Memo to the MB
My article "Memo to the MB: How to talk to America" in the September/October issue of the magazine Foreign Policy is available - to subscribers only - online as of today. The article is one of Foreign Policy's series of memos to influential policymakers in international affairs (the most recent example available free online is addressed to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong). The memo, addressed to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef, offers advice on what the Brotherhood should do if it really wants to engage with Western audiences. The article does not advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood. It does begin from the premise that a serious dialogue with the Brotherhood would be valuable, particularly if it can produce common understandings on the value of democracy and the need to combat extremism, but it poses more questions and challenges than answers. It begins like this:
When you took over the reins as head of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2004, promising to put freedom at the top of your agenda, you probably couldn’t have imagined where your organization would be today. Although still technically banned, the Brotherhood has emerged as the leading opposition group in Egypt, with 88 seats in parliament. Your calls for governmental transparency and accountability represent an entirely new battle in Egyptian politics—and you’ve got the scars to prove it.
Since contesting parliamentary elections, you’ve seen the Egyptian regime aggressively tamper with the ballot box, launch a massive campaign of arrests of Brotherhood members, and alter the Constitution to prevent your participation in the political process. Many in the West are concerned about the way you’ve been treated by the Egyptian government. But your continued ambiguity about the Brotherhood’s core political commitments, your ambivalence toward Hamas’s attacks on Israel, and questions about your connections with Islamic extremism have left even your backers doubting your true intentions.
The memo urges the Brotherhood to engage the "Great Muslim Brotherhood Debate" in US foreign policy circles while it is hot (Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke's Foreign Affairs piece really kicked it off, triggering lots of conservative rebuttals, while Shadi Hamid has more recently carried the torch). It acknowledges that these are very difficult times for the Brotherhood in Egypt, but that this offers an opportunity as well as a challenge: "Your Western critics want nothing more than for you to abandon democracy in the face of adversity... How you react to the tough moments tell us more about you than how you behave when things are going well." (a prize if you can identify the Buffy reference).
It warns against "double talk", pointing out that Americans will likely pay more attention to what is said in Arabic than in English since that is more likely to reflect real view. This oft-aired critique is vastly overstated, by the way: in a policy paper that will be published next month, I demonstrate that the Egyptian Brotherhood's rhetoric in Arabic is highly consistent with its rhetoric in English. Whether this rhetoric reflects their 'real' convictions remains a highly pertinent question, which can not likely be resolved in the absence of an opportunity for them to put the words into action. But at the level of rhetoric, the forthcoming article documents dozens of recent Brotherhood statements, interviews, speeches and documents (all in Arabic) which attest to consistency rather than double talk. But at any rate, with a hat tip to Dan Drezner I warn Akef that "all politics is global". If you can't persuade your fellow citizens (whether Copts or secularists) of your sincerity, I point out, how can you expect to persuade Americans?
I warn Akef against reading too much or too little into the support for the Brotherhood expressed by Western human rights organizations, academics, and political analysts. On the one hand, their defense of Brotherhood members based on principled commitments to political freedoms and human rights should challenge any undifferentiated view of a uniformly hostile West. At the same time, such support should not be misunderstood as support for the organization itself. Most of these voices are simultaneously skeptical of the Brotherhood and deeply worried about its intentions. It is these pragmatic Westerners, who are open to persuasion but are far from persuaded, that the Brotherhood needs to convince through deeds as well as words.
I recommend two specific courses of action here: first, a strong public condemnation of the practice of takfir (declaring a Muslim to be an apostate), both in principle and in practice the next time such a controversy arises in Egypt; and second, allowing the recent emergence of Muslim Brotherhood bloggers to flourish without censorship as a window into the debates, thoughts, and aspirations of the organization's members. The third area where I push the Brotherhood is on extremism. As I've argued elsewhere, the Brotherhood could be either a "firewall" against extremism, holding its members within a moderate doctrine, or a "transmission belt" recruiting people into an Islamist worldview and making them more open to radicalization. They claim to be the former, most critics see them as the latter. So what are they actually doing to resolve that debate in their favor, and prove that they are really the firewall they claim to be?
There's a lot more packed in to the short essay; if the full text becomes available I'll add a link. In between the time I wrote it and its publication, two significant developments have taken place. The first is the publication of the draft political party platform, followed by reports of internal debates about key aspects of the draft. Both the move to draft such a political platform and the airing of debates about its contents would have followed the tenor of my recommendations, had the article come out first. The second is the arrest of Essam el-Erian (head of the political bureau and a key drafter of the platform) and 15 other Brotherhood leaders in what is widely seen as a direct response to the publication of the draft law and Mohamed Habib's al-Jazeera interview about it. It's not easy to be democrats in an Egypt where the regime seems determined to crush any manifestation of credible political opposition, and which rewards every sign of moderation with greater repression. One has to wonder how long the younger, less patient members of the Brotherhood will be able to forebear in the face of provocation (as I'm investigating in yet another article due to come out later this fall). No doubt the regime is waiting eagerly for the first sign of a turn to more violent means of expression on their part which can be used to retroactively justify its crackdown. I hope to see the Brotherhood stick with its public commitments in the face of this adversity (releasing the political party platform, contesting elections where possible, refraining from violence): paying a high price for its convictions sends a powerful message to those willing to listen that these really are its convictions and not just a convenient facade.
Let the Great Muslim Brotherhood Debate continue!