CAIRO, Egypt — In the Nasr City district of Cairo, chunks of concrete, mangled wires, and hills of red brick are the remnants of the Islamic Medical Association's effort to build a hospital for the poor. Nine years into the $7.3 million project and only months before its expected completion, the Egyptian government cited building code violations and leveled the structure in December 2009. Opponents of the demolition suspect the government's real target was not the location of the planned Central Charity Hospital but its sponsor, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members responded with a typically tempered protest by turning to the media and the Internet instead of to the streets.
Now, with the country in a state of social and economic disarray, Egypt is also preparing for two important rounds of voting: the parliamentary elections in 2010 and the presidential elections in 2011. For the first time in 29 years, President Hosni Mubarak may not seek another term in office and thus would relinquish his position as head of state. During such a transition, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mubarak has long sidelined, could play a pivotal role in determining whether the country enters into a period of peace and tranquility or spirals into violence and radicalization.
The United States, by altering its attitude toward the Brotherhood, would be in a position to help foster a peaceful transition, too. Since the Camp David peace accords, the U.S. government has been bolstering Egypt's economy with as much as $2 billion in annual foreign aid, the most monetary support it provides to any foreign country after Israel. American support for Mubarak has been steadfast; in return, he has been a reliable Arab ally in the region. As for the Brotherhood the U.S. government has been officially wary because of its sometimes violent past . But even a modest shift in that stance could pressure Mubarak's government into easing its oppressive policies, which in turn could help avert unrest. From such a change in U.S. policy, the Brotherhood almost surely would benefit.
Throughout Cairo's city center, the government's tourism police line the sidewalks of most streets or monitor the entrances to the hotels that Western visitors frequent. These policemen are imposing figures clad in black pants, boots, and shirts, in black berets that bear the tourist police insignia, and toting weapons with light brown, wooden handles that contrast sharply against the uniforms. They are meant to protect both visitors to the country's rich historical sites and Egypt's tourism industry, an important revenue source still recovering from crippling terrorist attacks over the past decade or so. Walking along the side of the road, stationed inside hotels, or seated on a corner, the tourist police are everywhere, even in neighborhoods where monuments are few and tourists rarely go. Huge billboards are emblazoned with Mubarak's image. Some show a svelte Mubarak in sunglasses with his hair slicked back, a pose that belies his 81 years; others have him surrounded by soldiers with war planes taking off overhead. Either way, the message is unmistakable. Mubarak is Egypt's leader and power belongs to him.
Many Egyptians have never known another ruler, as Mubarak has led the country for almost 30 years. But in 2011, his fifth term as president will end and there have been indications that he may not seek re-election. Because Mubarak has never selected a vice president, the problem of who will succeed him looms ominously, as does the continued stability of Egypt.
Since Mubarak first became president in 1981, he has grappled with the problem of legitimacy. He assumed the office after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by members of the terrorist group Gama'a al-Islamiyya. After cementing presidential authority, he instated policies that allowed him to maintain and prolong his leadership with a coerced legitimacy, reinforced by one-candidate presidential elections until 2005.
"Emergency rule," for example, is still in force almost three decades after Sadat's murder. It allows police to arrest and detain people without charges. Civilians are sometimes forced to stand trial in military tribunals. At random times, police stage mass arrests and then imprison the government's opponents. In other instances, police have ransacked detractors' homes or places of employment. Raids on offices of the Muslim Brotherhood around the country are frequent. At the beginning of February 2010, police imprisoned members of the Brotherhood, including the group's second-in-command and two other members of its top leadership. Many of those jailed are politically moderate and support working with the government. The following month, the government detained up to 64 Muslim Brothers who were peacefully protesting Israel's decision to build another 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem. By mid-March, Brotherhood officials reported that 345 members had been jailed, many without being charged. Experts agree that the government's repeated shake-downs are an attempt to upset the foundations of the Brotherhood and infect any sense of group equipoise.
