Mass protests demanding democratic reform and freedom on the streets of Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous nation and one that holds tremendous political and cultural influence throughout the Middle East — left Washington unsure whether it should continue its support of an oppressive regime or stand for the values Americans cherish most. The U.S. government has an unprecedented opportunity to offer Reagan-esque support to an indigenous popular movement in the heart of the Arab world that could fundamentally change the political fabric of the region and secure America’s long-term goal of a free and democratic Middle East. The Obama administration’s response to the protests was shockingly slow and apprehensive, as was the response from other U.S. leaders on both sides of the aisle. The U.S. government must now act swiftly to embrace this unique opportunity and not let an exaggerated fear that militant Islamists might fill a void left by an ousted President Hosni Mubarak inhibit it from voicing support for the very principles on which America was founded.
President Mubarak has long attempted to convince the United States that the only alternative to his iron-fist autocracy is the Muslim Brotherhood. He has done this by silencing nearly all secular and moderate political opposition in the country by means of the Political Parties Law, which dates back to 1977 and allows a committee formed by representatives from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party to determine what other parties should receive a license to operate freely in Egypt. Historically, the regime has blocked the establishment of any political party that it deems a potential threat to its grip on power.
The only exception to this uniform political oppression has been Mubarak’s treatment of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak has routinely given the Brotherhood just enough leeway to hold demonstrations and run candidates in elections but then ordered violent crackdowns on the group whenever he felt it had over-stepped its bounds. Mubarak’s political manipulation has created the false perception that no moderate opposition exists in Egypt, and it has allowed him to successfully intimidate the United States into believing that should it abandon him, it will have to deal with a radical Islamist government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a militant Islamist group with close ties to al Qaeda, and its active participation in Egyptian politics would not turn Egypt into a terrorist safe haven. In fact, Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s deputy leader, criticized the Brotherhood at length in 2008 for operating within the bounds of the Egyptian constitution and not “recognizing the authority of Shari’a.” Likewise, Al Fajr Media Center, the official network responsible for disseminating messages from al Qaeda factions, released an audio tape in August 2010 called “Manufacturing Terrorism” that stated the following: “The Muslim Brotherhood thinks that democracy is the path to take [for change], while jihadi groups believe the path is through jihad.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, in reality, is an Islamist social movement that represents a wide spectrum of political ideology. Many of its younger members advocate for a Western-style democracy and would likely welcome continued cooperation with the United States. Many of the Brotherhood’s “old guard,” however, adhere to a much more rigid interpretation of Islam and would likely shun close relations with the United States.
The possible ascension of the Brotherhood in the case of a Mubarak regime collapse should trigger the U.S. government to develop contingency plans to deal with the situation, but it should certainly not inhibit U.S. government officials from backing the masses that are calling for freedom and democracy. Most importantly, though, the likelihood of a radical Islamist regime taking power in Egypt is very slim.