The announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, had won the presidential elections in Egypt may not have been final, but it nonetheless caused many across the Middle East to consider the implications of an Islamist victory in the most important and influential Arab state. In the West, it is doubtful that foreign ministries are in a state of shock, since there has been a growing readiness to accept the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years.
In February 2011, James Clapper, U.S. President Barack Obama’s senior intelligence advisor made an embarrassing statement in front of the House Intelligence Committee, when he said: “The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood’…is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaida as a perversion of Islam.” Three months later on its official website, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood condemned the U.S. for eliminating Osama bin Laden.
Though Clapper somewhat retracted through a spokesman after his House appearance, his assessment about he Muslim Brotherhood appeared to reflect a growing shift in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that dates back to 2007, but became more prominent recently, especially after the fall of Mubarak. Thus at the end of June 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that the Obama administration was “continuing the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that have existed on and off for about five or six years.” Clinton further explained that “it was in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to non-violence. …”
But how was the Muslim Brotherhood seen in the Middle East? In 2005, a former Kuwaiti Minister of Education, Dr. Ahmad al-Rabi’, wrote in the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat: “The beginnings of all the religious terrorism that we are witnessing today were in the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology. …” He added that “all those who worked with bin Laden and al-Qaida went out under the mantle of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Two years later, Hussein Shobokshi, one of the leading Saudi columnists of Asharq Alawsat added “to this day the Muslim Brotherhood has brought nothing but fanaticism, divisions, and extremism, and in some cases bloodshed and killings.”
Shabokshi’s analysis was correct: bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, came out of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy (and current head of al-Qaida) came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, grew up in the Kuwaiti branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. After years of financially backing members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia has also condemned them: The late Crown Prince Nayef declared after 9/11 that the Muslim Brotherhood “was the source of all problems in the Islamic world.”
Without a doubt, the Middle Eastern understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood is more accurate. The rhetoric of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is the best proof that it still remains an organization advocating violence. Its General Guide in Egypt, Muhammad al-Badi’, published a weekly message on the Muslim Brotherhood website on December 23, 2010 opposing negotiations with Israel and adding that “Palestine will not be liberated by hopes and prayers, but rather by Jihad and sacrifice.” When al-Badi’ became the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in January 2010, contrary to the analysis in Washington and London, many Middle Eastern commentators in fact said that the movement was moving in a more radical direction; the same was true of the leadership changes in the Syrian and Jordanian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.
Given these regional trends with the Muslim Brotherhood, it should then have come as no surprise that when Morsi’s campaign for the presidency was formally launched on May 1, 2012, an Egyptian cleric, Sawfat Higazi, who shared the stage with Morsi announced: “we can see how the dream of the Islamic Caliphate is being realized, Allah willing, by Dr. Mohamed Morsi and his brothers, his supporters, and his political party.” He added “Our capital shall not be Cairo, Mecca, or Medina. It shall be Jerusalem, Allah willing our cry shall be: ‘Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.'” Higazi then proposed the unification of the Arab states under Egyptian leadership. Morsi did not challenge this message.
The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will have profound implications for the entire Middle East. During the last decade, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) sought political support for his negotiations with Israel, he mostly turned to President Mubarak of Egypt. Whom can he turn to now? Should the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Syria as well as in Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan will be sandwiched between two Muslim Brotherhood regimes, and face escalating pressures that he give up many of his powers to the Jordanian parliament, including the power to choose Jordan’s prime minister and its cabinet.
The Muslim Brotherhood has active branches in Britain, France, and in other European countries, as well as in the U.S. for serving Muslim minorities in the West. It is often forgotten that the Muslim Brotherhood has had a global agenda. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, whose writings are studied by the movement’s members, once wrote that the Islamic flag must be raised again in the territories once ruled by Islam: “Thus, Andalusia (Spain), Sicily, the Balkans, the Italian coast, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean are all Muslim Mediterranean colonies, and they must return to the embrace of Islam.” In 2003, the Muslim Brotherhood website still called for recovering “the lands robbed of Islam.”
Picking up from al-Banna’s theories, many current spokesmen of the Muslim Brotherhood have declared repeatedly that Islam will “invade” Europe and even conquer Rome — though they often qualify these statements by adding that this conquest will be achieved by religious means, like proselytizing. It was revealing that the Muslim Brotherhood’s publication in London used to have on the top of its cover page: “Our Mission: World Domination” (Muhimmatuna: Siyadat al-Dunya). Will the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seek to employ its European networks to advance its international political agenda?
There remains the question of whether the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood will moderate its policies should it come to power, given that any Egyptian government first and foremost has tens of millions of mouths to feed. In the past, other Muslim Brotherhood regimes in Sudan and in Gaza rigidly adhered to their Islamist agenda. Indeed, the regime in Khartoum, under Hassan Turabi, hosted dozens of terrorist organizations from Hamas to al-Qaida in the early 1990s. It was at that time that Osama bin Laden made Sudan the center of his operations prior to his move to Afghanistan. Will the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood do the same with Sinai in the future?
The answer to this question depends on the future relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army which is trying to retain certain powers for itself. But it will also depend to a great extent upon what it hears from the international community. The U.S. faces a dilemma in how to respond to the Egyptian military’s decision to retain certain powers at the expense of Egypt’s civilian government, regardless of who is declared the victor in the Egyptian presidential elections. Plainly, by taking this action the Egyptian Army was more interested in undercutting the powers of Morsi than those of his rival, Ahmad Shafiq, the former commander of the Egyptian Air Force.
Without relating to the Muslim Brotherhood, spokesmen for the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon decided to press the Egyptian Army to relinquish the governing role it is seeking to carve out for itself. But what if Morsi is declared the victor? Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow the balance of powers between these institutions to evolve by themselves, with no external involvement? For decades, the Turkish Armed Forces were the guardians of Ataturk’s legacy in Turkey, until the rise of Erdogan.
Nevertheless, according to the Los Angeles Times, U.S. officials said on Monday that they were “deeply concerned by an Egyptian military decree giving the generals sweeping powers to pass laws and decide whether to go to war.” This was a stunning statement, considering that the Muslim Brotherhood might still emerge as the winner. Right now, given the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ties to its Palestinian branch, Hamas, leaving Egypt’s war-making powers with the Egyptian military is far safer for the world than transferring them to a Muslim Brotherhood government.
The British even went a step further than the Americans. The spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, Rosemary Davis, was interviewed this week by the Palestinian Maan news agency and reportedly declared that Britain was more concerned with the Egyptian military than with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a self-defeating approach. For if the West continues down this course and uncritically embraces the Muslim Brotherhood, then it will be extremely unlikely that it will temper its confrontational political program in the future and become a more moderate movement as many in the West presently hope.