Some political prisoners have been incarcerated for more than a decade without charges, according to a November 2009 report from Amnesty International. Torture is widely practiced without regard to the age or political inclination of its victims. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor of sociology and renowned human rights activist, faced imprisonment at the age of 61. Constrained on his back, Ibrahim was subjected to something akin to Chinese water torture. Guards dripped water between his eyes for hours on end. When released three years later, Ibrahim was barely able to move. After years of ongoing medical treatment at Johns Hopkins, the former marathon runner now hunches over two canes to walk. To avoid further persecution, he lives in self-imposed exile in Madison, New Jersey.
Under Mubarak, political freedoms are minimal. Some organizations cannot form political parties because of certain amendments the regime inserted into the constitution. As the election seasons draw nearer — no matter if they are small municipal ballots or national votes, government intimidation tactics intensify and often extend to the general population. Days before elections, Muslim Brotherhood candidates — who have been successfully running as independents since they are prohibited from creating a political party — will often be imprisoned. Police keep watch at polling stations in locations where the Muslim Brotherhood is popular, and protests have devolved into police beatings. In April, the government's security ministry warned that it would open fire on protesting democratic-reformists if necessary.
"Mubarak never did have much legitimacy, and every day it is eroding and eroding," said Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, a former Brotherhood member who contributes to newspapers and think-tanks on issues related to the Brotherhood and Egyptian politics.
The presidential elections fall a little more than a year after the parliamentary contests in 2010. The parliamentary elections could prepare the way for a more democratic presidential election. A win for any group or coalition other than the ruling National Democratic Party would provide the opportunity to ensure increased political freedoms and a smooth transition of power to a legitimate new leader. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is wholly unlikely to field a presidential hopeful, its support will be crucial to whomever challenges the NDP. If the NDP remains in power, its candidate would be certain to win the presidential election in 2011, preserving the status quo.
For the NDP, the favored choice for president, if Mubarak does not seek re-election, appears to be Gamal Mubarak . The General Secretary of NDP and the president's son would effectively "inherit" the presidency. Outside of the party, like his father, Gamal is not popular. The Muslim Brotherhood better reflects the political views of the people. Experts say a manipulated ballot to put the younger Mubarak in power could likely spark major civil protests around the country which in turn could lead to a vicious government crackdown. Such a reaction would further inflame popular tensions or could even force a military coup. The potent combination of widespread poverty, mounting political pressure, social constraints, and disenchantment with peaceful political processes could foment and fester into a period of Islamist radicalism and violence.
Yet, if the Muslim Brotherhood were able to mount a strong enough opposition during the parliamentary elections, the regime might be forced to increase civil rights and liberties. It would do so in the period leading up to the 2011 presidential election as a means of sustaining power. Elections that voters perceive to be free and fair would serve as evidence of popular support. That would enhance the desperately needed legitimacy of the Mubarak regime. "The elections are connected and interwoven," al-Houdaiby said. "They will inform and influence each other."
The prospect of an "inherited presidency" — Mubarak to Mubarak — has provoked widespread antagonism throughout the country. Organizations from across the political spectrum have already rallied significant support against Mubarak, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has announced that it was willing to work with Mohamed Elbaradei, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency who is considering running for president in 2011. An informal coalition of opposition forces has formed, calling itself "Mayehkomsh," Egyptian slang for "He will not rule" a reference to Gamal. Mayehkomsh could be the foundation of a future parliamentary coalition, one that could directly challenge the NDP's illegally achieved dominance. Some experts say that the regime would never permit this coalition to formalize in parliament, virtually securing Gamal's ascendance.
