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Op-Ed

The Meaning of Muslim Brotherhood Pragmatism

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on February 1, 2012

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and others have been writing about their ambivalence concerning the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victory in Egypt. On the one hand, they write, the ideology of the Brotherhood over the years has been anti-democratic, anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-rights for women, gays, and other minorities.

On the other hand, the Brotherhood was elected democratically. More than that, they argue, there are forces at work today in Egypt, which dictate the Brotherhood move in a pragmatic direction. Included among these are the democratic fervor which legitimized the revolution, the huge economic and social challenges facing the government, the need to deal with the military that still holds great power, and the financial dependence on the United States.

I think this description of pragmatic forces at work is accurate, but may say far more about the near-term rather than the long-term behavior of the Brotherhood. There is nothing to suggest that the ideology of the Brotherhood, not to mention that of the more extremist Islamists, the Salafists, who hold the second largest bloc in the parliament, has changed at all. When not on their guard, various Brotherhood leaders reveal this, particularly regarding their attitudes toward Israel and America.

Still, it makes perfect sense to be more moderate today considering all the challenges they face. After all, the Brotherhood, as of this moment, holds little power. That will change in time but it is this period of transition that is most critical for them. They cannot afford a direct confrontation with the military now, hence the criticism by some at the one-year anniversary that the Brotherhood has sold out the revolution.

They cannot express an Islamist agenda for Egypt at this time because Egyptians want to see their government focus on ways to bring economic stability and growth to a country that has taken a huge economic hit this past year, affecting the lives of millions. And the last thing they need right now is to force the U.S. to reconsider its annual multi-billion dollar aid package to Egypt.

Therefore, it is reasonable to expect in the near term that the Brotherhood will take an approach to consolidate power without unduly rousing the ire of those, internally and externally, who see the essence of the revolution as the expansion of democratic rights and the protection of minorities. At the same time, they will look for ways to increase tourism and investment in Egypt to ease the financial burden of the average citizen.

A key element in the consolidation of power will lie in the writing of the constitution. As the party in control of parliament, they will have a great say but probably will not be strong enough soon enough to ignore the wishes of the military.

How long this period of consolidation will last is anyone's guess. And it is possible that the public could turn against the Brotherhood before it strengthens. Considering, however, the overwhelming majority gained by the Islamic parties together with their pragmatic approach, it is unlikely in this early period that the opposition will be so powerful.

And then what? Here I believe a certain element of wishful thinking creeps into the picture. It particularly appears when analysts suggest that Turkey rather than Iran can be the model for the Islamists. What is wrong with this picture?

Such commentators ignore the fact that Turkey, unlike Egypt, was a democratic secular state since its inception 90 years ago and its rule by an Islamic party has now been going on only for 10 years. This meant that there were institutions and values built in to inhibit the Islamicization of the government even with an Islamic party in power.

At the same time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been eroding democratic values over the years, especially in his government's arrests of journalists who criticize his rule.

The absence in Egypt of a democratic, secular history and institution-building, together with a tendency to constrict democratic rights, even with a somewhat moderate Islamist party like Turkey's AKP party, makes it very likely that once the Brotherhood feels confident enough, its true self will emerge. Rights for women and minorities, like the Copts, as well the ability of opposition parties to operate in a way that could threaten the regime's hold through public critiques and electoral politics could be in jeopardy.

And relations with Israel would inevitably go downhill. While a break of the peace agreement might be possible, such action entails great risks and may not be in the cards. Tensions, however, are sure to rise.

What can be done to avoid the deterioration that seems inevitable? The constitution should be a constraint, but the fact that 65 to 70 percent of parliament is Islamist diminishes that factor.

The answer lies in a combination of forces that has yet to appear on the scene. So far it is the liberals, those who made the revolution, who are protesting against the military. While they are doing so because they believe the military is undermining democracy by holding on to power, what they are really doing is playing into the hands of the Brotherhood which is biding its time.

Ironically, it can be argued that the best chance to prevent an ultimate takeover by the Brotherhood which may well mean some of the worst manifestations of the Turkish government with some elements from Iran, is a marriage between the liberals and the military, a marriage which right now seems far-fetched. The goal would be to temper the Islamicization of society and to ensure a moderate, balanced set of laws that does not ignore Islam but provides spaces for true democratic norms and protections for free speech and minorities.

Can such a dramatic turnaround in alliances happen? Only if both parties recognize what is at stake and take the necessary steps -- the military to step back from power and the liberals to recognize there is a greater danger from Islamist forces -- to make it happen.

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