Behind the Headline: Egypt’s first civilian president brings Muslim Brotherhood to power… sort of

Newly-elected president of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi.

Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, and the first civilian to hold the office, is set to meet with the heads of the country’s armed forces as he moves into the Presidential Palace that once was home to Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who was overthrown in last year’s popular uprising.

Muhammad Mursi, an American-educated engineer, was declared winner of Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election Sunday, with 51.73% of the vote. Mursi was the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has been a force in Egypt’s politics for generations, but has never before held power. Mursi promises to form an inclusive government that represents all the major groups in Egypt’s society, and there is much hope and optimism about Egypt’s transition to democracy, but there is also a lot of worry about exactly what direction the Brotherhood intends to take Egypt. An alleged interview published by Iran’s news agency claims Mursi wants to improve relations with Iran and form an anti-Western, anti-Israel, pan-Islamic alliance across the Middle East; Mursi’s staff denied that their leader made those comments.

These uncertainties, though, are underscored by a deeper uncertainty. As of right now, Egypt has no constitution, no parliament, and no clarity about what political powers, if any, the new president actually has. Shortly before the election, Egypt’s Supreme Court declared the country’s parliament illegal because it allowed candidates backed by political parties to take offices that were reserved for independents. Immediately thereafter, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been managing the transition since Mubarak’s overthrow, locked out the parliament and issued a declaration giving itself extensive powers, including the power to make laws, the power to control how the new constitution is to be written, power over foreign affairs and defense, and the power to arrest civilians and try them in military courts. Critics have labeled the SCAF’s move as tantamount to a military coup. Mursi’s meeting with the military’s leaders is intended to renegotiate the boundaries of the SCAF’s powers and put more power into civilian hands.

Considering how complex all of this political wrangling in Egypt is, I think it’s time we looked Behind the Headline.

So what is the Muslim Brotherhood anyway, and why are people so worried about it?

The Muslim Brotherhood is a pan-Islamic movement with branches across the Middle East and around the world. Its stated goal is to restore the Caliphate, an Islamic empire and system of government that dominated the Middle East in Islam’s early history. The Caliphate was led by a “Caliph” (hence the name), who was seen as the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, and who in theory was elected by and responsible to a “Shura”, which was a sort of proto-democratic legislature. Law in the Caliphate was based on Shari’a (Islamic religious law), and society under the Caliphs saw great achievements in art, architecture, science, math, philosophy, medicine, and so forth – hence many Muslims’ nostalgia for this period in their history.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna. At the time, most of the Middle East was under direct or indirect European rule, as Britain, France, and Italy carved up the former Ottoman Empire between them in the aftermath of World War I. Though European rule was great for tourists…

… archaeologists…

… and Western business interests, it wasn’t so popular among the common people. So while the Brotherhood was originally a sort of Islamic version of the YMCA, providing gymnasiums, community centers, hospitals, and schools, it wasn’t long before it became a part of the resistance movement. By 1945 it had two million members, and many believe it was behind a number of terrorist attacks and assassinations during this period.

In the 1950s, it seemed like the Brotherhood would get a break as country after country in the Middle East gained its independence, but in many cases the new governments were dictatorships that wanted to stamp out anyone who stood in their way, Muslim Brotherhood included. Even in Egypt, where it was founded, the Brotherhood was banned by the military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser – who ironically had taken power in 1952 with the Brotherhood’s support.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood’s most influential member was Sayyid Qutb, an anti-establishment, anti-American radical and author whose ideas about jihad would come to inspire such groups as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, by the 1970s the Brotherhood had done a 180 degree turn and renounced violence, though their commitment to nonviolence has not always been consistent.

So far, the Brotherhood has only taken power twice. In 1989, Omar al-Bashir took power in Sudan, and allowed Muslim Brothers into his government. Under his rule, Sudan faced an ongoing civil war that led to the creation of South Sudan, another civil war in Darfur, and a new war with South Sudan over the countries’ border. Through all of this, al-Bashir has been accused of genocide and is wanted by the International Criminal Court.

The only other time the Brotherhood has taken power was in 2007, when Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the organization, took power in the Gaza Strip. Hamas had been one of the terrorist groups participating in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has a reputation for extremism.

It is natural, then, that people fear the Brotherhood’s coming to power in Egypt. As one Egyptian was quoted by BBC News, “The election of a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood means the death of secularism and a politically plural society.” However, many argue that the Egyptian version of the Brotherhood is an entirely different animal. According to this view, Egypt’s Muslim Brothers are moderate, tolerant, pragmatic, and committed to democracy. The Guardian’s Magdi Abdelhadi says, “The Brotherhood is the closest one can find in Egypt today to an independent political institution where established practices and commitment to an idea seem to trounce blood ties and financial interests. It’s not only populist, but also truly popular. Its members are drawn from all walks of life – middle-class professionals as well as workers and peasants.”

And the Wall Street Journal’s Fouad Ajami says, “If any overarching political vision inspires the Brotherhood, it is the Turkish model…a Sunni country where Islam came to power via the ballot box, then rode and facilitated an economic renaissance that made Turkey the envy of its neighbors.”

So, the military takeover is a good thing, right? Making sure the Brotherhood stays moderate?

Tell that to the Egyptian people.

See, Egypt’s army has a long history of intervening in the country’s politics. They are the ones who overthrew the British and their puppet king in 1952, and each of Egypt’s rulers since then has been from the military. The military also has what the BBC describes as a “vast business empire” in Egypt – sports stadiums, resorts, hotels, posh suburban subdivisions, and even manufacturing interests. Though their slogan may be “The army and the people are one”, in reality military rule is quite unpopular, and more than a few Egyptians see the army as no more than an extension of the old regime.

The real irony is that the Tahrir Square protests that started the Egyptian Revolution in the first place were not started by either the military or the Brotherhood – they were started by secular, liberal, pro-Western, urban youths and intellectuals, who rallied around the figure of Mohamed ElBaradei. Their goal was to turn Egypt into a modern, Western-style democracy. However, the secular liberals have been squeezed out by the other two factions in the past year, as they simply don’t have the support base to call upon that the others have.

In my Latin American History class in college, I learned that there is a regular pattern to revolutions that you see repeated over and over. First, everyone will rally together against the ones at the top to overthrow them, and then once the common enemy is gone the various factions will have competing ideas for what to do next and will start fighting each other. Egypt’s revolution seems to clearly be fitting this pattern, and we will have to wait and see who ends up deciding Egypt’s future.

Why should I care about any of this?

The thing about Egypt is that it is always the bellwether for the Middle East. As the most populous Arab country, it sets the tine for everyone else time and time again. When they overthrew the British in 1952, other Middle Eastern countries fought for and gained their independence: Sudan, Tunisia, and Morocco in 1956, Iraq in 1958, Algeria in 1962. When Egypt and Syria briefly united as the United Arab Republic in 1958, it inspired short-lived attempts at uniting all the Arab nations. When Egypt agreed to make peace with Israel, it made peace with Israel more palatable to other Arab nations and helped start the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Yes, the Arab Spring may have started in Tunisia, but it was the Egyptian protests that really got people motivated and marching. Today, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, and countries such as Libya, Yemen, and Iraq are teetering on the brink. If Egypt can sort itself out peacefully, it might inspire others to lay down their arms and talk through their problems. If Egypt’s new leaders can’t get along, though, it could precipitate an explosion of violence across a huge and very influential region of the world. At the very least, oil prices would be affected by the outcome, and that translates to the price of gasoline, groceries, travel, and almost everything else.

Information from BBC News and the Toronto Globe and Mail