If the past is any indicator, as experts assert it is, opposition groups will have to overcome significant challenges and fight to even compete in the districts where they have already been successful. Prior to each parliamentary election, challengers determine the number of districts in which they can compete without fear of police retribution or imprisonment. For the 2010 legislative elections, the regime will likely tolerate fewer non-NDP representatives in parliament. Even with prior agreement, the 2005 success of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who ran individually prompted a brutal crackdown that is likely to be repeated in the next election round. "Mubarak will use every possible tactic to control the system," said John Esposito, a professor of religion at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is also the founder of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Among those possible tactics is a postponement of the presidential election, opening the way to install a temporary leader for a few years until the antagonism towards Gamal diminishes. Although this would not be a democratic solution, kicking the can down the road, it would be a means of averting violence but also delaying the already needed democratic reforms. It also could help guarantee an eventual peaceful transition to a new elected leader.
The United States has never been a fan of the Brotherhood, preferring the seeming predictability of the Mubarak regime. The Egyptian president has been a strategic ally in pursuing certain U.S. objectives in the region, such as overseeing peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Mubarak also curries favor with the U.S. government by asserting that his actions have prevented terrorism and squashed violent Islamist factions.
But the truth is much more nuanced. Most experts interviewed agreed that the Muslim Brotherhood has been the more vital force in preventing violent Islamist uprisings. The organization acts as a buffer. It provides a productive, charitable and political outlet for Islamists, emphasizing good deeds and debate over guns and bombs. It occupies a unique duality and a singular paradox. It looks to the West for support and inspiration but is decidedly non-Western. It is reformist but at the same time conservative. Like most other organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood's membership espouses a variegated set of ideas that a single ideology cannot encompass.
To describe Cairo as "bustling" is an understatement. Frenetic is more accurate. Taxis, bicycles, and buses whir along packed streets. Swarms of people bustle in and out of Metro stations, the first underground system in Africa. Young men and women stroll the streets in the evening, stopping at shopping malls or pastry shops. Older men gather at cafes to smoke shisha from waterpipes. But on Friday afternoons, the force of movement that overwhelms Cairo gives way to prayer. The minarets that decorate the city's skyline awaken in ornate, grand mosques. In back alleyways, on terraces, or at times even blocking the streets, the faithful of this pious, conservative country heed the meuzzin's call.
Mubarak has sought to capitalize on Egypt's religiosity and has promoted his own piety to boost his legitimacy. To the public, he emphasizes his Arab, Islamic heritage. He insisted that religious language be added to the constitution and encourages his portrayal as a devout Muslim. But to the many disaffected, the Muslim Brotherhood, not Mubarak, is the embodiement of their political leanings and religious posture. It is the world's oldest Islamist organization, established over eighty years ago by schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna as an anti-Imperial and Islamist counterweight to the secular monarchy that then ruled the country. The Muslim Brotherhood promoted and still supports implementing Shari'ah, or interpretations of Islamic law as prescribed in the Qu'ran. Banna believed that international, Western forces were eroding the culture, traditions, and religion of Egyptians. He created the Brotherhood as a network of people centered around the concept of using nonviolent, charitable activities to change society through work and deed. Banna maintained that by changing society, political change and institutional reform would also follow, thus instating an Islamic country, which would eventually expand and spread throughout the Middle East.
The appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood has been immense. Shortly after its inception, the Brotherhood was able to begin building its own schools, hospitals, and factories, a tradition carried on to this day. While Brotherhood leadership promoted non-violence and change through charity, to some members, these acts did not sufficiently fulfill their goals. A clandestine, violent, splinter offshoot called "Secret Apparatus" formed about a decade after the Muslim Brotherhood's inception.
In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the Brotherhood allied with the Free Officers and Gamal Abdel Nasser to depose King Farouk. Nasser, a pan-Arab nationalist who sought to socialize and modernize the country, succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy. Brotherhood members believed they had an ally in Nassar as president. Instead, he instated secularist programs, provoking widespread anger among Brotherhood members. In response, the Secret Apparatus carried out several successful assassinations and attempted a number of others, including an unsuccessful attack on Nasser himself in 1954. This prompted a government ban on the organization. The decree still remains, despite the group's official renunciation of violence in the early 1970s.
