying to understand how the Brotherhood evolved over time, I think [it's] interesting to kind of use that as a starting point and see how they've distanced themselves from that path. The Brotherhood of today is not the Brotherhood of yesterday, and I think that's important for people to understand. They have gone through a gradual evolution over the years.

... What happens after the Nasser assassination attempt? ...

After the assassination attempt, they're rounded up; they're put in prison. And a really important part of the Brotherhood's history involves a man by the name of Sayyid Qutb, who is a very controversial figure, not only in the West, but within the Brotherhood itself. He was one of the main ideologues of the Brotherhood and became more or less its de facto leader in the late '50s and early 1960s. Qutb really serves as the inspiration for radical movements that came later in the '60s and '70s.

Qutb was radicalized by his experience in prison, seeing his fellow Brotherhood members killed and tortured. And this is where the whole [issue of] takfir comes from, where Qutb was trying to understand how can his fellow Egyptians engage in such brutality. And the way he was able to make sense of it was maybe these people aren't fully Muslim. And if they cease to be Muslim, then their blood becomes licit, and this is where we get the whole idea that Muslims can be killed.

That's an important juncture, because Qutb takes things in a certain direction. In the '60s, he writes his famous tract called Milestones, which continues to be one of the major sources of inspiration for radical movements. The mainstream of the Brotherhood, though, in the late '60s, started to feel uncomfortable with the direction that Qutb was going in.

Then the Brotherhood's leader at that time, Hassan al-Houdaiby -- after Qutb is executed -- writes a book renouncing some of Qutb's beliefs and trying to steer the Brotherhood in a more moderate, nonviolent direction. So this is where we start to see the distancing from Qutb's legacy, and we see a split in political Islam. ...

This is where we really see a fork in the road, where Qutb and his followers, who come after, move in an entirely different direction. And this is where we see radical groups and Al Qaeda spawn from this stream.

Then the Muslim Brotherhood commits itself to a path of relative moderation. It renounces violence in the early 1970s and decides to commit itself to working within existing political structures. So no longer are they calling for the overthrow of Arab leaders or for targeting certain leaders. They're saying, "No, we have to work from within the existing system through gradual change, working from the bottom up." ... And this is where the role of President Anwar al-Sadat becomes important, the president after Nasser.

[Anwar] Sadat, feeling threatened by his left flank, by socialists and Marxists and so on, wanted a counter, so he released many of the Brotherhood members and leaders from prison in an amnesty in the early 1970s. And this is where we see the Brotherhood really coming back into society and rebuilding their organization, setting roots into society, because really, at that point, they'd been erased from society. They had really no public presence whatsoever. This is an important turning point. And this is also when we see a broader shift in Egyptian society and an Islamic revival. And that starts in the '70s, intensifies in the '80s, and continues to the present day, where Egyptians, disillusioned by the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, they start to look for ideological alternatives.

There was a sense that secular nationalism had failed. Liberalism had been tried in the '30s and '40s. We tried socialism. Now, what's left? Islamism. So the Brotherhood was really at the right place at the right time, and was really able to catch that wave. ... And even Sadat himself tried to portray himself as the believing president and would later change the constitution to make Shariah one of the principal sources of legislation.

But the treachery was that the Islamist movement came against Sadat, and he was assassinated. What role, if any, did the Muslim Brotherhood play in that assassination? I think the common perception is that they played a role. Did they?

Islamists in general turned against Sadat in the late '70s because of the peace treaty with Israel, and that includes the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was adamantly against that. And there was also the matter of Sadat's growing authoritarianism, that he was cracking down harshly on the opposition at this time, and this set the stage for the growing anger that people had toward him. And soon enough, he was assassinated.

The Brotherhood did not play a role in that. That perhaps might be a perception that some have. The Brotherhood was not involved. It was the more extremist groups, such as Islamic Jihad, that played a role in making that possible. So I think there's an important distinction there to be made that the Brotherhood simply wasn't involved in Sadat's assassination.

... What is the relationship like between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda?

Al Qaeda hates the Muslim Brotherhood, to put it simply. They see the Brotherhood as having betrayed the Islamist cause. And actually, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda's number two, wrote a whole book attacking the Brotherhood, called The Muslim Brotherhood's Bitter Harvest in 60 Years. I think the title says what it's about.

From the perspective of Zawahiri and Al Qaeda, they see them as having gone too much into the political process, becoming too moderate, and therefore losing their way.

