What You Need to Know About the Muslim Brotherhood
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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CIA analyst Daniel Byman notes that whatever its numbers, the Brotherhood's potential role is not to be discounted. "Most Egyptians are not members of the Brotherhood, but the group probably represents a healthy plurality of the country, and its strength goes beyond its popularity," writes Byman. "The Brotherhood is highly organized and has street power, enabling it to out-organize or intimidate its weak potential rivals. In parts of the Middle East where relatively free elections have been held, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, this mix of popularity and superior organization has served Islamist parties well."
What Does This Mean for US Foreign Policy?
Whatever its ultimate political beliefs, there are several things that the Muslim Brotherhood is not: It is not Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It is a conservative, even ultra-orthodox Islamist group, but it's irresponsible to compare it to the terrorist groups and armed insurgencies that have preoccupied American foreign policy since 2001. Nor is the Brotherhood the Egyptian equivalent of the Islamic force that seized power in Iran in 1979. For one thing, political conditions are much different; for another, the Brotherhood lacks the network of highly politicized clerics that helped Ayatollah Khomeini succeed in 1979. The group itself is almost entirely made up of laymen, often highly educated, and scholars of Islamic law, not members of the clergy.
To the extent that the Muslim Brotherhood's power in Egypt grows, it is certain to infuse the country with a stronger strain of anti-American and anti-Israel politics. Officially, the Brotherhood has proclaimed that it will abrogate or shelve the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed in 1978, although in practice doing so might be difficult. It's also likely to align Egypt more closely with other Islamist groups in the Arab world, especially Hamas, which began as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. That would be part and parcel of a growing anti-American trend throughout the region, which has been picking up steam since the US invasion of Iraq and the American refusal to challenge Israel's stonewalling of a Palestinian state. If after Mubarak Egypt does indeed move away from the United States, it will only be joining Turkey, Lebanon, and even Iraq and the Gulf states.
One thing is certain. Having been an important player in Egypt's political landscape for nearly a century, the Muslim Brotherhood is a force to be reckoned with. It cannot be ignored, and no amount of Glenn Beck-style hyperventilating will change that.