Today, the Brotherhood maintains its strong presence in politics and society, and because of the organization's widespread appeal, the government tolerates it tacitly. The extensive network of social and charitable programs such as sponsoring the building of hospitals like the abortive Islamic Medical Association effort has made it popular, along with the widely held view that the organization is the country's only viable challenger to the National Democratic Party and Mubarak.
The Brotherhood's illegal status prohibits it from forming a political party, although five years ago, when Egypt held its freest and fairest elections to date, Mubarak and the NDP allowed members of the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in 90 parliamentary races, a number the Brotherhood actually decreased to prevent provoking the regime. Despite intimidation around polling stations, the Brotherhood secured all but two of the seats its members sought as independents, making it effectively, if not officially, the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
The group's charitable works are among the most prevalent in Egypt. Many top Brotherhood members are well-respected doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers. Several Brothers serve on the syndicates (much like state bar associations or the American Medical Association) for such professions.
Today, there are official branches of the organization in countries as far-flung as the United Kingdom and the Sudan. Each branch maintains its own set of goals and initiatives. Some countries and organizations such as the United States and European Union have labeled Hamas, the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot, a terrorist organization. Although minimal coordination exists between Muslim Brotherhood branches, Western nations and Israel are particularly wary of any connections between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
In recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood launched an aggressive effort to unravel the tangle of misconceptions about it and assuage worldwide concerns. In 2005, the Kuwait-based advising firm IslamPerceptions.org conducted a major, comprehensive study of Western attitudes toward Muslims and Islam. It concluded that "many see Islam increasingly as a monolith and cultural security threat," and that 40 percent of Westerners associate Islam and Muslims with terrorists. The Muslim Brotherhood recognizes the political danger of people equating all Islamist groups with al-Qaeda. Especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Brotherhood members moved to reshape the organization's image in the West.
To better reach a Western audience, the Brotherhood launched its English-language Web site, IkhwanWeb.com. The site, updated daily, displays recent news and commentary from the Brotherhood's perspective on various issues in Egypt and around the world. The website is neatly organized, colorful, contains photos and links to other news organizations, and even has a frequently changed poll question. IkhwanWeb showcases opinions and interviews with Brotherhood leaders and designates special sections for young people, for the Brotherhood's positions, and for distinctions between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. Contacting the organization was particularly simple, and other younger members use blogs, some even written in English, and Facebook as venues for their ideas.
Some Brothers have published opinion pieces in Jewish newspapers and major Western publications such as the Guardian in London. Others contribute works to American think-tanks, or appear on al-Jazeera English. In the past, Houdaiby has embarked on speaking tour of several universities in New York City, Washington D.C., and in California. Days before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the BBC interviewed Houdaiby about his hopes for the incoming U.S. president and potential foreign policy changes in the Middle East.
In 2007, for the first time in its history, the Muslim Brotherhood unveiled a comprehensive political platform to make its views more transparent. The platform, as well as both posititve and negative critiques about it, were posted in English on the IkhwanWeb site. The platform advocates democracy and promises to ensure fundamental freedoms such as speech and press that past Egyptian regimes have long denied its citizens. The platform promotes rights consistent with the civil liberties that American citizens enjoy. It ensures political participation for women and Christian Copts. The Brotherhood's parliamentary program also endorsed "reconsidering" ties with Israel, referring to Israeli-supporters as "Zionists." Egypt maintains a peace treaty with Israel even though 92 percent of Egyptians think that Israel is hostile to Egypt, according to a government poll conducted in 2006. More recently, however, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have said that they would uphold any existing treaties should the organization gain more political power.
But the platform also has its drawbacks. It advocates the creation of a Shura Council, or consultative council, to review legislative policy before its passage, and bars women and Christian Copts from becoming president. Critics fear that the creation of the Shura Council would develop into a political system analogous to Iran's. But according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the platform is a trial balloon that the organization plans to redevelop and revise over time.