Right. So Al Qaeda does not recognize the legitimacy of the democratic process of elections. They don't want Muslims to be voting in elections, because that suggests that the people are sovereign and not God. God is the sole lawmaker. So in that sense, they see the Brotherhood really participating in elections throughout the region and really committing itself to the political process and being part of the political scene. To them, that's diverting people's attention away from the lines of jihad toward the ballot box, and that is a real threat to Al Qaeda's practice and ideology.

So a lot of Americans still have a perception of the Muslim Brotherhood that would be that they're not that much different from some of these more militant strains of political Islam, the most militant being Al Qaeda. Why is that? ...

Well, first of all, they might need a name change. It's very difficult to be seen in a positive light when you have a name like the Muslim Brotherhood. But I think there's a general fear of Islamists. And it's not just the Brotherhood, but there's a sense that these are people who act moderate, but once they have the chance, they're going to pounce and take power. I think a lot of that comes from lumping all Islamist groups together.

But isn't that possibly true, that this is the Brotherhood's moment and that's exactly what they're going to do?

There are certainly troubling aspects to the Brotherhood's ideology and approach. And I don't think that we should pretend that the Brotherhood are closet liberals, waiting to come out and be pro-American. They are not liberals, and they probably never will be. They are staunch conservatives, very socially conservative, and they have views that most Americans are not going to feel comfortable with, and that would include women's rights, Christian minorities in Egypt --

Opposition to the peace treaty signed by this country, Israel and the United States.

Yeah. One reason that Western policy-makers are fearful of the Brotherhood, it's not so much about their domestic policies or imposing Shariah or women's rights, because after all, one of America's closest allies is the most theocratic in the world, Saudi Arabia. So it can't just be about that. It's really, I think, about foreign policy orientation. The Brotherhood is adamantly against the peace treaty, or so that would seem to be their position.

I think there's a legitimate fear of what would the Brotherhood do when it comes to power. Would it cancel the peace treaty with Israel? But it's interesting to note that in recent weeks, some Brotherhood leaders have come out and said that they are willing to respect the peace treaty. And the Brotherhood is, at its core, a very pragmatic organization.

In fact, they're so pragmatic that they give pragmatism a bad name, at least according to other opposition groups in Egypt. They're willing to shift position. They're willing to compromise very quickly. In the end, the Brotherhood is concerned about its own survival. It cares about its organizational structure. And if that means making some ideological concessions here and there, so be it. ...

I think one of the biggest challenges for the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be this anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic streak that runs through the organization's history. Maybe less so its contemporary expression, but it's there. I'm curious if you think they can ever really get past that with an American audience.

Brotherhood leaders in their hearts of hearts hate Israel. We might as well be honest about that. They don't like the fact that Israel is there. So there is definitely a concern there. There is an anti-Semitic strain in some of their comments throughout their history.

But I think we have to understand this in the context of Egyptian society. This is not just a Brotherhood problem. There is a strong strain of anti-Israel sentiment throughout this society, so that means that really any government that is democratically elected moving forward is going to be less amenable to U.S. interests.

The Brotherhood, though, is a pragmatic organization. They understand their geopolitical realities, so in the end it doesn't really matter so much what they believe in their hearts. What matters is what they actually do when they're in positions of responsibility. And they know the world is watching closely.

Do they want to risk a diplomatic firestorm or Egypt being put on the U.S. blacklist or losing billions of dollars in aid because of tensions with Israel or attempts to try to cancel the peace treaty? The Brotherhood is a pragmatic organization, and I just don't see them moving in that direction.

Of course, it's hard to tell. There are no guarantees. But again, that's why engagement with them now becomes important, so some of those concerns and fears can be addressed before -- not afterward, a couple years down the line. ...

So the Muslim Brotherhood's organizational structure, just describe it for us. What is the Muslim Brotherhood exactly today?

It's sort of a state within a state in some ways. It has a whole parallel set of institutions. It is either involved in or controls banks, businesses, mosques, clinics, day care centers, schools, even Boy Scout troops. It's very much in the thick of Egyptian society, working among the people, and that explains, in part, why they're popular.

So we're talking about a massive organization. And in that sense, it's almost a big bureaucracy. The Brotherhood, really, at the end of the day, is a slow, bumbling giant. It's hard for them to take decisive action. It's hard for them to really be bold and creative, because they're just so big. There are so many individuals and groups within that have different visions for where the organization should go.

