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Egypt’s Brotherhood Blazes Central Trail

Popular group must guard right flank but also stand up to military

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A celebration in Tahrir Square, Cairo, yesterday.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Today is Jan. 25. This is the day that represents the movement that unseated the three-decade-long dictator Hosni Mubarak one year ago. So, congratulations to the Egyptian people.

As Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament—the first whose composition was actually determined by something resembling free and fair elections—sat this week and Egypt’s military council softened the emergency law, there seem to be two fault lines at risk of causing an earthquake or, alternatively, of peacefully settling in and remaining stable. And, unsurprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood—the oldest Islamist movement, Egypt’s oldest political party, and the group that received nearly a majority in the new parliament—lies at the center of both of them.

The first tension is between the Brotherhood, which though explicitly Islamist is comparatively moderate and ran primarily on an economic platform, and the more conservative religious parties, such as the Salafist Nour Party, which won a full quarter of the seats (in addition to the 47 percent garnered by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party). A great Washington Post write-up quotes a Cairo businessman: “A lot of people don’t appreciate how conservative the Brotherhood is, and by that I mean cautious as well as pious.” Essentially, and as always: It’s the economy, stupid! (Especially since the economy is in seriously bad shape.) Egypt’s is reeling, and the Brotherhod, whose semi-official social services were providing a semblance of a welfare state for some even under Mubarak, has a mandate less to impose Sharia than to fix the economy. And as the party in charge of parliament, complete with the speakership, it will be held responsible. But a good economy means, say, maintaining robust trade with Israel, to say nothing of keeping the peace with its northern, prosperous, and Jewish neighbor. How will the Salafists respond? And what of some ultra-religious lawmakers who added to the oath of office the line “As long as God’s law is not violated”? Power means needing to respond to such provocations. What will the Brotherhood do?

The other divide is between the parliament and the ruling military council, which is still the ultimate authority. Which is to say, it’s a battle between two old adversaries: the Brotherhood, now in control of parliament, and Mubarak’s generals, who had long banned the party and who now, with precious few exceptions (chiefly Omar Suleiman and Mubarak himself), are the people still in charge. Before parliament was sat, the Brotherhood was sounding hawkish notes, signaling it would not enable the army to continue dictating how the country is run. But the ruler, Field Marshal Tantawi, may have listened: He just pledged to restrict extrajudicial crackdowns to cases of genuine “thuggery”—which could include anything he defines, of course, but this was seen as a sign of increased leniency. (Besides the Brotherhood, he may have been responding to President Obama, who last week warned him about his crackdowns on pro-democracy non-governmental organizations.) And yesterday, reports emerged that the Brotherhood and the military are actually bargaining amicably and slowly coming to compromises on a presidential-parliamentary system, freedom of speech, and a state no less secular than the current one.

The two tensions are not unrelated, of course. If the Brotherhood gives too much to the military, it will lose legitimacy in the eyes of its constituents, who will turn their gaze toward the more radical parties. If it refuses to compromise with the military on Islamic law, say, or Israel, then the military may never give up its power, and unstable pseudo-democracy will continue, at risk of blowing up at any moment. Robert F. Worth summed it up: “It may make Cairo’s liberals wince, but the fact remains that only the Islamists have the power to face down Egypt’s military and deliver a more democratic government. And if they fail to do so, they may face a rebellion within their own ranks.”

Which is why most prognostication has accepted that Egypt’s democracy will be an Islamist democracy, and we should accept this. Olivier Roy, the esteemed French scholar of political Islam, wrote over the weekend that the Brotherhood and 2012 Egypt are a perfect match: “Their conservative agenda fits a conservative society, which may welcome democracy but did not turn liberal.” He added, “They have neither military forces nor oil wealth to bypass the people: They have to negotiate and deliver. Their electorate wants stability and peace, not revolution.” Robert Satloff and Eric Trager have the model of a more pessimistic take, and if they are not nearly as hopeful as Roy (they believe, for example, that the peace with Israel is in jeopardy), their prescription for U.S. policy is identical: Insist on regional stability, political pluralism, and minority rights; in Roy’s words, “the issue is institutionalizing democracy, not promoting liberal policies. Democracy could take hold only if it is based in well-established values. Liberalism does not precede democracy.”

It seems like Turkey, governed by a democratically elected, moderate yet undeniably Islamist political party (the dangerously charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP), is the model we should be hoping for, short- to medium-term. Actually, this is what people generally said a year ago, when Mubarak regime was being overthrown, and this week columnist Jackson Diehl made the case: “The reality is that, like it or not, ‘Islamist-oriented’ governments are about to become the new normal in a region dominated for decades by secular autocrats and pro-American generals,” he argued. Hamas, Hezbollah, and their ilk cannot be recognized as legitimate, he continued;

others, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to weave through an ambiguous middle ground, trying to balance the need for Western investment and the secular aspirations of their populations with their religious ideology. The right way to respond to them is to be nimble: tolerate some turbulence, roll with some punches, push back against others and keep pressing leaders to stick to democratic principles.

And, I’d add, insist on certain regional red lines: And it’s worth noting that while Erdogan shamelessly demagogues against Israel, he hasn’t really provoked it since the 2010 flotilla (despite plenty of opportunities) and meanwhile has fully joined Western pressure against Syria’s regime and even agreed to participate in an embargo of Iranian oil. Really, it could be a whole lot worse.

Chaotic Start to Egypt’s First Democratically Elected Parliament [NYT]
Egypt Military Council Partly Curbs State of Emergency Law [NYT]
Final Results Confirm Islamists Winners in Egypt’s Elections [WP]
Egypt’s Human Bellwether [NYT Magazine]
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Adopting Caution on Economic Matters [WP]
Egypt’s Brotherhood Warns Military [WSJ]
In Egypt, Signs of Accord Between Military Council and Islamists [NYT]
A New Generation of Political Islamists Steps Forward [WP]
How the U.S. Should Handle the Islamist Rise in Egypt [WSJ]
Turkey’s Government Is the New Normal in the Middle East [WP]

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Egypt’s Brotherhood Blazes Central Trail

Popular group must guard right flank but also stand up to military

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