"The Brotherhood recognized the flaws with the initial platform," Ibrahim said. "It reviewed them and has backed away from the most controversial issues." He emphasized that although Copts and women could not be president under the platform, de facto societal attitudes already make that a political reality, even if it is not policy. Esposito agreed and said the platform is reflective of the Egyptian people's own desires and political tendencies. "Within the country itself," he said, "the views are quite popular and in line with the beliefs of the Egyptian people. The Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, mainstream organization."
The Brotherhood's new political platform itself represents a democratic compromise, and is the subject of an ongoing debate among the organization's various factions. More liberal members tend to support the Brotherhood's political activities and are more likely to use social networking sites and the Internet to reach out to others. Some have studied in Western countries. Politically, some support a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, and others emphasize the reality of the separation between church and state.
At the other end of the spectrum, conservative Brothers have a strikingly different position. Some follow the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, and are known as Qutbists. Qutb was a leading intellectual figure of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and the 1960s. In 1948, Qutb traveled to the United States where he was shocked by the behavior of the American people and the materialism of U.S. society. Upon returning to Egypt, he became a leading reactionary intellectual figure and spoke critically of Nasser's government and was imprisoned. While incarcerated, he penned his Islamist manifesto, Milestones. The text has a radically anti-secular tone and argues that anything non-Islamic is evil and corrupt and that only the implementation of Shariah could remedy the ills of society. Qutb was later convicted of instigating violence against the government and was executed. Milestones would later influence the central ideology for violent Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and Gama'a Islamiya both of which loathe the Brotherhood for rejecting violent jihad as a way to bring about substantive societal change.
The Mubarak government finds it advantageous to promote the notion that the Islamists are a monolithic bloc of Qutbists. This helps to dissuade participation in the Brotherhood of moderate Egyptians and also discourages Western nations from lending the organization any support.
Within the Brotherhood, the split between conservatives and liberals falls largely along generational lines, with senior members at the conservative end. Because the Muslim Brotherhood is itself a democratic organization, members elect their leaders and deputies. Typically, elected leaders are prominent senior members of the community who tend to be from its more conservative wing. As time passes, most believe the organization will continue to shed its more conservative views.
With the mounting societal, political, and economic pressures, however, a disturbing trend has recently emerged. Rifts between liberal and conservative group members have grown more and more public, with some liberal members leaving the organization. Media reports intimate the potential for a schism among members. But experts and Brotherhood members deny this possibility and emphasize that the Brotherhood's strength rests in its unity. At the same time, young Salafist (extremely conservative and traditional) members have joined the ranks of the organization, boding further change within the group. And yet in the meantime, Ibrahim said, "The Muslim Brotherhood is the reason why there is not more violence."
"The state of Egypt is a crumbling building," said Mohammed Ezzeldin, an Arab Studies student at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Ezzeldin participated in politics while completing his undergraduate degree in Cairo. "The government has tried to repair it with quick fixes but it's going to collapse. It's just a matter of when it will collapse."
The 2008 global recession dealt a significant blow to a budding Egyptian economy. Real estate investments line Cairo's roadways but remain unfinished. Gray, concrete complexes lie dormant in the center of an open field next to rusting bulldozers. On the outskirts of the city, a family squats in an unfinished building. The one room the family uses has no floor and only two walls, leaving the space exposed to the intense heat that engulfs the city during the day and the chill that blankets it at night . For some, donkeys are the main source of transportation of food, wares and waste. And for those who can afford vehicles, most are no more than a composite of a few scraps of metal whizzing across pot-holed roads with defunct traffic lights.
Already, fissures in the foundation of Mubarak's temple of stability grow more pronounced. The U.S. government estimates that almost one out of every five people in Egypt live in extreme poverty. Huge economic disparities continue to sever society: the wealthiest 20 percent of the population controls almost 40 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent of Egyptian constitute only 10 percent of the GDP. The once-booming tourism industry has been in gradual decline, as has the number of available jobs it produces. Markets for two of Egypt's largest exports — textiles and grains — are expected to shrink. The stock market plummeted more than 50 percent in 2008 against the previous year, and experts anticipate economic growth to fall by half over the coming years. Even the prospect of a regime change is enough to destabilize the Egyptian economy: concerns over Mubarak's health in March sent the local stock market tumbling. In April 2008, a shortage of affordable bread triggered mass rioting. The shrinking economy, substantial gaps in wealth, rising unemployment, and rampant poverty sparked a series of union strikes in September 2009. The considerable economic malaise makes privately sponsored projects like the Brother's intended hospital all the more valuable — not only for the poorest few, but also to help stimulate an economy in distress.
