Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

In response to the Muslim Brotherhood

The outlawed group remains trapped between ideology and reality, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*

In an article published recently in Al-Masry Al-Yom I held that during the recent Gaza crisis the Muslim Brotherhood forfeited an excellent opportunity to persuade the authorities to lift the ban on their movement so that they could become a legitimate group like other opposition parties. Essentially I argued that the Muslim Brothers clashed with every regime in Egypt, under both the monarchical and republican systems, because their battle was not against the regimes per se but against the modern Egyptian state and the concomitant concepts of civil government and equality in citizenship regardless of faith or gender.

The day after my article appeared, I received a fax from Essam El-Erian in the interests of "keeping affection alive after reproach" and "sustaining discussion on the affairs of the nation to which we all belong". In these interests, as well as due to the significance of the Muslim Brotherhood's position towards the state, I believe it is important to publish El-Erian's criticism of my article and my comments in turn.

Anyone familiar with my writings knows that I have long held the conviction that reform in Egypt will not occur until the National Democratic Party breaks free from the heritage of the Socialist Union, the Muslim Brotherhood gives up the idea of a theocracy, and liberals forge solid and extensive contacts with the people. Among the means I have used to promote such developments was to urge the Muslim Brotherhood to clarify their positions on a number of specific issues. I have invited them to dialogues in which they would "dot the i's and cross the t's" on questions pertaining, for example, to the concept of equal citizenship and more recently appealed to them to bear in mind the distinction between opposition and allegiance to the Egyptian state as the political vessel that embraces all political parties, groups and social forces. Unfortunately, El-Erian's letter failed to ease my mind and alter my conviction that the Muslim Brotherhood had let a major opportunity slip by. True to the Brotherhood style, he sidestepped the issues I brought up in my article and even his general comments confirmed what I had mentioned in my article.

In the opening paragraph of his letter El-Erian writes: "The Muslim Brotherhood recognises the modern nation state and has never repudiated it. The evidence to this is abundant. The Brotherhood founder Imam Hassan El-Banna provided an ingenious solution to the multiple loyalties to which an Egyptian is bound, from the nuclear family to the extended family and from the nation state to the Arab nation, the Islamic nation and the universal nation of mankind."

There was no need for El-Erian to cite El-Banna's wisdom on people's multiple loyalties, this being an established fact in sociological thought. However, multiple loyalties are one thing; recognition of and loyalty to the modern state is another. The latter is the entity to which we pay our taxes, to which we accept recruitment into its army, and beneath the flag of which we fight in its defence. It is the entity that represents us in international forums, whose football teams we root for, whose independence day we celebrate. Once, on a television programme, I asked El-Erian whether the Muslim Brotherhood celebrated that day of independence. He answered that Egypt had not yet attained independence. It was clear from the context of our conversation that this would only occur when Egypt became an "Islamic state" as the Muslim Brotherhood defines it. I do not understand how he can then turn around and say that the Brotherhood recognises and accepts the modern nation state, all the more so after the supreme guide scorned the concept with a disdainful "Bull!"

But the especially crucial question before us pertains to how the Muslim Brotherhood would react in the event of conflicting loyalties, which occurs frequently enough in many foreign policy issues. In the recent crisis, opinions and loyalties fell variously for or against Egypt, other Arab countries, Hamas and Israel. The Brotherhood chose to back Hamas over Egypt by falling in with the Hamas version of events and mobilising anti- Egyptian demonstrations both in Egypt and abroad with the aim of pressuring the Egyptian authorities into yielding to Hamas demands regardless of how this might jeopardise Egyptian national security. Moreover, the Brotherhood's leadership accused the Egyptian government of colluding with the Israeli enemy when, in fact, Egypt has been the lifeblood for millions of Palestinians and the route to delivery from their current catastrophe.

Naturally, the Muslim Brotherhood has the right to voice its dissent on the crisis as its parliamentary members have indeed done. However, it is another thing entirely to take to the streets with the purpose of pressuring the government to undertake certain policies and, furthermore, in concert with various international parties that staged demonstrations attacking Egyptian embassies abroad and Egyptian soldiers along the border. The true test of the Muslim Brothers came at a time of conflicting loyalties. They did not condemn the demonstrations abroad that attacked symbols of Egypt as opposed to the ruling party. Nor did they denounce Hassan Nasrallah's call to the Egyptian people and the Egyptian army to revolt. They repeated lies and fabrications about Egypt over the various satellite networks and showed not the slightest interest in telling the Egyptian side of the story or respecting legal and political facts.

The second paragraph of El-Erian's letter states: "The unity of the Islamic world is not just an aspiration of the Brotherhood. It is shared by various parties. Indeed, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference is an embodiment of the appeal for an Arab League of nations proposed in the doctorate thesis of the Islamic jurist Dr Al-Sanhuri who was never a Muslim Brotherhood member."

Perhaps Al-Sanhuri's appeal is something to aspire to and perhaps it could set a kind of tradition for the Muslim Brothers themselves. However, again, this is not the subject at hand. Even Gamal Abdel-Nasser spoke of the "Islamic sphere" alongside the Arab and African ones. Rather, the issue that concerns us here is the Muslim Brotherhood's vision of reviving the Islamic caliphate, which is a far remove from forms of cooperation between a set of independent nations that happen to be Islamic in identity and in the framework of which these nations would sacrifice an element of their sovereignty in favour of an authority that would work to advance their interests and augment their welfare. The Muslim Brotherhood vision, by contrast, calls for a total relinquishment of sovereignty to a caliph who would have total authority over the civil and spiritual affairs of all Muslim lands. That the supreme guide has declared that he would agree to Egypt being ruled from abroad in this context confirms this interpretation. This would not be a partial submission to an overarching authority in the manner of the European parliament but total submission to some Muslim from whatever country. The Muslim Brothers' idea of the Islamic state and the concept of an integrated cooperation bloc are miles apart. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei offer an instance of the latter. They are all Islamic nations that have declared a willingness to concede a portion of their sovereignty in favour of authority that is not "Islamic" but rather an institutionalised framework for promoting mutual cooperation and their shared interests.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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