New players on the field

By now, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about what’s going on in the Middle East.

By now, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about what’s going on in the Middle East. Heck, you’ve probably heard enough about what’s going on in Egypt to satisfy your curiosity all the way to 2017. It’s been rough keeping up with this story, considering how often the situation mutates itself. Hey, no one ever said it was easy being well informed. This is the Middle East as we know it best—temperamental, complicated and totally unpredictable.

With that in mind, you may have heard mention, in all this hubbub of democracy and revolution, of an up-to-now obscure little organization called the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking to make its bones in the midst of all this political commotion and social upheaval.

What is the Muslim Brotherhood? Watch CNN or Fox News for a few minutes. Though you might not learn a whole lot about what it is the Muslim Brotherhood does, you’ll probably get a fairly decent idea of why you should be afraid of them. Dig a little deeper (by which I mean, read a book) and you will learn that the skinny on the Muslim Brotherhood is about half as clear as a bucket of tar.

The key word is contradiction. Why all the confusion? How does an institution that has publicly and officially extolled the virtues of jihad, praising “death for the sake of Allah” as the highest aspiration, manage to garner support as an agent of moderation and progressive reform? How does a group that builds and administers hospitals, schools, daycare centers and thrift shops come to be viewed as a nefarious, scheming pawn of al-Qaida?

A little perspective might clear the waters. First of all, the Muslim Brotherhood is not an international terrorist organization in the vein of al-Qaida. It is, first and foremost, a political party, albeit with a rather ambiguous mission statement. The reason for this is simple. Like our own Democratic Party and GOP, its constituents run the gamut from centrists, to hardliners, and outright nutjobs—making the task of classifying the group as a whole a fairly slippery endeavor.

Basically, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 (yeah, it’s old) by one Hassan al-Banna, is an organization devoted to the Islamization of society through means of political activism, encouragement of Islamic values and social welfare initiatives. In Egypt, the 3,000-member local membership runs a number of perfectly benign domestic institutions, including schools, hospitals, charity foundations and such. Well, that’s just dandy.

But we don’t want to give the Muslim Brotherhood a free pass, now do we? Yes, the Brotherhood has experimented with terrorist bombings in the past. Yes, the group has claimed responsibility for political assassinations. Yes, the group’s website ( equates Israelis to “Draculas.”

Not exactly the picture of moderate progressivism. Still—and please bear with me—fears regarding the alleged radical nature of the Muslim Brotherhood are inaccurate, or at least absurdly overblown.

What about the Muslim Brotherhood’s ties to al-Qaida, you ask? Well, I say, as far as anyone in the know can tell, there aren’t any. On the contrary: Casual observation would seem to indicate that the two groups don’t get along at all—by any practical definition, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida are vehement political enemies.

In the years since 9/11, the Muslim Brotherhood has fought to distance itself from Osama bin Ladin and his cohorts. Ayman al-Zawahiri (Osama’s major deputy) has publicly decried the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to pursue jihad, its slowness to implement any real progress toward Islamizing Egypt, and its participation in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections (in which the Brotherhood came off with a handsome 20 percent of the legislature).

So al-Qaida is out of the picture. Ol’ Ayman might not realize it, but that’s a pretty good endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood as an agent of moderation, as things go.

One of the main reasons that many Westerners view the Muslim Brotherhood with trepidation is due, in no small part, to the efforts of none other than former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak himself.

For much of his three-decade reign, Mr. Mubarak has vilified the Muslim Brotherhood as the nightmare alternative to his own regime. Domestically, he has used this as justification to ruthlessly extinguish political dissent, no matter how questionable the association to the actual Muslim Brotherhood. Abroad, he has used this as a scare tactic in order to consistently secure the support of policymakers in Washington.

In this regard, Mr. Mubarak should be praised for his shrewd political maneuvering—after Israel, Egypt is the single largest recipient of American foreign assistance. Not to mention a major diplomatic partner.

Many fears harken back to the 1979 revolution in Iran—Tehran has praised the revolution in Egypt as a “rallying call for Islamism.” This is inaccurate for too many reasons to list here—suffice it to say that the respective revolutions in Iran and Egypt were inspired by different ideologies, carried out by different constituencies, in two separate countries with substantially different ethnicities, religious identities and political traditions.

Yes, similarities can and have been identified. Personally, I’m not convinced.

Regardless, were Egypt to re-imagine itself as an Islamist state, Sunni Arab Islam (Egypt) and Shia Persian Islam (Iran) differ widely in practice—namely, the major focus in Shia Islam being on the power of the clergy (ulama). It is this key difference that has allowed the entrenched religious elite to hold sway in Iran for so long, and with such opposition-quashing effectiveness. Such a system does not exist in standard Sunni practice.

But, as recent activities have indicated, this very argument seems irrelevant. Lately, even the foundational Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood has more-or-less fallen to the wayside. Some Muslim Brothers have gone so far as to abandon hopes of an Islamist Egypt altogether, instead aiming for further cooperation with liberal/secular groups.

Taking these apparent contradictions into consideration, you may find yourself wondering just how, exactly, an Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood might look. Taking into account the wide body of literature on the subject, I feel the only answer that can be credibly argued is that we honestly do not know.

Maybe the Muslim Brotherhood, sobered by the realities of a globalized, interconnected world, has sincerely resigned itself to the futility of strict Islamism. Perhaps active democracy is the future of the Brotherhood. Maybe it’s all a veneer—after all, this is exactly what a Muslim extremist group would want us to think.

Maybe the whole doggone issue is moot—in a recent straw poll, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood garnered a whopping 1 percent of Egypt’s popular vote. Even Mubarak did better than that.

I’m not going to side with either viewpoint. It’s possible to observe without endorsing or condemning, which seems to be exactly what Mr. Obama is doing (whatever his rationale is). Maybe we’ll have a better idea when, or if, the Brotherhood starts to take a more visible role in Egyptian politics. For now, I don’t know.

If this seems like a giveaway for someone who really ought to know more about the Middle East, I’ll let you in on a little secret. To my knowledge, two months ago, no one, in all the field of Middle Eastern academia, was making the case for how and why Egypt would experience a grassroots revolution organized through Facebook. No one predicted this. Who can say what will happen next? ?