Is Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood moderate? That’s what everyone wants to know now that Hosni Mubarak is out of power and the Islamists are flexing their muscles, not only against the military junta’s transition authorities, but also against the liberal activists who brought the autocratic president down.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesmen have been waging a PR campaign in the West for many years. They know exactly what to say and what not to say. They tell Western reporters that they’re activists for democracy and civil society. They don’t say they want to ban alcohol, force women to wear headscarves or veils, or further restrict the rights of religious minorities.
The term “moderate” is relative, though. Surely the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate compared with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but that’s a meaningless standard. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are the most politically extreme Islamist organizations on earth. Fidel Castro is moderate compared with Pol Pot, and the Ku Klux Klan is moderate compared with the Nazis, but so what?
It hardly matters at all that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate compared with mass-murdering totalitarians whose weapon of choice is the suicide bomber. (Besides, its leadership supports the suicide bombers of Hamas, which ought to go without saying since Hamas is the organization’s Palestinian branch.) The only question that matters is: what does the Muslim Brotherhood actually stand for? What do they say when Western reporters aren’t in the room? The only way a Western reporter like me can know, short of bugging their offices, is to interview former Muslim Brotherhood members who will tell it to me straight. So that’s what I did.
Mohammad Adel used to work for the Brotherhood’s Web site, but he recently quit and threw his support behind the April 6 labor movement instead.
“I was opposed to the editorial line,” he told me in a tent his new comrades erected inside the liberal activists’ tent city in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “so I created a parallel site. The party accused us of collaborating with the ministry of the interior and the security forces. The Web site reflects the ideas of the Brotherhood’s leadership, and a lot of us felt it didn’t represent the group as a whole.”
“How is the editorial line different from the views of the group as a whole?” I said.
“It only publishes quotes and articles that are by and about the leadership,” he said. “It pays no attention to the rest of the members. It prevents the publication of news items or press releases by any other member. If someone from the Brotherhood was arrested, and that person had a problem with any of the leaders, the Web site wouldn’t publicize that person’s arrest even as a news item.”
Theoretically he could still be an Islamist, albeit a disgruntled one, with that list of complaints, but he doesn’t sound like one. Not any more.
“They aren’t going to do well in the upcoming elections,” he said. “Most of the votes they got before were protest votes against Mubarak’s NDP rather than votes for the Muslim Brotherhood. Now that the NDP has been dissolved, they don’t have that base to fall back on.”
I’ve been told there are around 40 political parties in Egypt right now, though I’m not sure anyone who gave me that number actually counted them or could name them. Most of those parties are microscopic and irrelevant, but some are serious and should do reasonably well in a free and fair election, and they span the same ideological range that exists everywhere else, with socialists on the left and capitalists on the right.
“Lots of parties are coming up quickly,” Adel said, “and they’re getting popular. The Brotherhood is afraid of two parties in particular, the Free Egypt Party and Mostafa El-Naggar’s Justice Party.”
The Free Egypt Party is a secular, anti-sectarian, and free market capitalist party founded by a Coptic Christian businessman, though the party is by no means a “Christian” party the way many Lebanese political parties are Christian. The founder just happens to be a Christian. I saw a number of women wearing Islamic headscarves in one of their offices when I went in there for an interview. Their platform is as anti-socialist as it is anti-Islamist.
The Justice Party, meanwhile, stresses “social justice,” though it is centrist and includes activists from both the left and the right, including Mohamed El-Baradei’s sister Mona, an Egyptian economist.
These parties are new and, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, their platforms are modern and products of the 21st century.
There are five main Islamist governance models that currently exist. The Taliban in Afghanistan is, of course, the most extreme, and the Turkish AKP is the least. The AKP has been in power in Turkey for years, and alcohol sales have been restricted in some parts of the country, it hasn’t been banned. Women don’t have to dress conservatively if they don’t want to, and huge numbers in the large cities don’t. The other Islamist models include the thoroughly reactionary Saudi Arabia, totalitarian Gaza under Hamas, and Iran under the Islamic Republic. I didn’t mention any of these to Adel, but I had all of them in mind when I asked my next question.
“Is there a model of governance that exists somewhere in the world that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to emulate here?” I said.
“Some of them went to Turkey to learn from that model,” he said. “But the Egyptian youth who would otherwise be similar to the youth in Turkey’s Islamist party have been expelled from the Brotherhood here. They were seen as being too non-religious.”
