By Dr H.A. Hellyer
Recently, an Egyptian Tweep hinted to me I was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I was taken aback, but not because I haven’t critiqued the MB. If I were to categorise the many criticisms of different political forces I have made over the past 18 months, I suspect the MB would be the political movement that has received the most. Rather, what surprised me was the implication that generally, I am a fair commentator and that the criticisms of the MB might be undeserved, and unfair.
It is an interesting thing to ponder. Since the beginning of the 25 January Revolution (still ongoing, by the way), there have been commentators who are plainly, and obviously anti-MB from the get-go. They have a variety of legitimate, as well as illegitimate, reasons.
On the latter, one cannot deny the existence of anti-Muslim, as well as anti-Islam, sentiment in different parts of the world. In the United States, an actual network exists to promote and popularise such sentiment: the Washington DC think-tank, Center for American Progress, published an entire report on this network’s funders, writers, foundations and organisations. In Europe, a similar sentiment went from being a fringe, right-wing phenomenon, to infesting much of our political framework. The Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, was not insane, and did not come out of nowhere. He is a radical, but far beyond his tiny minority, many share elements of his discourse. Many different academics and researchers in the West have carried out extensive studies on the history of those different kinds of sentiments and discourses, linking them to anti-immigration movements, the far right, and colonial representations of the Muslim world.
This is the historical record; it is not a fantasy. One would be naive to assume that anti-Muslim bigotry did not exist, and that it did not colour the way in which some people view a party that identifies as Muslim and purports to be based on Islam.
Nevertheless, one should not assume that such prejudice inspires all critics of the MB in Egypt. The traditional Al-Azhar establishment, which is obviously not opposed to Muslims or Islam, has been, and remains to be, quite antipathetic to the MB. A staunchly leftist activist I know was very much in support of working with the MB in the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall. Within a few months, he had become opposed to the MB. That was not down to an instinctive anti-Muslim sentiment; otherwise, he never would have been in support of working with it in the first place.
Once upon a time, the MB could have argued it was a victim; it was a proscribed organisation, and frequently the scapegoat for the Mubarak regime. But, those days are over. Two years ago, it could only win seats in parliament if it ran members as independents. Today, the MB can virtually count on being the largest political force in a new parliament, due to its organisation and efforts, and one of its own sits in the president’s chair. The MB is many things: but it is not a victim.
Many political parties in democracies struggle with the notion of switching from a ‘party in opposition mode’ to a ‘party in power mode’. It is understandable if the MB has that struggle too. But the MB’s perception of victimhood and supporters identifying opposition to the MB as somehow rooted in an instinctive anti-Muslim and/or anti-Islam sentiment cannot be good for Egypt.
Even if some opposition is rooted in that fashion, there will be much opposition that is not. This is the nature of politics; those who are in power, naturally, attract the most attention for accountability. When MB supporters complain that other political forces do not have to deal with the same level of criticism, they need to remember that those forces lost. As such, the need to hold them accountable is far less pressing. If Ahmad Shafiq had won the presidential elections, then undoubtedly he would have received a larger amount of criticism than he does at present. Power begets responsibility, which should beget accountability.
Yes, there will be those who, under the guise of ‘holding the MB to account’, will be unfair to them, in ways they wouldn’t be to other political forces in similar situations. But their existence should mean that the MB must welcome, and indeed, even seek out, authentic, non-partisan criticism.
With all that said, it has to be noted that the MB will be held to a different standard than most other Egyptian political forces. Many Muslim Egyptians I have heard complain about the MB in the past 18 months have done so from a sense of religious outrage. This part of Egyptian society, which I do not think is immaterial, is disappointed with the MB on the basis of it invoking the highest of ethics (religion), and then seeing it act with less than sterling ethics itself.
How ethical, for example, was it to welcome Sudanese President Omar Bashir to Egypt, as he is wanted for crimes in Darfur? How ethical, for example, was it for the president to leave Egypt at the height of the recent controversy to go to Europe, when he could have postponed his trip? In a country where attachment to religion is high, citing religion can easily backfire. It is one thing to betray your idealistic political ideology on the altar of power and pragmatism; people have grown used to that sort of thing around the world, and Egypt is no exception. But Egyptians still expect that if a figure invokes religion, he be unimpeachable. When he is not, he can expect much harsher treatment than if he had not brought religion into it.
None of this should be objectionable to the MB and its supporters. On the contrary, one would hope that they would welcome criticism. Such criticism should be seen as ultimately good for Egypt, because it encourages a political culture where parties like the MB can grow, learn and develop. That’s surely something the MB would want to happen to other political forces as well. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time for it to lead by example.
“Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. A fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.”