Muslim Brotherhood: The Unreliable Ally
by Jonathan Schanzer
Last week Nobel Prize winner and Egyptian reformer Mohamed ElBaradei officially joined forces with the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to bring down the Egyptian government. Shortly thereafter, the White House began reassessing its relationship with the Islamist group. Now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomes the participation of the Brothers in a meeting with Hosni Mubarak's vice president. But, can the Brothers work with others in Egypt?
ElBaradei, a neophyte in Egyptian politics, has apparently not studied up on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood's political partnerships. Clinton may not be up on this history, either. The Muslim Brothers are notoriously bad political bedfellows. They have consistently overplayed their political hand, leaving behind only ill-will.
It is no secret that the Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt since 1954. But it cannot be ignored that it supported the secular 1952 coup known as the Free Officers Movement that gave rise to the current regime.
The late Richard P. Mitchell, a University of Michigan historian who famously chronicled the rise of the group in Egypt, noted in his 1969 classic The Society of the Muslim Brothers that:
"... an agreement of sorts was reached between the two groups concerning the part the Muslims Brothers would play on the day of revolution ... should immediate popular enthusiasm for the army movement be lacking, the Society would fill the streets to spark it off and ensure immediate popular acceptance of the coup ... if the movement, despite all precautions, failed the Muslim Brothers would assist in the protection and escape of the free officers."
There was more to the plan, but suffice it to say the Islamists backed the coup. From 1952 to 1954, however, the group overreached. It expanded power under first Egyptian President Muhammad Naguib, and worked assiduously to spread its ideology among the ranks of the same military that had just granted the new regime its power. When Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Naguib in 1954, Nasser cleaned house. Mitchell sums it up:
"... six men were hanged; thousands of other Brothers were already imprisoned, and the organization had been efficiently crushed."
Since then, the Brotherhood has been angling to get back in the game.
When Anwar al-Sadat became president in 1970, it was a new era for the Brotherhood. Fearing the rise of communism, a godless belief system, Sadat viewed his country's Allah-fearing Islamists as a natural line of defense. Sadat released many Brothers from jail in exchange for the group's renunciation of violence in Egypt. Islamist newspapers, campus activism and a lively mosque culture were the offspring of this marriage. However, by the late 1970s, the Brotherhood spurned Sadat's peace overtures to Israel, and increasingly perceived him as insufficiently pious. Sadat grew concerned about the group's strength, and he began the process of re-jailing them - even shipping them to Afghanistan to join the anti-Soviet jihad.
The era was punctuated by the assassination of Sadat in 1981 at the hands of an Islamist gunman. Though the assassin, Khalid Islambouli, belonged to the group al-Jihad, the Brotherhood paid for his sins. An era of severe state repression followed.
With little room to maneuver under new President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood reached out to an unlikely partner in 1984: the secular Wafd Party. Reformed in 1983 after being dissolved amidst the 1952 coup, the Wafd embraced everything the Brotherhood didn't: economic liberalization, political reform and a just peace in the Middle East. This was approximately when the Brothers began to adopt the rhetoric of reform. However, the marriage was short lived. The Brotherhood left the alliance when leaders realized the Wafd could not be co-opted.
The Brothers were, however, more successful in co-opting the Socialist Labor Party, which welcomed the Islamists in a misguided attempt to revive itself. The banned Brotherhood accepted, with the understanding that the Socialist Party provided it a legal shell from which to operate. By the 1987 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood succeeded in running Islamist candidates on a socialist ticket. Noting the full extent to which Labor had come under the thumb of the Brotherhood, the Mubarak regime shut the party down in 2000, along with its newspaper, al-Shaab.
Using history as a guide, it won't be long before ElBaradei and the other reformers regret their alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. Any student of Egyptian history can tell you that. So can the average Egyptian.
But who will tell the White House?