Don't Misread Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

The White House and Congress have long had a habit of combining groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban into a single, improbable whole enemy.

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CAIRO--“There is no monolithism,” Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai once said to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger after their historic visit to Beijing in 1972. He was referring to the uniquely American habit of reducing distinct, if not conflicting parties—in this case the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China—into a seamless confederation hostile to U.S. interests.

By the time of Nixon’s arrival, Russia and China were bitter enemies. Skirmishes along their heavily militarized border threatened to erupt into a full-scale war that would have consumed the communist world. Yet Chinese-American rapprochement was negotiated in the shadows, lest it provoke a backlash from Republican hawks in Congress, so entrenched was their faith in a communist monolith. The price of their myopia can be denominated in the lives of American troops killed in Korea and Vietnam, wrongly interpreted by U.S. policymakers as Sino-Soviet proxies. [See a slide show of 15 major post-Cold War uprisings.]

Having failed to internalize the most elemental fact of the Cold War—that there is usually less to things than meets the eye—Washington was primed to make the same mistake in its response to the tragedy of September 11. Rather than acknowledge the obvious distinctions between Osama bin Laden and a host of other militant actors in the Arab world, the Bush administration conflated them into a single, improbable whole. Bizarrely, it associated the Salafi-Jihadi bin Laden with the secular tyrant Saddam Hussein, just as it equated al Qaeda, which demonstrated a primitive, if effective, expeditionary reach, with the Taliban, which harbored no such ambitions.

Still, Washington blunders on. For the last decade, the White House in general and Congress in particular have insisted on treating the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Islamist movement based in Cairo, as both insoluble and adversarial. (Though it is not on the State Department’s list of terrorists organizations, U.S. officials are discouraged, if not banned outright, from meeting with its members.) It has been characterized as al Qaeda’s intellectual fountainhead, having counted as members Ayman Al-Zawahiri, successor to the recently deleted bin Laden, and Sayyid Qutb, a radical author and theorist whose attacks on secularism inspired both men. Widely overlooked, however, is that Al-Zawahiri and Qutb ultimately rebuked the Muslim Brotherhood as a lapdog to secular despots. [See photos of the Egyptian uprising.]

As Egypt prepares for its first national elections since the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, the spotlight is now squarely on the Ikhwan, as the Muslim Brotherhood is known in Arabic. As the best-organized political movement in Egypt—it was the only opposition group that was allowed breathing room under the old regime—the Ikhwan is expected to win at least a third of the seats in parliament. This, of course, would outrage Israel and its friends in Congress, who would call for the suspension of all U.S. aid programs to Egypt for the “terrorist” cabal in control of its legislature.

The question then becomes: Which Brotherhood faction is actually in charge? The one led, at least implicitly, by rogue Ikhwanist Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, who last week was kicked out of the group for manning an independent bid for the presidency? The 59-year-old physician, regarded as a friend among secularists for his liberal views, once told me in an interview that he would struggle for an independent judiciary, a free press, women’s rights, and “a free society where all independent groups, both secular and Islamist, would become partners as well as competitors for power.” [Check out editorial cartoons about the "Arab Spring" uprisings.]

Or will it be elements of the Brotherhood’s youth brigades who are launching their own party, the name of which will be announced in weeks, if not days, that defies the Ikhwan’s proscriptions against joining with secular leaders to advance a republican agenda. The group’s leader, who agreed to an interview last week on condition of anonymity, told me the party would be “civil democratic, not Islamic, in nature” and that non-Muslim members were lining up to join.

In fact, in the dozen or so interviews I’ve had with leading Egyptian Islamists in the last week, the matter of Israel barely registered. Even Mohammed Farahat, a Salafi sheik with a considerable Internet following, said he would honor Cairo’s peace treaty with the Jewish state in the event of a two-state solution to the dispute over Palestine. And why wouldn’t he? Since Mubarak’s departure, the Egyptian economy has been crippled by a tanking tourist trade and plunging remittances. The value of foreign direct investment has entered negative territory for the first time in recent memory and its foreign exchange reserves have been reduced by a third as the central bank labors to prevent a run on the Egyptian Pound. Chronic unemployment, a major propellent for the revolution, lingers officially at 10 percent, and is probably twice that. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]

Egyptians are a pragmatic people. Deep in a hole, they are not about to dig deeper by scrapping a peace treaty that has guaranteed them at least a modicum of economic stability. The same cannot be said for our members of Congress, who, like their Cold War predecessors, habitually go abroad in search of monoliths to destroy.

  • See a gallery of cartoons about the Middle East protests.
  • See photos of protests in Egypt.
  • Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.