Don’t be Afraid of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers

The West’s political leaders must not be afraid to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not seeking an Iranian style theocracy, but rather a democratic system with conservative Islamic norms. The younger generation of Muslim Brothers is even open to dialogue with Israel. In no other country is there an Islamist movement so experienced with working with a coalition of broad based groups.

As the eyes of the world’s media set it’s sights on Egypt, analysts, commentators and journalists are asking the questions that all the political leaders throughout are world are wondering but not saying. What now for Egypt? Who will take over when the eventual demise of Hosni Mubarak’s regime comes to an end? And it is eventual, that much we do know. Mubarak’s regime has been an empty shell state for sometime now. Parts of the country have been left without state health care, social provisions and educational facilities for years now. Other political players have filled this vacuum, providing the services of the state and highlighting Mubarak’s legitimacy deficit to a populace open to anti-regime opinions.

The protesters in large areas of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez shout slogans reflecting this state failure, “Bread, dignity and freedom.” Egypt is a country with 62% of its population under 29 years of age, with economic growth at a steady rate of 7%, but with seismic gaps between a large poverty class and a wealthy technocrat class aligned with Mubarak. It is a country with a police state under Emergency law for 30 years, a total lack of transparent fair elections during the life time of much of its people. It is a country where young people attend bloated, dated universities only to be incapable of getting a job with their qualifications. It is a country where European and American tourists flock to, while their own political leaders turn a blind eye to Mubarak’s authoritarian rule where political dissent equals arrests, torture and violent repressive measures.

With such a long list of grievances whoever takes over from Mubarak has a difficult task, but who are the contenders? Firstly there is the largest opposition group in parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood. Though in parliament they stand as independents because they have been banned as a political group since 1957. They have joined a coalition of broad based groups in the protests against the regime in the last few days, but it important to note that they are not leading the protests.

Young people disenfranchised from the political system are fronting the protests. They are Muslims, Coptic Christians, secularists, Marxists and ordinary Egyptians from across the social divide. This is not an Islamic revolution by any means, and this is vital for the West’s political leaders to understand because they must not be afraid to engage with political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood who are part of the protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood are internally fragmented. The older generation of Brotherhood leaders, who have suffered in prisons under previous presidents, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat are conservative. They are not seeking an Iranian style theocracy, or Imanship, rather what they seek is a conservative representation of Islamic principles in the government. They want a democratic political system but with conservative Islamic social and moral norms. Then there is the younger generation of Brothers. They also seek Islamic principles in the way Egypt should be ruled, but are more open to compromise then their conservative brothers. This is a crucial difference and is important in a number of areas should the Muslim Brotherhood play a role in the post Mubarak government. For instance, policy areas such as foreign relations with Israel are significant when considering the internal make up of the Muslim Brotherhood. The younger generation of Muslim Brothers are open to dialogue with the Israelis. They may be pro Palestinian in their rhetoric but in reality the younger generation have grown up under the constraints of Mubarak’s regime and so understand the value of pragmatic strategy if they want to gain power in Egypt and maintain good relations with their wealthy foreign friends.

The post Mubarak Egypt need not be something that the West must fear. There is no denying that the Egyptian uprising will be a pivotal event in the historical shift of political power in the region; but it should be looked on as an opportunity. In no other country is there an Islamist movement so experienced with working with a coalition of broad based groups. The Muslim Brotherhood have had to transform itself because of they have been outside the political process for so long. Their lack of participation has forced them to come to terms with the secularists and Coptic Christians in order to contest against with Mubarak’s regime. There will be struggles over many issues, women’s rights, secular versus Islamic education, diplomatic relations with the West and with Israel to name but a few. These are all going to be difficult issues of political compromise, but these are also similar to social and moral difficulties that Christian political parties had to deal with across Europe over the previous century, as they came to terms with a multifaceted political system.

So when we answer the question of what now for Egypt the answer is there will tricky times a head for this broad based opposition. They have been united by their visceral hatred of the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak. When the cold light of day shines on the streets of Cairo, the many political differences between the coalition of protesters shall come to the surface. But compromises will be made, policy sacrifices will be martyred and Egyptians will get used to plodding along the slow and challenging road of the democratic process.