Albrecht Metzger on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Analysis, posted 02.14.2011, from Egypt, in:

In Arab films from the 1960s and 70s, most of the women in Cairo and Damascus are not wearing veils; some are even walking around in mini-skirts. The process of "Islamisation by stealth" has left its mark to such an extent, especially in Egypt, that a sight such as this would be barely imaginable nowadays.

These days, most women here wear a headscarf or veil; even the niqab – an import from Saudi Arabia, which covers the entire face leaving just two slits for the eyes – is becoming a more common sight.

Why is it so important to elucidate this state of affairs? Well, it shows just how quickly things can change. Thirty years is really not a very long time, and who knows what the Arab world will look like in the year 2040. Perhaps by then the Islamic wave will have long ebbed away, and we may see a renaissance of secularism of the sort that prevailed in many Arab societies in the post-war era.

A popular uprising by all Egyptians

The current protests could mark the start of this secularisation process. The millions of people thronging Tahrir Square in Cairo are not crying "Islam is the solution", but "we want freedom and democracy." 

This has given our perception of the Arab world a fundamental shake-up. For 20 years it was assumed that the Islamists represented the only serious opposition to the autocratic regime. But the Islamists themselves were surprised by the momentum of the demonstrations and only jumped on the protest bandwagon after a while. This shows that there are other political and social forces in Egypt with a message to put across.

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood is even trying not to attract too much attention at the protests. "We don't want this revolution to be portrayed as a revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, as an Islamic revolution," said Rashad al-Bayoumi, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel. "This is a popular uprising by all Egyptians."

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood remains an important factor in Egyptian politics, and should free and fair elections actually take place in Egypt in the coming months, the group can expect to come away with a large share of the vote.

Cooperation with secular opposition groups?

Is this a cause for concern? Will a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood turn away from the West and try to establish an Islamic state with a Sharia legal code that is applicable to every aspect of life? Will the Muslim Brotherhood even be willing to work together with other secular forces?

It must be borne in mind that over the past 30 years, the Muslim Brotherhood has undergone a thorough policy overhaul. It is true that they previously aimed to establish an Islamic state based on the Sharia, but this goal turned out to be unrealistic.

The Islamic movement has been subjected to harsh repression in Egypt in the past, and this divided its supporters into two camps: those in the minority, who sought salvation through violence, and a majority camp of moderate Islamists, who became more pragmatic and democratic as time went on.

They began to talk about the advantages of observing human rights because they knew from personal experience what it was like to have these infringed. They were also in favour of free and fair elections because they are the ones who are most likely to profit from such polls.

Until now, human rights and democracy were regarded by Islamists as values imported from the West, values that they rejected. In this respect, Egypt played a pioneering role, but other Islamists in the Arab world also made their peace with the democratic model and showed a willingness to cooperate with secular forces.

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