So better not to have a clear definition of their vision for Egypt, because that could alienate some of its supporters. So it has a somewhat vague outlook on politics. What would the Brotherhood really do if it came to power? What would it mean to implement Islamic law? Those are questions that the Brotherhood hasn't answered very clearly, not because they're trying to trick anyone, but because they themselves probably don't know.

Where does this bumbling giant get its funding?

Well, it is a mass membership organization, so --

How many members are we talking?

We're probably talking about certainly hundreds of thousands. I think the estimate that's closest to the truth is probably 300,000, give or take. ... So the hundreds of thousands of members are expected to give back to their organization and make annual donations to the group. So that's a major source of funding, but also private donors throughout the region, in particular the Gulf, where there's a strong Brotherhood expatriate population.

I think it's also important to note that there are major influential Muslim Brotherhood businessmen in Egypt who are multimillionaires, who have given a lot back to the organization and have really provided the funding for the organization during its period of growth over the last two decades.

And that includes, for example, the deputy [chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood] who's currently in prison, Khairat Al-Shater, who was really known to be one of the major financiers of the organization. But the regime cracked down in recent years and seized the financial assets of some of these Islamist businessmen, and that has hurt the Brotherhood and closed off some of its sources of funding.

So the Muslim Brotherhood right now, as you described [it] as this sort of bumbling giant with a wide base and solid funding, is not a monolith. It really has a lot of layering to it. Describe that layering. How does it cut across Egyptian society?

There's sometimes a perception that the Brotherhood gains its support from the core, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The Brotherhood is primarily a middle-class, upper-middle-class organization. Their core is made up mostly of doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists and so on. So we're talking about really an urban-based organization.

And the Brotherhood is attractive to the well-educated. In that sense, the Brotherhood has had trouble actually gaining the support of Egypt's poor. And that's been one of the criticisms of the group: that they don't really have a clear economic program; they don't know how to connect to the poor on the street.

That really surprises me, because when I was here in the early '90s, in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit hardest in the poor neighborhoods of Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood were really seen as coming in and saving the day, building social services network that were needed that the Mubarak regime was not providing, reconstructing those neighborhoods. How did they lose touch with the poor?

They're still very effective in providing social services, but that's different than really providing an economic vision that connects with the lower class in Egypt. But one of the reasons that they are still popular among a wide swath of Egyptians is because they're seen as being effective, of being less corrupt. They're able to get things done on the ground.

... The Muslim Brotherhood did very well in the 2005 elections, and then had a series of crackdowns on them. Could you describe that period for us, critical period for the Muslim Brotherhood, from 2005 to 2010, under Hosni Mubarak?

So in 2005 we see the Bush "freedom agenda," and that helped open up political space for the opposition in Egypt. And it's interesting that I've talked to Brotherhood leaders who will tell me that the Bush administration's pressure on Mubarak did help give more political space. And then we have the November 2005 elections, where the Brotherhood did quite well. It won 20 percent of the seats in Parliament, its largest ever total. So this is really the Brotherhood coming into its own, politically, and really starting to play a major political role and being a major opposition force in the Egyptian Parliament.

So what happened that they lost that momentum?

Well, the regime was frightened by this, and they saw that the Brotherhood was a real threat and that they were right there in the Egyptian Parliament, confronting them on a daily basis on issues of legislation and the whole gamut of issues. So at that point, the Egyptian regime decided to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and we see one of the worst periods of anti-Islamist repression since the 1960s, where the Brotherhood was caught by surprise and didn't really have a coherent response, and that includes thousands of members being imprisoned, its financial assets being seized, some of its organizational infrastructure attacked, its businesses closed. The list goes on.

So this was a very difficult period for the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is why culminating -- I should say in the 2010 elections, which were one of the most rigged in Egyptian history, where the Brotherhood was reduced from 88 seats to zero. And this really showed that the Mubarak regime wanted to erase the Muslim Brotherhood from the political arena. ...

This organization that can get things done on the ground, as you describe it, that is a bumbling giant, that is well funded, that has many layers of society, has reached a pivotal moment in its history, and it's right there in Tahrir Square. What does this moment mean for the Muslim Brotherhood?

>This is a very important moment. They do have an opening. They are the only real mass-membership organization now. So they have the potential to play a very major role during this revolution. Up until now, they've tried to stay in the background and played a more behind-the-scenes role, not because they're weak, but by design, because they're afraid that if they do play a more visible role, that is going to frighten the international community and will start to see fears of another Iran and all of that.