“Turkey’s AKP isn’t religious enough for the Brotherhood?” I said.
“The Brothers think of the AKP as liberal and they don’t want that here,” he said. “They’ve expelled the liberal Islamists from the group.”
I could only assume then that Gaza is what Egypt’s Brotherhood has in mind, or maybe a Sunni Arab version of what Persian Shia Islamists have built in Iran.
“I would like for the Muslim Brotherhood to be more like Hamas,” Adel said.
That stopped me cold. “You want the Brotherhood to be like Hamas?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Because Hamas is more liberal. The Brotherhood here no longer has any liberal members. Hamas is more willing to cooperate with other movements than the Muslim Brotherhood is.”
“I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying,” I said. “Your view is that Hamas represent liberal Islamism.”
“Not that they’re liberal,” he said, “but they have members who are. They have a liberal Islamist element. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has chosen to expel its liberal Islamists. The Brotherhood thinks dealing with anyone who is a former member, someone who was expelled or who resigned, or someone from other movements and parties, is like dealing with an infidel.”
Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby also quit the Muslim Brotherhood recently, and I had a lot more time to sit down and talk to him than I had with Mohammad Adel.
Before he resigned he was the editor-in-chief of the Brotherhood’s Web site, Ikhwan Online. He even got some serious attention in Western media for his high profile job before he walked out. The Daily Beast described him as “radical Islam’s tech guru,” but he’s not a radical Islamist anymore. He is a man in transition with one part of his heart and his mind in his old ideology and another part of his heart and his mind in something more liberal and open. And the truth is he’s been in transition for a while now and was very nearly ready to bolt at the time the Daily Beast interviewed him, though no one had any idea at the time. He wasn’t even yet ready to admit it to himself, but that would start changing — and fast — as soon as the revolution in Egypt was on.
“I was a member of the Brotherhood for 23 years,” he said.
I’m not sure how old he is, but he doesn’t look a day over 40, and he said he joined up in high school. He dedicated his entire adult life to the organization before he quit just a few months ago. And its reactionary rigidity is not what he says he found attractive. “Islam is a religion that can also be a way of life,” he said. “It’s also adaptable and flexible in ways that differ from what Al Azhar University teaches, which is where I studied. I was actually expelled from Al Azhar as a means of preventing me from being a representative of the organization on campus. All of my experience with this gave me some credibility within the student body.”
He worked as a journalist after graduating while moving up in the Brotherhood’s ranks. Eventually he became the editor-in-chief of the Web site, though he began to chafe against the restrictions the leadership put on him. “There were trends within the organization that indicated the leadership lacked tools for dialogue. They were very stubborn and refused to let go of their opinions. This was most clear in what touched upon my own work involving the media and the arts.”
Quitting wasn’t an option, however. For one thing, his closest friends were in the Brotherhood. The biggest reason he couldn’t quit, though, was because Hosni Mubarak was still in power. “He would not let more than five of us gather in one house,” he said. “And because of Mubarak’s tyranny I couldn’t blame the Brotherhood or their leaders because it might justify his oppression of them. The government could then argue that if one of their own is criticizing them, then clearly we were justified in oppressing or banning them.”
Like just about everyone else I interviewed over there, he says the Brotherhood had little to do with the anti-government uprising, that the organization opportunistically joined up late before turning on the revolutionaries altogether.
“The revolution was produced by people who didn’t belong to any organization,” he said. “All those who were members of various organizations at the time had some relationship with Mubarak’s regime, and they made their own calculations with him. The people who took to the streets on the 25th of January were only upholding one banner, and that was a national one. The real revolutionaries are those who were on the streets on the 25th of January, not the people who followed in the days afterward.”
He was one of the first people down there, so you might say his analysis is a little self-serving, but it’s worth pointing out that the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization was absent. Even after the square filled with tens of thousands and even hundred of thousands of people, the Brotherhood hadn’t shown up. They were too busy calculating. They did not see the revolution coming — nobody did — and they had no idea what to do after it started. They certainly were not its leaders.
“I was in Tahrir Square for the 18 days,” he said. “One day I went down into the streets with two French journalists. We left the Brotherhood office and were subjected to a pre-meditated attack by thugs from the baltageya right outside the building. They took all my papers and two mobile phones. Eight days later a group of thugs followed by a group of soldiers stormed the Brotherhood office at dawn and destroyed computers and arrested twelve people.”
