Originally published at thinkafricapress.com, February 16th 2011
After sitting for ten minutes in a comfy lounge area overlooking a leafy tributary of the Nile, a group of nine men in jackets and ties entered the room. Setting down their intricately patterned mats and kneeling down to face south-east – the direction of Mecca – the Muslim Brotherhood members began to pray. More of them entered, and the lounge area began to fill up with midday worshippers. Across Cairo and Egypt, millions more were doing the same.
Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, on Roda Island, southern Cairo, has a greater number of pious worshippers than the average Egyptian office. But the scene was not a remarkable one. Despite this, many in the West fear the brand of Islam promulgated by the Brotherhood. Opinion about the organisation ranges from the belief it is a mere fig-leaf for militant Islam, to worries about how robust its latter-day democratic credentials would be if it ever attained power. But in an interview with Think Africa Press, senior Brotherhood members said that one of the main reasons behind these fears was that in the post-Mubarak epoch the West now stands to lose a great deal. Moreover, Dr Esam El-Erian, a member of the Brotherhood’s Executive Bureau, issued a stark warning to Western governments.
“Egypt has changed,” he said. “The Americans and Europe must leave the Middle Eastern map now.”
Sitting in a cramped, bright office next to a mother-of-pearl carving of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Dr El-Erian said Washington should know that it is “not the only power in the world”, and criticised them for being “friends of the Mubarak regime”.
“America has a chance now to deal with the people, not the regime,” he said. “Egypt cannot sell her independence to anyone, and the world cannot buy our dignity.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned in Egypt for much of the past 50 years, was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1920s. It was initially conceived as an organisation for encouraging the spread of Islamic piety. But al-Banna also crowned himself as the Supreme Guide who would one day lead a purified Muslim state.The European liberal values which informed the constitutional government of the time were considered a cancer on society – and the Brotherhood identified itself as the cure.
The group established a paramilitary wing to fight British rule, and later, during the 1950s and 1960s, the influential Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb wrote works which heavily influenced the radical Islamists of today. Yet the Brotherhood long ago abandoned any pretence of armed struggle against secular rulers or Western influence. According to the organisation’s deputy leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, al-Banna’s initial goal of extending Muslim influence beyond the Middle East was still relevant to the organisation.
“Everyone who has a vision, or concepts or principles, tried to spread these thoughts through peaceful means,” he said. “There are Christian figures who try to peacefully spread Christianity here in Egypt and Islamic countries in the Middle East. Everybody tries to spread their thoughts in a peaceful way. This is normal.
“What is abnormal and dangerous is that people try to spread the word in a violent way. But the Muslim Brotherhood never thinks about trying to spread its ideas in a violent way.”
One of the great fears among Western governments is the possibility that a Brotherhood-led government would decide to rip up the 30-year-old Egypt-Israeli peace treaty – long-considered a bedrock of security in the region. There is no doubting the Brotherhood’s animosity towards the treaty, a feeling in tune with a great many Egyptians.
Historically, even before Israel declared its independence, the Brotherhood called for greater support of the Arabs fighting Zionists in British Mandate Palestine. Al-Bayoumi points out that the initial 1979 peace treaty agreement was made by former president Anwar Sadat “without the approval of the Egyptian people and without being approved directly by special parliamentary councils”. In spite of this, he says that any decision on the treaty would have to be put to a parliamentary vote.
There is also anxiety in the West that the election due to be held this year will usher-in an Iranian style theocracy with the Brotherhood at the vanguard. The organisation itself insists it wants a fully democratic Egypt. El-Erian talks about “the first step on the road to democracy” being the ability of Egyptians to rid themselves of foreign powers. Al-Bayoumi says he wants the military to be true to its word and oversee a transition to a democratic state.
But leaving aside the separate question of whether the army will fully relinquish its current grip on power, many ask whether the Brotherhood would even be capable of winning an openly contested election now. Many of the anti-government protesters – Muslim, Christian, secular or otherwise –scotched the notion of the organisation having enough support to seize power. Others have asked whether the oppression of the Mubarak years intensified the misleadingly bright aura around the Brotherhood. The feelings have been fuelled by suspicions that the organisation was slow to commit itself to the protest movement. It is a suggestion Al-Bayoumi does not take seriously.
He said: “We were worried that people would think the Muslim Brotherhood would try to take control. But many of our senior figures were involved in the demonstrations before the young men.”
The coming months will see whether the Brotherhood remains the force it has often been painted as. Leaders in the West will be waiting with bated breath.