The Brotherhood is sensitive to international opinion. It knows that the world is watching very closely right now, so they don't want to give the regime a pretext to crack down. They don't want to give the U.S. a pretext to withdraw support from this democratic experiment, if we want to call it that, in Egypt today.

So the Brotherhood is holding back a little bit. I think they're also a little bit confused about what role should they play. What is next for them? They might very well play a role in a national unity government in the coming months or years. That's a totally new thing for the Brotherhood, because up until now, we're talking really about eight decades of being in the opposition, of not really having any experience with government. So this is going to be really one of the first real experiments in Islamist governance in Egypt.

In Tahrir Square, there is a great organizational structure that's imposed upon that square, that sustains it. That's different than saying it started it, but there is a feeling of the Muslim Brotherhood sustaining this movement, being able to get the numbers out on the street, being able to keep the square controlled. That's an important role they're playing, even if it is a quiet one, no?

They're playing a critical support role. The Brotherhood is integral to the success of these protests, but they're doing that from behind the scenes. And that includes providing water and food for people in the square, protecting protesters against thugs, bringing numbers out. All of this does make a difference.

But again, I think it's worth emphasizing that we're still talking about a minority in the square. This is not a majority Islamist movement that we're seeing right now. And part of that reticence, again, goes back to this idea the Brotherhood doesn't yet know what it wants. It doesn't have a clear sense of mission anymore. What does it mean to be an Islamist party, not just in opposition, but also in government? And I think they're worried, too, because if they are in government, they're going to have to deal with certain difficult realities.

What to do about the peace treaty? And while there are Brotherhood leaders that I think are ready to accept the peace treaty, there are some who won't. What we might see then is a split in the organization where some of the hard core of the Brotherhood might say: "Our leaders are selling us out. They're dealing with Israel. They're trying to adopt the Turkish model of Islamist lite."

So I think the Brotherhood is worried about losing its organizational unity. When you're repressed, it's easy to kind of close ranks and stay together, because you have a common enemy. But when you're in government, it's hard to keep your coalition together. And I think the Brotherhood has this fear that they're going to lose their sense of organization.

So describe that division as it's emerging right now for me. It seems to cut across generational lines. There's an old guard, and there's a very interesting and sort of maverick young movement within the Muslim Brotherhood right now that's very present on the square. How do you see that generational split playing out in the coming weeks, months?

Some of the Brotherhood members who are playing the most influential roles in Tahrir Square today are the Brotherhood youth. And this is a new generation of journalists, bloggers and activists, who are a little bit separated from the mainstream of the organization. They don't feel comfortable with certain aspects of the Brotherhood, and they're actually moving closer, in some sense, to leftists and liberals. And they have a very good relationship with some of these other groups in Tahrir Square.

So in that sense, they're very comfortable with this idea of cooperation across ideological lines. And this is sort of a new progressive front for the Brotherhood, and these young people are going to play probably a major role in the years ahead. Perhaps they could provide a path forward. If we're trying to see what the Brotherhood might become five or 10 years from now, that could be a model. …

It's not about Brotherhood versus leftists or Brotherhood versus liberals. They really feel that they're part of a new Egyptian national movement. And that's why we really saw an amazing level of unity in Tahrir Square. So the youth are offering something different here, and that's not just the Brotherhood, but opposition groups throughout Egypt. There is a divide. …

If indeed that youth movement can have that role, do you think they can succeed? Can they take the Muslim Brotherhood in a new direction?

I think what's really promising about this new phase in Egypt is that there's going to be openness. The Brotherhood can really come fully above ground, and we're going to start to see different trends emerging within the Islamist camp. I think where you're being repressed, there's a tendency to rally around the flag and not to criticize too much your own leadership, because you're just so focused on having that enemy, the regime, and getting rid of that enemy. But now I think the whole political spectrum in Egypt is opening up. So I think Islamists are going to have a more public conversation about what it means to be an Islamist in this new phase. …

So do the youth offer something substantially different from that old guard?

If we're talking about this youth elite that was in the square, they do. And I think their model is more the Turkish model of Islamism rather than anything else. They actually look up to [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the Islamists in Turkey as offering this compromise between secularism and Islamism, adapting political Islam to a difficult geopolitical context, of learning to live with different trends in society.

So I think that's one trend that is growing and is likely to grow. The question is, how much influence will these Brotherhood youth that were on the Square have? Are they going to take what they were able to build in recent weeks and become leaders in the true sense of the word, and becoming more active in formal politics and in political parties?

