Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Waiting in the Wings?

By Patrick Goodenough | January 31, 2011 | 5:38 AM EST

Egyptian reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei addresses anti-government protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday, Jan.30, 2011. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

( – In a bid to galvanize Egypt’s anti-government revolt, opposition parties are pressing reformer Mohamed ElBaradei to assume the helm of a transitional movement – and the Muslim Brotherhood reportedly is supporting him, too.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the current turmoil and in an anticipated post-Mubarak Egypt is the subject of considerable speculation, feeding into the debate over the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis.

The veteran Islamist group is participating in the six day-old protests but has tried to downplay the level of its involvement, The government, especially early on, appeared eager to overstate the Muslim Brotherhood’s role.

Some analysts, seeing the Muslim Brotherhood as waiting in the wings to ride the popular wave of change to power, are drawing parallels to the Shah’s downfall and 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

The Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s with the goal of uniting Muslims under shari’a-enforcing governments with the eventual aim of restoring the Islamic caliphate. It later became active in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world and gave birth to Hamas in Gaza in 1987.

While others view the Brotherhood, which has borne the brunt of state repression for decades, as a more benign entity, few dispute that it is a political force to be reckoned with.

Senior Muslim Brotherhood figures Essam el-Erian, center right, and Saad el-Katatni, center left, take part in a protest in Cairo on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

Despite being formally banned in Egypt, it has built up a strong organization and Muslim Brotherhood candidates – running as “independents” – made up the largest opposition bloc in parliament after a 2005 poll. Elections late last year saw those gains dramatically reversed, but the vote was characterized by boycott calls and allegations of intimidation and vote-rigging.

Its apparent support for ElBaradei was reported by the Wall Street Journal and Egypt’s Bikya Masr news site, which quoted a Muslim Brotherhood official in northern Cairo, Helmi Gazzar, as saying ElBaradei had the “most potential” to achieve what the Egyptian people want – “freedom and free elections.”

The Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper quoted a statement from the reformist Democratic Front Party, saying national opposition parties have now asked ElBaradei to head a transitional body that will negotiate steps towards setting up an interim government.

ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who launched an Egyptian reform campaign in early 2010, flew home from Vienna last week and quickly emerged as a key figure in the unrest.

The lawyer and diplomat made an appearance Sunday evening at Cairo’s Tahrir square, ground zero of the protest movement, and told those of the estimated 10,000-strong crowd who could hear him that Egyptians want the “departure” of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Unintended consequences

In the U.S., the Working Group on Egypt, an initiative involving experts from the Carnegie Endowment and Brookings Institution among others, is urging the administration to suspend economic and military aid until Mubarak agrees to call free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.

Some opponents of President Hosni Mubarak view him as a sellout for maintaining Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel. In a demonstration in downtown Cairo on Sunday,protesters hold pictures of the president defaced with a Star of David and bearing the slogan “Down Agent Mubarak.” (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

It said the U.S. must also demand that the Egyptian government declare publicly that Mubarak will not seek another term, change the constitution to allow opposition candidates to take part, lift emergency restrictions, free political prisoners and allow freedom of association.

U.S. support for democratic reform and elections in the Middle East sometimes has had unintended consequences.
Hamas’ triumph in Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006 left the Bush administration, which championed democracy in the region, with the dilemma of how to deal with a government run by a designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO). It proceeded to shun Hamas unless it recognized Israel, renounced violence, and adhered to previous signed agreements.

Washington supported democratic change in Lebanon after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, but since then it has witnessed the increasingly successful political maneuvering of Hezbollah – another FTO – culminating in the ousting of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the naming last week of a Hezbollah-backed candidate to replace him.

Whether a similar pattern might produce a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt is an issue of concern.

“The Obama administration should be careful not to empower anti-democratic forces such as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood,” James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, wrote on Sunday.

Noting unconfirmed reports of possible Muslim Brotherhood support for ElBaradei, he recalled that the former IAEA chief had “clashed repeatedly with the United States and would be a weak political leader who would eventually be swept aside by the tide of events, leaving behind an uncertain political situation that would benefit anti-democratic forces.”

(At the IAEA, ElBaradei was viewed by critics as being soft on Iran, and was even accused of holding back evidence pointing to attempts by Tehran to develop a weapons capability. Shortly before he left his post, he claimed that Iranian nuclear threat had been “hyped.”)

While Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did not envisage radicals taking over in Egypt immediately, “it is possible that radicalism could fester in subsequent chaos, or that radical groups that are included in a broader coalition could come to control the government.”

“In many ways, the key decisions will be made over the next 6-12 months, as interest groups jockey for position and try to seize the opportunities created by change,” he said.

In Cairo, the Bikya Masr news site attributed fears that Egypt could undergo an “Islamic revolution” to anti-Muslim Brotherhood “fear-mongering” by some U.S. media

“Most observers and experts vehemently deny this and the Brotherhood itself has said it supports the will of the people, democracy, justice and freedom,” it commented.

Asked on CBS’s “Face The Nation” whether the administration was concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power, Clinton replied that she would not comment on what type of democratic process the Egyptians construct for themselves.

“But we obviously want to see people who are truly committed to democracy, not to imposing any ideology on Egyptians,” she said.

Without mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood by name, Clinton added, “we want to see the outcome of what started as peaceful protests legitimately demanding redress for grievances to result in a true democracy – not a phony one like we saw with Iranian elections, not to see a small group that doesn’t represent the full diversity of Egyptian society take over and try to impose their own religious or ideological beliefs. We want to see the full diversity and dynamism of Egyptian society represented.”

Peace agreement anxieties

The concerns are keenly felt in neighboring Israel, which has enjoyed a stable – if sometimes cold – peace with Egypt since Mubarak’s predecessor, President Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David peace treaty in 1978.

The Muslim Brotherhood consistently has opposed the peace agreement. A Brotherhood statement earlier this month demanded an immediate review of “Egyptian foreign policy, especially regarding the Zionists and the need to cut ties with them and support the Palestinian resistance.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet Sunday he had spoken about the situation in Egypt with President Obama and Clinton and had held consultations with Israeli intelligence and defense officials.

“Our efforts are designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region,” he said. “I remind you that the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and our goal is to ensure that these relations continue.”

Speaking to reporters en route to Haiti Sunday, Clinton said the U.S. had worked with Egypt to maintain peace in the region.

“The Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement prevented a lot of violence, prevented a lot of loss of life over many years. And we greatly appreciate that,” she said.

“We do not want to see a change toward a regime that would actually continue to foment violence or chaos, either because it [the peace agreement] didn’t exist or because it had a different view that it wished to impose on the Egyptian people.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow