By Alan Johnson
November 5th, 2012
Paul Berman, the New York intellectual, is perhaps the most penetrating and imaginative essayist writing about Islamist movements and ideas alive today. In 2010 he published The Flight of the Intellectuals, a stylish account of the Muslim Brotherhood: the Islamist political movement founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (known in Arabic as al-Ikhwanul -Muslimin). According to Berman, the party was shaped decisively in both its ideology and organisational methods by mid-century European totalitarianism and was a politically hardened, ideologically-driven and anti-Semitic movement. It was from this inconvenient truth that much of the western media and many public intellectuals were in flight.
When I praised Berman’s insights to a group of normally super-astute democracy promotion analysts in DC, to my surprise most took the view that Berman’s thesis was "crazy" and that the Muslim Brotherhood were really like the Christian Democracy in Europe; they had confessional roots, for sure, but were pragmatic folk and could be a force for "moderation". I responded that the Brotherhood was exactly like the CDU – apart from its party structure, ideology, rhetoric, policy, and goals.
Back in 2010 ours was an academic argument. Well, not any more. The Brotherhood will dominate the region’s politics over the next decade. It is already regnant in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and the intellectual fulcrum of both the Arab and Muslim worlds, after sweeping to power earlier this year by winning the parliamentary and presidential elections, marginalising the secular democrats and knocking the military off their perch. In Tunisia the Brotherhood sits in government in the form of Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda. The Justice and Construction Party (JCP) in Libya only won 17 of the 80 seats available for parties in the elections for Libya's 200-strong national congress in July, but hopes to do better next time (the Brotherhood is very patient). The Syrian branch will be a force in any post-Assad regime (in the early 1980s the Syrian branch conducted an armed rebellion) and in Jordan it grows in strength. Hamas, of course, is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unfortunately, recent events in Egypt suggest it is the "crazy" Berman who is the better guide to what to expect next.
The Brotherhood is set to make Islamic Sharia law the main source of the new Egyptian constitution. And this is no mere symbolic gesture as it was in the old constitution. Manal el-Tibi, a human rights activist, left the constituent assembly complaining ‘The Islamists dominate and they want not only an Islamic Egypt but a caliphate". She might be right. Dr Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and Member of the Constituent Assembly explained last month that because "the majority of the Egyptian people are eager to live in the shade of Islamic law" (a phrase surely drawn from Sayyid Qutb’s book In the Shade of the Koran) then "the Islamists in the Constituent Assembly (CA) … [have added] an article in the …new draft constitution, which reads 'the principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence and fundamentalist bases, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines of Sunni Islam and the majority of Muslim scholars' will be the basis of legislation, including legislation about women’s status." It was very telling that Yousseri Hamad, spokesman of the ultra-conservative Salafist Al-Nour party, which won 20 percent of the popular vote and thinks the Brotherhood too moderate and western, has said the clause "satisfies us and we agree on it".
The party has chosen the arch-conservative Saad al-Katatni as its new leader. Our task, he said on accepting the post, is to "implement righteous rule based on Islamic Sharia laws". Most alarming of all, Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, (and that too is no symbolic title) recently called on the Arab world to replace negotiations with Israel with “holy Jihad”. In an astonishing anti-Semitic rant, he claimed: "The Jews have dominated the land, spread corruption on earth, and spilled the blood of believers and in their actions profaned holy places, including their own. Zionists only understand the language of force and will not relent without duress. This will only happen through holy Jihad, high sacrifices and all forms of resistance." In fact, when cleric Futouh Abd Al-Nabi Mansour recently prayed for Allah to “deal with the Jews and all their supporters,” during a sermon, the kneeling President Morsi, the victorious Brotherhood candidate, was seen to mouth “Amen” in a video posted by MEMRI.
Little wonder then that senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad revealed last week that the Israeli and Egyptian leaderships are not in contact. "There is no talk between our political echelon and that of Egypt, and I don't think there will be. [They] won't talk to us." Gilad added that "out of a desire for democracy, a terrible dictatorship has arisen in Egypt". So, is the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty in doubt? Not at this moment, but can it survive in this atmosphere?
And yet, the future remains open. The Brotherhood are clearly struggling with some of the realities of power – for example, Morsi keeps sending friendly letters to Israeli President Shimon Peres, then his office denies that he sent them. Badie talks about jihad against Israel while the Egyptian army attacks Jihadi groups in Sinai that are attacking Israel. The question is at what point (if ever) do these contradictions become untenable, and how will they resolve them?
This is the West’s chance. Egypt’s desperate need for aid and the support of western governments in the institutions of global economic governance gives real leverage. Egypt needs a staggering 700,000 new jobs each year just to keep the current unemployment rate stable. That requires a growth rate of 5-7 percent, not the current 1.8 percent. And, don't forget, the young democrats of Tahrir Square now understand their relative weakness, but they have not gone away. The Islamists should know we democrats too have generational patience. But if the future is to belong to us, the West must use its leverage to hold open the public square. It is vital that politics itself is not closed down. The Egyptian democrats must be able to organise in a second election, and a third, after office has knocked the gloss off an inevitably compromised Brotherhood.
Back in 2001 the Iranian sisters Ladan and Roya Boroumand wrote a seminal article, "Terror, Islam and Democracy". They warned that Islamist political movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, confront the West with "Leninism in Islamist dress". Once again we confront "a power that saw itself as God on earth, organised as an all-powerful state, denying the right to individual belief, and reserving the right to define truth about and for the individual". It is time to see the Brotherhood plain. And to start playing hard ball on behalf of our true friends in that part of the world.