Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 January - 1 February 2012
Issue No. 1082
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Separating the FJP from the Brotherhood

A golden opportunity exists for both the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, attainable if they give space to each other, writes Khalil El-Anani*

I see no problem with the Freedom and Justice Party's (FJP) announcement that it would honour the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty as part of its commitment to respect all international treaties and conventions to which Egypt is party. So why do some FJP officials get so nervous and flustered when you raise this question? Why do they act as though the subject were taboo?

The most likely explanation for this phenomenon has to do with the relationship between the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is so close that their respective positions, signals and statements are frequently identical. As we know, the party is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and the latter is the social and organisational incubator of the party, which is not yet one year old. However, now that the parliamentary elections are over, yielding results that entitle the FJP to assume the leadership of the new People's Assembly, that relationship has to change. The party no longer represents the Muslim Brotherhood alone; it represents a large segment of the populace who are not members of that organisation yet and who voted for FJP candidates in the recent elections in sufficient numbers to enable the party to win a majority.

This presents the party with a historic opportunity -- if used well -- to loosen its ties with the mother organisation so as to gain a greater degree of flexibility and manoeuvrability. On the basis of its electoral victory it can replace the "pedigree" legitimacy it acquired by birth from the Muslim Brotherhood with a new type of legitimacy, one that is broader and more powerful because its source and foundations are the people. With this popular legitimacy it will be able to reposition itself as a true majority party, as opposed to a party belonging to a specific group or class.

"Disengagement" between the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood, at the political level at the very least, is crucial in this phase. Moreover, it will benefit both sides. The Muslim Brotherhood will be free to voice whatever positions it wishes, on both domestic and foreign policy issues, and particularly on the matter of Israel, which to the Brotherhood is a subject of central importance, historically, religiously and ideologically, and one that has won it a considerable degree of legitimacy and popularity in the Arab street. No one will blame the Brotherhood for airing its views as long as these reflect the ideas and attitudes of its own members. At the same time, "disengagement" will give the party the freedom and flexibility it needs to establish stances and take decisions on foreign policy matters on the basis of risk/benefit analyses as opposed to religious or ideological obligations to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation. The importance of this can not be understated, for since obtaining a parliamentary majority that poises it to form a new government, it has stopped being a party of the Brotherhood "group" and has become a party of "the state", and representative of the interests of a vast segment of the Egyptian people. Thirdly, a clear distance between the group and the party will make life easier for both. Neither will be able to court trouble for the other, as has occurred on a number of occasions, the most recent being during the controversy over the future of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Nor is there a need for the two to continue to cling so closely together. If the Egyptian revolution lifted the "domestic" ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and enabled its re-assimilation into society after years of ostracism and vilification, the Egyptian ballot box lifted the "external" ban and won international recognition for them both. Moreover, Washington is currently working to reorder its relationship with them and seems ready to proceed with the development of a strategic partnership with the Muslim Brothers, marking a radical shift in US policy towards this movement.

I can understand why both the party and the Brotherhood would find it difficult to effect such a separation at this phase; however, they could overcome their reluctance if they approached the matter from the perspective that a "relative" parting of ways would be to the advantage of them both. There are four basic principles that would help them demarcate the boundaries between them and, simultaneously, ensure that the FJP has the flexibility and manoeuvrability it needs in foreign policy.

The first is to draw a line between the "universal" and the "national" so as to maintain the Egyptian national interest as the primary determinant and objective of the party's foreign policy thinking. The FJP would be mistaken to subscribe to the "universalism" that the Muslim Brotherhood espouses in its literature and political discourse. Not only would this be unrealistic, but it could also lead the party into any number of errors or futile squabbles that would only drain its energies and resources. It is important to stress that the pursuit of Egyptian interests by no means implies ignoring Arab and Islamic causes. Rather, the point is that these interests are the "measure" for the decisions the party takes on domestic and foreign policy issues. I am certain that most of the party's leaders have the awareness they need to operate on this premise. However, their organisational obligations to the Muslim Brotherhood (which may conflict with their political party commitments, in the narrow sense) could lead them to attempt to please the sheikhs and leaders of the mother organisation to the detriment of the party.

Secondly, a line should be drawn between allegiance to the organisation and allegiance to the state in foreign policy decision-making processes. This principle is clearly related to the first. As a proselytising religious movement, the Muslim Brotherhood's priorities are not at all identical to the priorities of its political party, which has different functions and duties. Whereas the former is concerned with the moral reform of society and raising religious awareness, the FJP, in cooperation with other political parties, must focus, above all, on the reconstruction of the Egyptian state, the higher allegiance and true source of legitimacy of all political players. Therefore, a line must be drawn between the "realm of proselytising" and the "realm of the state" so as to avert confusion between the hierarchical frameworks of the Muslim Brotherhood and those of the party when it comes to forming a new government or designing foreign policy. Individuals suited for proselytising work may not necessarily serve the foreign policy purposes of the state; people who are good at addressing domestic audiences may blunder when addressing audiences abroad. I should stress, here, that I am not suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP sever the organisational bond between them or even draw a line between proselytising and politics. As important as such steps are, they do not look realistic at present. Rather, my point is that the party should adopt a state/national interest mind- set, rather than a Muslim Brotherhood/proselytising mind-set, when it comes to foreign policy.

The third principle is for the party to make the transition from ideological partisanship to political pragmatism and realism. Foreign policy cannot be conducted on the basis of set maxims and rigid dictums, especially in this period of intensive flux and reconstitution through which the world is passing. The closer the party's outlooks and presumptions are to reality, the more it will be able to attain the goals and aspirations of the Egyptian nation. Countless historical experiences testify to the fact that strapping foreign policy into an ideological straightjacket can lead to irreparable disaster.

To be pragmatic is not to abandon values or principles or to compromise on identity and its significance. It simply means drawing a line between subjective and ideological considerations and objective and realistic assessments when it comes to taking decisions. It also means that when values and principles are called into play, they are applied with the greatest degree of rationalism and caution so as to avert the many nightmarish traps and pitfalls foreign policy designers and executors can fall into. Therefore, FJP leaders must consciously work to overcome the many rigid attitudes and stereotypical perceptions that have long been part of the Muslim Brotherhood indoctrination process for the purposes of sustaining its internal cohesion, for only then will they attain the clarity of vision and intellectual flexibility they need in order to interact effectively in the regional and international environments and to take the best possible decisions on the basis of constant reassessments of changing realities on the ground.

The fourth principle is to draw a distinction between the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and the interests of the FJP. This is not to imply that there is a necessary contradiction between the two. Rather, the purpose is to ensure that neither prevails over the other irrespective of the general welfare of the state. Given that their respective fields of activity, priorities and means of action are different, it is only natural that their interests would not overlap. This is not bad. In fact, it is the insistence that the party's interests must be identical to those of the organisation that could jeopardise them both. There is no reason that the party's positions should necessarily suit the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood group, just because that group was the main organisational and financial founder of the party. As mentioned above, with its electoral victory the basis of the party's legitimacy shifted from the Muslim Brotherhood to the street. This is now where its interests reside and these may or may not coincide with the "group". Therefore, when it comes to foreign policy, the FJP must transcend the "forbidden/permitted" mind-set of the Muslim Brotherhood and operate on the basis of what is possible and available. Both sides must realise that if the FJP succeeds this will count as a success for both the state and the Muslim Brotherhood, but that if it fails the failure will be the Muslim Brotherhood's alone.

With respect to their foreign policy in particular, FJP leaders should adopt the motto of their Turkish counterparts in the Justice and Development Party: "We have no enemies, we are independent and our country comes first!"

* The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

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