For reasons that I can’t explain, the Brotherhood leaders took this in stride. They were strangely aloof from just about everything that was happening in the country at the time. I find it odd. Al-Sharnouby found it infuriating.
“I mention these attacks,” he said, “because experiencing the emotional ups and downs of the revolution, and being attacked the way I was, stood in such contrast with the calm felt by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. When we were right in the middle of Tahrir, the Brotherhood announced that it would negotiate with [military intelligence director and vice president] Omar Suleiman. People in the square came to me and said, ‘you’re the editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web site. Why are you guys negotiating with the army?’ Talk of negotiations with Mubarak’s government was firmly rejected by everyone in Tahrir.”
The Brotherhood has been doing that all along. Many of the liberals and socialists I spoke to have the sense that the Islamists are against the revolution or are at best waging their own parallel revolution, and they seem to be right.
“There were calls for a second Friday of rage in May,” Al-Sharnouby said. “The Brotherhood leadership gave me a press release to publish on the Web site, and it was very harsh. It said that anyone who went down to the second Friday of rage was either betraying the nation or trying to trigger clashes between the people and the army.”
He published the press release, though, without editing it. He wasn’t happy about it, but that was his job. There was nothing the Brothers could do to stop him from going down to Tahrir anyway, though, so he did.
“People who had become my brothers and sisters during the 18 days were surprised to see me,” he said. “They said to me, ‘doesn’t the Brotherhood think we’re all infiltrators and spies?’ And I said, ‘even if that’s what you are, then I would rather be on your side.’”
His decision to leave the Brotherhood wasn’t a snap one. His mind had been changing slowly over time even if he wasn’t always consciously aware of it, like tectonic plates shifting an inch or so every year until the pressure is released in an explosive earthquake. The epicenter of Al-Sharnouby’s personal earthquake was Tahrir Square during the revolution.
“I saw blood in the streets,” he said. “I saw people die who didn’t belong to any organization. The people who died in the revolution weren’t making political calculations. They weren’t entering into negotiations with the regime. They died because they wanted to be free. So we should be with the people.”
He paused for a moment, then asked me a question.
“Are you with the people?” he said.
“Of course!” I said. At least I am with Egypt’s liberals. I’m an American. Who else could I possibly sympathize with? The anti-Western Islamists? The military dictatorship that blames foreigners like me for everything wrong with the country?
“Okay then,” he said and smiled. “Have some coffee.”
And he ordered me another coffee.
My colleague Armin Rosen and I interviewed Esam El-Erian, one of the Brotherhood’s senior officials, the day before. It was the strangest interview I have ever conducted. El-Erian yelled at us for an hour. He said he hopes the Saudis stop selling us oil so we will learn to respect the Arabs. He said the United States is against the revolution in Libya, even though American planes are bombing Qaddafi on behalf of the rebels. He says the United States is against the revolution in Syria, even though Washington is ratcheting up sanctions on Bashar al-Assad and mumbling about war crimes indictments. He not so coyly suggests that the United States government, rather than Osama bin Laden, is guilty of the crimes on September 11. And he proudly supports suicide bombers in the West Bank and Gaza. He’s an unapologetic ally of mass-murderers and terrorists.
And it was this man, Esam El-Erian, who finally drove Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby to resign from the Brotherhood.
“Esam El-Erian said the reason people were angry at the Brotherhood was the way the protests were covered on the Web site,” he said, though it was, of course, El-Erian and his colleagues in the leadership, not al-Sharnouby or anyone else at the Web site, who denounced Egyptians for daring the demonstrate in Tahrir. “When that happened,” he continued, “I realized the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to change, and I submitted my resignation.”
The leadership tried to talk him into staying, but another problem he had was its refusal to take a clear position on just about anything. I’ve had the same experience with the Brothers myself. My recent interview with El-Erian wasn’t my first. I spoke to him in 2005, as well, and he was slipperier than a buttered-up eel. He refused to provide a clear answer to a single one of my questions. Would the Muslim Brotherhood like to ban alcohol? Force women to wear headscarves? He wouldn’t say yes and he wouldn’t say no.