And it's a big question: Will the youth be governing? Will they play a leadership role in the coming phase? And if they do, I think we could see a real shift within the Brotherhood as these young activists become more influential from within. ...

That thing that's bubbling underneath the surface, in my mind, is a youth movement that wants to take it in a completely different direction than the old guard does, and there will be a split and that there will be two different movements. There will be a youth Islamist movement, and there will be an old-guard political movement that will really go nowhere.

It's possible. I think the big question is, do these youth really have a following? When it comes to the grassroots of the organization, different districts in Egypt, they don't know who Abdelrahman Ayyash is or Mohammed Abbas.

These are new names. And the question is, can these young leaders really take their message into the street, into the grassroots of the organization, and persuade very traditional, conservative Islamists that their progressive vision is somehow more appropriate for the coming phase? I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure if that's really what they're about. ...

Do you think the United States is actually going to engage politically with the Muslim Brotherhood going forward in Egypt?

I think the U.S. doesn't have a choice anymore. I think the U.S. has to learn to live with political Islam. The Brotherhood is likely to going to play an influential role in the coming years. If Egypt becomes democratic, the largest opposition force in the country is going to be part of that new political scene.

So the U.S. has to find a way to be OK with that and to start engaging with the Brotherhood. I think now is the time to do that, because the U.S. has leverage with the Brotherhood now. After the Brotherhood comes to power, it might be too late at that point. And if the U.S. wants to make clear, for example, what some of the red lines are -- for example, the peace treaty with Israel -- it's time to have that conversation with Brotherhood leaders sooner rather than later. …

And I think the Brotherhood itself has made clear that it is ready for a dialogue with the U.S. They've been calling for that. It is a little bit sensitive. There's always a worry that that will hurt their credibility if they're seen to be having close relationship with the U.S.

But that aside, the Brotherhood does recognize the importance of dialogue, and Brotherhood branches in other countries do actually enjoy a dialogue with the U.S. So this wouldn't be unprecedented. And the Brotherhood has something to learn from the U.S., and the U.S. has something to learn and gain from the Brotherhood. So it's not just an exchange of ideas but also an exchange of interests going forward. ...

Is that conversation happening right now?

It's not happening yet. There haven't been any contacts, at least that we're aware of, between the U.S. and the Brotherhood. But at some point it's going to have to happen. And this has always been America's problem in the Arab world: that we want democracy, but we're afraid of its outcomes.

This is our Islamist dilemma. And now Egypt really provides an opportunity for the U.S. to resolve that dilemma once and for all, because it's paralyzed our policy for so long. And it really causes a big gap between our rhetoric, which is very pro-democracy sometimes, and our policies on the ground, which up until now largely support repressive autocrats.

What do you mean? What is the Islamist dilemma from a U.S. policy perspective?

That if there are free and fair elections in the Arab world, Islamists will either do very well or maybe even potentially win.

You have said several times in this interview "when they win, when they take power." Do you think it's inevitable that the Muslim Brotherhood is on a path right now to running this country, either through a coalition government or through a majority?

They're certainly on a path to being part of a coalition government, so they will play some role in governing. I don't think they have leadership aspirations in the short term, but I think down the road, when the Brotherhood becomes more comfortable with the idea of governing, we may start to see a willingness to actually be the number one party in Egypt. I think that will take a long time, but I think it's something that we have to think about sooner rather than later.

If it happens, you know, 10 years, 20 years, whatever it is, at some point, Islamists are going to start thinking, "Well, maybe we want to win elections and actually play the primary governing role, not just in Egypt but in other countries." Presumably by then, these Islamist groups will be very different than what they are today. The process of evolution will continue.

This relatively glacial Islamic revolution that's happening in Egypt is really a decades-long story that the Muslim Brotherhood drives. And should Americans be concerned about that?

Even though the Brotherhood hasn't won elections, in some ways, it's already won. If you look at Egypt today, it's a very Islamized society. Whether it's women wearing the headscarf or Egyptians being supportive of Islamic law playing a larger role in society, the levels of religious observance, Islamic banks, Islamic businesses, Shariah-compliant investing -- throughout every sector of Egyptian society, there is a move in this direction.

And that's always what the Brotherhood wanted in the first place. So in that sense, they feel that history is on their side. And no one's more patient than the Brotherhood. They never seem to be in a rush. They never seem to have a real sense of urgency, because they think that Egypt is moving in their direction. …

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Posted Feburary 22, 2011

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