"I've been visiting Egypt since the 1970s," said Esposito, "and now more than ever life has gotten much harder for Egyptians. Every aspect of life has gotten harder and it's becoming more dysfunctional. The faces of the people there seem so beaten and depressed it really struck me."
Social and religious divisions between Muslims and Christian Copts are also becoming more pronounced. In the southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, a group of young Muslim men opened fire on a congregation celebrating the Coptic Christmas holiday. Authorities repeatedly attributed the murders to a previous crime in which a Coptic man raped a Muslim girl, instead of ascribing it to sectarian violence. With seven people murdered and seven injured, an outraged Coptic community condemned Mubarak for his inability, or unwillingness, to protect the minority religious group, which comprises 10 percent of the Egyptian population. Coptic leaders expressed deep concern about their lack of any viable options for political representation.
In January 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood held internal group elections. Liberal members of the Brotherhood who tend to support the direct political actions of the organization lost key positions in the leadership and were replaced by conservatives. The newly elected General Guide, Mohamad Badei was also imprisoned with Sayyid Qutb.
Badei maintains that he will continue in the path of his predecessor, serving as a bridge between the Brotherhood's various factions (even though several prominent liberal leaders of the group have spoken out against the process that led to Badei's win). The Brotherhood also has shown signs of wanting to emphasize its charitable and societal activities over its political agenda. In a February 2010 report for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Husam Tammam writes, "This conservative faction is more interested in working from within to cultivate a strong, disciplined movement than in engaging with other political forces and intellectual currents in Egyptian society. They place a higher premium on the spiritual education and social upbringing of the movement's base than on developing a comprehensive reform program that would appeal to a broader audience." The consistent imprisonment of members of the Brotherhood, in addition to the oppressive tactics of the Mubarak regime, have only further eroded support for the group's attempts to work within the political system to improve Egypt's economic, social and political problems. Although there is no reason to think the Muslim Brotherhood would relinquish its position as Egypt's major political opposition force, the change in emphasis gives credence to the idea that some members of the organization are beginning to view political participation as ineffectual.
For more than thirty years, the United States has considered Egypt to be a touchstone of political stability in the Middle East. That time may soon be over.
Most of the funding the government receives from the United States goes to the Egyptian Army, despite persistant societal need for the funds. But in bolstering the temple of stability and predictability for the present, the United States may have laid the foundations for a far more volatile and dangerous Egypt in the near future.
"If the United States continues to go down the current road, it's very likely there will be a surge of instability and radicalization in Egypt," said Steven Brooke, a former research associate of immigration and national security at the Nixon Center, a non-partisan think-tank. "This radicalization is what's going to be most detrimental to (U.S.) interests."
What scholars and experts like Brooke and Esposito most fear, and what will be most damaging, both to the United States and Egypt, is an increase in social radicalization and a spike in violence among impoverished, disenchanted young people who have few opportunities to improve their lives. Some experts point to the growing number of young Salafists as an indication that the process of radicalization might have already begun. The conservative wing victory within the Muslim Brotherhood also reflects a disenchantment with participatory politics. A growing number of Egyptians, some of them among the youngest members of the Muslim Brotherhood, increasingly view politics as fruitless. When legitimate political options fail as a means to substantiate change, violence may become the voice of the people. As Esposito put it, "If President Obama does not change U.S. policy, it will set us back a decade in the Arab-Muslim World."