“I told the supreme guide that it was inappropriate for an organization with the Brotherhood’s history to be unable to take a clear position on anything,” al-Sharnouby said. “I knew the situation wouldn’t be fixed or clarified and announced my resignation on Facebook.”
He ought to know what the Brotherhood leaders want, though, as he spent all of his adulthood working with them and for them.
“Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood is culturally democratic?” I said. “Is their objective to govern Egypt or to be one party of many?”
“Of course they’re objective is to govern Egypt,” he said.
I realized as soon as he answered that I didn’t phrase my question the way I should have. The Democratic and Republican parties hope to govern the United States, but that hardly means they aren’t democratic. They hope to govern after winning elections, but they don’t try to overthrow the government when they lose.
“What I meant to ask,” I said, “is if the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders want to be Egypt’s next pharaohs.”
The organization’s spokesmen don’t tell American journalists that they wish to impose an Islamist dictatorship. If anyone like me tries to get them to confirm or deny this, they dodge the question. They are very well practiced in dodging that question. But al-Sharnouby should know. He knows what they say when people like me are not listening.
“If the Brotherhood in its current state takes power,” he said, “it will be a serious crisis. There will be a mixing of what is religious and what is political. In its current state, the mixing of politics and religion, in my opinion, is wrong and worrying. It’s very worrying for me personally. We have to give credit to what happened on the 25th of January. We accomplished a feat which ensures that no one will ever rule Egypt again the way the pharaohs did. No one in the Brotherhood understand this, though, because they did not create the revolution. The Brotherhood as it exists now wants to come to power and rule the way Hosni Mubarak did.”
He still describes himself as an Islamist even though he finds the prospect of political Islam, as he put it, worrying. Islamism is by definition political Islam, however. I think he is confused, that what he meant to say is that he’s a Muslim, not an Islamist, but I am not entirely sure what he was getting at. So I had to ask, “what exactly do you mean when you say you’re an Islamist?”
“I see Islam as a way of life that is beautiful,” he said, “that understands that people can be different, that people should communicate with each other. The Koran says God created male and female, different populations and tribes, so that we would know each other. To me this is the idea behind Islam, that people are from different cultures and places, and that we should know each other. God put me on earth not to point my finger at people and say who is going to heaven and who is going to hell.”
He sounds to me more like a like a liberal or moderate Muslim. Whatever label best suits him, Islamist probably isn’t it. But he’s a man in transition who only very recently broke with a movement he’s been a part of for more than half his life and his entire adulthood. Perhaps in a few years he’ll work out these contradictions. For all I know he could even end up like the famous feminist and atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who herself once identified with the Brotherhood. He certainly interprets the Koran differently than the likes of the Taliban.
“Look,” he said, “at the rules about adultery. They were put there to make it almost impossible to prove that adultery ever took place. You have to bring four witnesses who saw it happen. Adultery takes place during a human being’s greatest moment of weakness. There is a hadith about a man who went up to the prophet and said he found two people committing adultery. He was very proud of himself. Yet the prophet said, ‘what are you doing? Why are you scandalizing them? What’s it to you? You should have just covered them up and left.’ These conditions aren’t put in there to punish people. They are there to allow human weakness.”
One of the biggest problems with his former Islamist colleagues is their visceral detestation of any kind of art.
“The Brotherhood today doesn’t have a reasonable mechanism for dealing with the arts,” he said. “What’s the literary output of the Muslim Brotherhood? Leftists under Nasser were just as oppressed as the Brotherhood, but they managed to produce literature. They wrote plays and movies. The reason the Brothers don’t produce anything literary or artistic, unlike the leftists, is because they have a serious intellectual problem with art.”
“Would they want to impose a ban on art if they had the power to do so?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”
Of course? I was slightly surprised to hear this, but only slightly. The Taliban banned music and art, after all. It isn’t unprecedented. “They might not ban it directly,” he continued, “but they would limit it and place obstacles around art and artists.”
He is still a conservative Muslim, even so, at least in some ways. “Every freedom has its limitations,” he said. “Americans who talk about freedom and the oppression of women in different parts of the world don’t recognize how women in their own societies are oppressed by things like pornography.”
He has, however, set off on a new trajectory, one that may eventually take him very far indeed from where he began.
“I saw two paths before me,” he said, “and had to decide which one to take. One is the path of the Muslim Brotherhood, the other of humanism. I have chosen to follow the path of humanism.”
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