Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2012
Issue No. 1104
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The MB's relations with the US

On key issues the relationship between the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood and Washington is unclear, in part because the group itself is in a moment of transformation, writes Eman Ragab

Now that the Muslim Brothers have put one of their own in the president's office it is more important than ever to consider how they will manage their relations with Washington. To what extent will this major development alter the decades-long strategic relationship between Egypt and the US?

Several US officials have issued statements signalling Washington's acceptance of Mohamed Mursi as Egypt's first post-revolutionary president. Undoubtedly, this is an extension of the "cautious" rapprochement that the US has taken towards the Muslim Brotherhood since the opening days of the revolution. As the best organised political force and the most powerful exponent of "moderate" Islamism in Egypt, the Muslim Brothers seemed best poised to ensure a "peaceful" transitional phase. At the same time, the US realised that, if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, it did not have the "luxury" to boycott Egypt, as it did Hamas-governed Gaza. Therefore, Washington was prepared to be pragmatic and to take the steps necessary to show this.

The Muslim Brotherhood's position towards the US remains ambiguous. Throughout the presidential campaign it avoided discussion of the Egyptian-US relationship as it did most other "sensitive" issues since the revolution. Of course, an explicitly stated Muslim Brotherhood vision for restructuring the long-established Egyptian-US strategic relationship could have exacted an enormous political toll. At the very least, it would have compelled Washington to reassess the acceptance that the Muslim Brotherhood was banking on. However, there are no grounds for assuming that such a vision was even on the cards. Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that a "special" relationship has been evolving between Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood and that this relationship has been growing closer as the Muslim Brothers have gained political ground in Egypt. As Nathan Brown observed, "[The Muslim Brothers] have quarrelled with everyone apart from the US and Senator John McCain."

The Muslim Brothers appear to have been equally willing to court and be courted by the US. Muslim Brotherhood leaders have met with US officials during the past year or so. These meetings included one between Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and the US ambassador to Egypt in the context of the "limited contacts" that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of in June 2011. Nor do these contacts date from after the revolution alone. They are an extension of the "background talks" that the US has had with Brotherhood members since forming the largest ever opposition bloc in parliament in 2005, at which time the Muslim Brotherhood was still an officially banned organisation.

The Muslim Brothers have been keen to avoid any confrontational stance towards Washington. The regional and international legitimacy they stood to gain from Washington's approval far outweighed the populist kudos they may have won from a "premature clash" with the US. To a considerable extent this accounts for the part the Muslim Brotherhood played during the US NGO crisis this year, which earned Senator McCain's praise for the Muslim Brotherhood's help in resolving that crisis. Apparently, the senator also received a pledge that Muslim Brotherhood lawmakers would revise Egypt's NGO law.

Part of the Muslim Brotherhood campaign to win Washington's approval was to enhance its image as a moderate Islamist force. Over the past year or so the group has been sending numerous messages of reassurance to Washington with regard to its foreign policy outlook, the most recent being delivered in person via an FJP delegation to Washington following the nomination of Khairat El-Shater for the presidency. In talks with US officials during that visit, the delegation stressed that what most concerned the Muslim Brotherhood at present was the economic and political situation in Egypt. The implication was that the Muslim Brotherhood would be too busy with domestic concerns to embroil itself in foreign relations difficulties, especially where the peace agreement with Israel was concerned. A member of that delegation, Abdel-Mawgoud El-Dardiri, put it a little more succinctly when he stated that the peace agreement with Israel would not be put to a public referendum in Egypt.

WASHINGTON'S WORRIES: The US has four major areas of concern that will affect its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming phase. The first is the Muslim Brotherhood's stance on recourse to violence, which is still a subject of talks between the two sides. Washington's concern here is twofold. Firstly, there is a faction within the Brotherhood that has not ruled out the notion of recourse to violence. Washington's worry is that, although that segment may not be practicing violence at present, what would happen in the event that the transitional phase did not go according to the Muslim Brotherhood's plans? Secondly, there are reports, currently under the consideration of some US courts, suggesting that the US chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood may be funding groups that practice violence.

The US's second area of concern is the Muslim Brotherhood's positions on religious minorities, especially the Copts, and on gender issues, notably the status of women. On the latter question, the Muslim Brothers have been hazy at best. Out of 295 members in parliament, only four are women. They also disapprove of the Supreme Council for Women and would prefer to replace this with a "Supreme Council for the Family", in keeping with their position that priority should be given to the development of the family. Effectively, their position on the Copts is to accord them less than full citizen status, especially when it comes to the right to hold such posts as prime minister and president. Generally, when pressed to state their views on the Coptic question, the Muslim Brotherhood falls back on the formula, "They have the rights and duties that we have". Derived from Islamic heritage, the formula implies that Muslims should protect the rights of Copts as a religious community that exists in the state, but without going so far as to grant them specific political rights.

The US is uncomfortable, thirdly, with the closed and secretive nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. Because of these qualities, it is not clear how this organisation truly views the major issues of the modern world and the extent to which it understands why other political forces fear its coming to power. The US administration is still uncertain as to how the Muslim Brotherhood will respond to many issues, or whether it will take a pragmatic/political or ideological/religious tack. The uncertainty is heightened by the fact that, for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership has maintained an invisible profile and as such remained remote from the many issues and political dynamics it has become more openly involved in today.

The fourth concern has to do with the emerging rifts within the group. In spite of its reputed internal discipline, the Muslim Brotherhood has been revealing sharper and sharper rifts since its involvement in post-revolutionary politics. But more disconcerting has been the extent to which the organisation has backtracked on some of its major positions. Most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood initially stated that they would not compete for more than 35 per cent of the seats in parliament. Soon this figure climbed to 45 per cent and then when the campaigns open they vied for 80 per cent of the seats. Following parliamentary elections, they reiterated the pledge that Mohamed El-Beltagui had stated even before Mubarak stepped down, that they would not field a candidate for president. Then, hardly had nominations begun than the Muslim Brotherhood nominated El-Shater and then, after he was disqualified, Mursi as a backup candidate.

PARAMETERS OF THE CHANGING RELATIONSHIP WITH WASHINGTON: Three factors will affect the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood can change Egypt's relationship with the US. The first, of course, is the degree of power and influence they possess within the institutions responsible for formulating foreign policy. Until now they do not have a representative in the foreign ministry, which remains a part of the national executive. At the moment, too, it is uncertain what powers the president will have in foreign policy, all the more so since the recent addendum to the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration calls for the creation of a National Defence Council.

The second variable has to do with how Washington handles issues that touch upon the Muslim Brotherhood's organisational and ideological identity, such as the question of Hamas, which Washington still brands as a terrorist group, or Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which is less moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood, especially with regard to the official stance on recourse to violence. The Muslim Brotherhood's ability to maintain some sort of balance between its relationships with Hamas and Washington or its ability to persuade Washington to modify its position on Hamas could strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood's moral and political legitimacy. Until now, it is unclear how the Muslim Brotherhood will manage such questions.

The Muslim Brotherhood's positions on questions that the US regards as central to its interests in the region, such as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Iraqi government, Iran, and security in the Gulf, combine to constitute the third variable. Again, the Muslim Brotherhood has given no clear indication of its positions on these matters.

To a considerable extent, the ambiguity with regard to the future of the Brotherhood's relationship with Washington in this transitional phase stems from the fact that the Brotherhood itself is in the midst of a transitional phase. The organisation that has long operated as a player outside of and opposed to the state is undergoing the transformation of becoming a chief player within the state and in control of the state, even if the extent and scope of this control is impossible to determine yet.

The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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