A change in U.S. foreign policy could also be a potent method of preventing destabilization in Egypt. Middle East experts think that if the United States took a stronger position on human rights abuses in Egypt or placed contingencies on foreign aid by demanding the Egyptian government to open up the political arena, guarantee political freedoms, and ensure free and fair elections, the potential for social radicalism and Islamist extremism would lessen.
In fact, both Brotherhood members and others believe that as long as the Muslim Brotherhood maintains significant political power — a demonstration that change through peaceful political means is possible — it could diminish the popularity of violent Islamist organizations and reduce the threat of a violent, extremist backlash. A participatory, moderate and peaceful Brotherhood would lure Islamists away from violent organizations. "The Muslim Brotherhood keeps the lid from blowing off," Esposito emphasized.
Pressuring the Mubarak regime to expand political freedoms could indirectly aid the Muslim Brotherhood. But the U.S. government's silence and cold shoulder to the Islamist organization has led to multiple lost opportunities to further U.S. goals in Egypt. Experts and observers believe that the United States could be in a position to pressure Mubarak to expand political freedoms — that is, if the Brotherhood first moderated its position on some points of U.S. interest.
If the Brotherhood did obtain significant power, some argue that the political necessities of building coalitions and working with other nations could serve as a counterbalance against the Brotherhood's conservative wing and could moderate its influence over the group. Pressure from external forces, such as the realities of working in a parliamentary system as well as international influences, already have been effective in moderating some of the most extreme and objectionable portions of the Muslim Brotherhood's political platform.
Questions and concerns about the wisdom of working with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt cannot be fully answered until the Brotherhood actually governs Egypt, an eventuality no one is yet even predicting. Nonetheless, there are those who would point to the Brotherhood's ongoing social projects as indications that members could run the country more effectively than Mubarak's current administration. In an academic article "The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament," Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown University, and Joshua Stacher, a professor at Kent State University, wrote of how effective the Muslim Brotherhood's politicians have been in parliament. Brotherhood parliamentarians, they wrote, "have also demonstrated that they take Parliament seriously as an institution. In fact, Brotherhood MPs take the institution more seriously than any other political force in the country including the ruling party."
No matter which strategy the United States adopts, the U.S. government would have to gamble with temporary unpredictability to ensure long-term political stability. No scholars, however, believe this will happen, much to the United States's own detriment.
"It is to our distinct benefit (to change U.S. foreign policy with Egypt)," said Brooke. "There are fairly significant short term costs, but the longer we have this scenario going the more social radicalization could occur and the more disincentives for political participation could appear."
The United States, however, has never held official talks with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and several factors influence that stance. Because Mubarak has not recognized the Muslim Brotherhood as a political group, U.S. policy prevents any official talks with the organization. But in June 2009, when President Barak Obama gave his speech at Cairo University, for the first time members of the Muslim Brotherhood were invited to attend. Observers saw this as a signal of signal of potential change in U.S. diplomatic policy, but there has been no movement since.
All of the experts interviewed agreed that the Obama Administration is not likely to alter foreign policy towards Egypt in advance of the upcoming pair of national elections. All indications are that the United States will do its part to preserve the status quo thereafter. "If President Obama does not change policy it will be bad," Houdaiby said. "In 2005, we had no expectations that (President George W.) Bush would help us. But with Obama there is hope. If he doesn't there will be broken hearts."
Mohammad Ezzeldin reflected recently on the political milieu in his home country. He turned his head and his dark brown eyes focus on something distant. He wrings his hands, rubs his eyes, then shifts his weight as he runs his fingers through his short black hair. He places his elbows on the table and cups his forehead in his hands. "I don't know," he said, shaking his head back and forth. "I just don't know. I have no idea what's going to happen." Frustration laces the tone of his voice and he moves uncomfortably.
Ezzeldin and all of Egypt know a 30-year period of stability is over. The president who has ruled the country for all of Ezzeldin's life will no longer be in power. What the Egyptian people have known about their country for a generation is about to change. And that is about all anyone knows and all anyone can know about the future of their state.
Megan can be contacted at