Friday, February 11, 2011

How Do We Know What Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Wants? Because It Tells Us!

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By Barry Rubin

In the scores of articles that have appeared about the Muslim Brotherhood, I have not seen scarcely a single one in a newspaper (here's a Los Angeles Times op-ed that does so) that suggests the group might cause some alarm. I have also not seen any mention of the Brotherhood’s political platform. Yet if you are going to analyze the attitudes of the Brotherhood might it not be of some use to consider its main political blueprint for Egypt's future?

The platform, circulated in 2007 and partly translated by MEMRI, genuinely frightened many people in Egypt, especially the reform-minded types (many of whom seem to have forgotten about it) who have played a central role in the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Indeed, a lot of the same moderates allied with the Brotherhood today said, just a little over two years ago that the Brotherhood is seeking an Islamist state. So why isn’t this being discussed as an important source for understanding the Brotherhood, especially since Egypt may soon be drawing up a new Constitution.

The platform says “Islam is the official state religion and that the Islamic shari'a is the main source for legislation...;The Islamic state is, by its very nature, a civil state, because appointments to [public] office are made on the basis of qualifications, experience, and expertise, while the [holders of] political positions are elected by the people....”

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood takes for granted that it will turn Egypt into an Islamic state--the very point that so many Western officials, journalists, and academics keep denying today.

The specific phrase, defining Islamic law  as “the main source” of Egyptian law is extremely important. Historically, the battle in Egypt has been fought over whether shari’a was “a main source” (permitting the use of European law also) and “the main source,” meaning its shari’a all the way down. The difference between “the” and “a” is a fateful one, determining the future course of Egypt.

True the draft platform says:

"The authority of the shari'a will be implemented in a manner that conforms to the [will of the] nation, by means of a parliamentary majority elected in free, clean, and transparent [elections].”

That sounds very democratic. But wait! It continues:

“The legislative branch must consult with the nation's Supreme Council of Clerics,” elected from the clerics and a separate arm of government. The president will also have to consult with it on key issues. This resembles the Iranian system that includes not only president and prime minister but also the Council of Experts and the Council of Guardians.

“In the case of controversial [questions] which are not unambiguously [settled] by shari'a laws based directly on clear and applicable texts [from the Koran or hadith], the final decision will be made by the legislative branch.”

That sounds good. But remember that the Brotherhood hopes to have a lot of members in parliament also. The Brotherhood doesn’t have to take over the country. Having 30 or 35 percent of the seats in the face of divided rivals and offering its support in order to gain leverage could be sufficient for the Islamists to have their way on key issues.

If Egyptians want to have a more religious state that’s up to them, but that still means it is necessary to analyze the implications.

A great deal of controversy was stirred up by the platform’s position that while everyone in Egypt would have equal rights, that would be interpreted in an Islamic framework:

“An Islamic state must protect non-Muslim [citizens] in all things concerning faith, ritual, etc.; at the same time, it must preserve Islam and all matters related to it, ensuring that no ritual, propaganda, or pilgrimage contradicting Islamic activities are carried out.” Since Islamic law prohibits things like building new churches—something enforced even under Mubarak’s regime—the situation for Christians might not be so great.

The platform specifies that the president and prime minister must be Muslims and male. There are also hints about restrictions on women’s role in society:

“Islam has [always] treated woman as man's sister. As for the woman's role with regard to employment, [Islam] stipulates that it should be balanced against the woman's lofty mission at home, with her children, so as to strengthen the basic units of society.” Some jobs “contradict her nature and the rest of her social and humanitarian roles."

The platform also calls for “revising” the peace treaty with Israel, which in practice means at a minimum suspending its functioning and at most abrogating it for all practical purposes.

Again, Egyptians can decide what they want to do. But the rest of the world should know what to expect. To pretend the Brotherhood is some mild-mannered social welfare agency or a group of dunces incapable of political organization does not properly inform those who are going to have to make decisions and set policy on the basis of such information.

I should add that Carrie Rosefsky-Wickham is a serious scholar who has specialized in studying the more moderate forces in the Brotherhood. While we disagree I respect her work--and she is one of the few who actually makes reference to the Brotherhood's extremist aspects. So you can read her work as a counter to some of my concerns.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center's site is and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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