With Egypt’s authoritarian regime on the cusp of collapse, attention is turning to the new political players that will emerge on the national scene. One group that policymakers should be worried about is the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement has long taken an anti-Western line, supported attacks against Israel and even reached out to Iranian-backed groups.
The organization, formed in 1928 by a schoolteacher, has advocated a return to the puritan life that prevailed in the region before European colonialism reached Islamic shores. Its members have rejected Western innovations such as secular law, choosing instead to look to the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad for legal guidance.
Though long banned in Egypt, the group has been tolerated. It has a sophisticated leadership structure that is impervious to government attacks against the organization. The Brotherhood manages a slew of social service networks that has won it the admiration of society.
Its vocal stance against the regime, coupled with the services it provides Egyptians, has translated into votes at the ballot box. In 2005, it reached its highest support when it won 20% of the parliamentary vote.
Today it is the most organized political movement in Egypt and is well placed to profit from the prevailing instability here as well as the proposed transition to democracy. The other opposition parties have no base and are completely disorganized, leaving the field open for the Brotherhood.
And this should worry Washington. The group has a long history of involvement in violent causes and many radical groups have sprung from its loins. Foremost among them is al Qaeda.
Both Osama Bin Ladin and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri were long-time members of the organization. The Egyptian Zawahiri knows many of the old guard in the party and participated in debates with them. The Brotherhood’s ideologue Sayyid Qutb laid the legal and spiritual foundations for the violent jihad that al Qaeda and others have waged against Arab regimes and their Western backers. Another member, Abdallah Azzam, was the architect of the jihad in Afghanistan.
Today the Brotherhood claims it has disavowed violence. But it still has links to Islamist groups that have attacked the West and its allies. Among them are the Palestinian group Hamas, which is bent on the destruction of Israel. Hamas was born as the Palestinian wing of the Brotherhood. Many Hamas leaders formed bonds with Egyptian members when they studied in the country’s universities. They were influenced by Qutb’s ideology and applied it to their fight against the Jewish state.
The Brotherhood has also reached out to the Iranian-funded Lebanese movement Hizballah. Its leader met with Hizballah officials seven years ago and supported their struggle against Israel. Such meetings may hint at deeper ties with Iran, which may be prepared to finance the Brotherhood’s political attempts to take power.
These bonds should alarm Washington. A Brotherhood controlling government coffers could be much more than a nuisance. It could offer financial support to movements such as Hamas and Hizballah which seek to destabilize the region. It can also be expected to fund religious institutions which espouse anti-Western ideology, creating a generation of Egyptians hostile to the West.
A Brotherhood in power could also cause a slew of problems for Israel. Its members have urged cutting pipelines that supply Israel with gas. The most expedient move would be to end the blockade on Gaza that Israel has imposed for almost five years. Jerusalem has sought to embargo weapons deliveries as well as material that could be used to construct rockets long used to attack Israeli cities. The Brotherhood could thwart Israel’s carefully cultivated policy, thus boosting Hamas’s popularity among a population that has grown weary of its rule. A more strident policy could be to sever diplomatic ties, a move the Brotherhood has demanded for decades. Worse, it could declare war against Jerusalem.
Washington need not sit idly by and watch the Brotherhood take power. It has a number of options before it. But rather than trying to thwart the group publicly, it needs to do so quietly. One step it could take is to reach out to its allies in the Persian Gulf. Much of the Brotherhood’s financing comes from the wealthy oil states. Washington should ask its allies to work harder to prevent the group from fundraising in the region and monitor money transfers to Egypt. The United States can also invite pro-democracy activists who share American values to workshops in Washington. The training they receive will give them the skills necessary to organize and canvass during the election season.
The revolution taking place in Egypt is a positive step in a region that has witnessed too many false starts in the last half century. A proactive approach that seeks to empower American allies will help ensure that the Middle East attains the prosperity it has long sought.
Steven Sotloff is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.