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The Muslim Brotherhood's New Facelift

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The 83-year-old Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is giving itself a 21st Century facelift just in time for the upcoming September parliamentary elections.

Last week, the Brotherhood's old guard Supreme Shura Council announced it had established an "independent" political party to serve as a political party front for the Brotherhood just in time for the upcoming September parliamentary elections. The new storefront sign replacing "Muslim Brotherhood" will innocuously be renamed the "Freedom and Justice Party" (FJP) headed by no less than a current senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Executive Bureau and principal media spokesman, Mohammed Morsy.

In unveiling the FJP, Morsy declared that "the party will be completely independent from the Muslim Brotherhood in every way."

I guess sort of like how the Tea Party is "independent" of the Republican Party.

The Brotherhood's makeover is based on expedient legal as well as political considerations since the Brotherhood can no longer claim it constitutes the only alternative opposition to the Mubarak regime.

Under Egypt's newly amended constitution the establishment of political parties based on religious platforms is prohibited, and so the pronouncement represents a legal fig leaf deployed by the Muslim Brotherhood to create the optical illusion that it and the FJP are indeed "separate."

More importantly, the Brotherhood's leadership calculated that it would be far more expedient (and probably increase its electoral popularity) to create the FJP in order to try to increase its appeal among more secular and currently Brotherhood-adverse Egyptians.

The FJP sounds soothingly similar in Arabic to Turkey's "Justice and Development Party (AKP)," but it would be an act of self-delusion to equate the FJP and the AKP even though the Brotherhood's English speaking media representatives and their western amen choir will do their best to hoodwink Egyptians and others that the "moderate" FJP is totally divorced from the Brotherhood. Tearing a page from any western political party playbook Morsy -- a polished media-savvy spinner -- will extol the virtues of the FJP's commitment to "democracy" and "civil liberties" as well as to "women's rights" and the need to "protect minorities."

However, until the Muslim Brotherhood undertakes radical surgery to its own intolerant, anti-democratic charter and constitution... caveat emptor. The propaganda will be little more than lipstick on livestock.

In reality, the Brotherhood's leadership made a very calculated decision that it preferred creating a new political front organization with a more vaguely modernistic sounding political platform and more appealing set of political slogans, rather than toss overboard its founding principles set forth in the Brotherhood's ultra-conservative Islamist 1928 founding charter and constitution.

Those founding principles are virulently intolerant in every respect to less observant Egyptians as well as to non-Muslims whether living in Egypt, or throughout the rest of the world (antisemitism, not just anti-Zionism, is a major principle of the Brotherhood's charter).

And while the Brotherhood renounced the use of violence domestically and has no armed wing like Hamas or other Brotherhood offshoots, it nevertheless condones violence by Hamas against Israel as well as violence by other chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries throughout the Middle East, including in Afghanistan.

Writing in Asharq Aawsat on May 4 Adel Al Toraifi -- a highly respected Egyptian journalist -- surmised that the Muslim Brotherhood was doing nothing more than "... replacing the sign on the party headquarters in order to conceal the ideology of the old party."

Naturally, many Egyptians wonder whether this is just old wine in new bottles designed to conveniently distance the Brotherhood before the campaign begins in earnest from its Salafist political allies who are stoking a tragic rash of sectarian violence against Egypt's Christian minority Copts.

It's not that the Brotherhood is irrevocably destined to remain a paleo-Islamist monolithic entity. It has a younger, relatively moderate, more reformist element. During the Tahrir uprising slight fissures began emerging between its old guard and younger members who championed the revolution more overtly. In recent years, several younger, more moderate leaders have indeed split away or been forced out by the dominant ruling elders of the movement. A former Brotherhood leader left in 1996 to form the Wasat (Center) Party.

But nothing that its leadership has done before or since the revolution so far suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood itself is prepared to undertake its own adjustment to a more pluralistic, more tolerant, democratic society other than undertake this Potemkin-like redo.

Indeed, not to be outdone by the Brotherhood's public relations foray, the radical Islamist Salafist movement is creating its own political party called "Peace and Development Party (PDP)" (sound soothingly famiiar?) headed by "former" Salafi terrorist Kamal Habib, who was once a member in the outlawed terrorist organization, Jamaa Al Islamiya.

Even when it was a Mubarak-era illegal political party, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to win close to 25% of Egypt's parliamentary seats. And after years underground the Brotherhoodhas demonstrated its emerging voter appeal across Egypt by joining forces with the Egyptian military to resoundingly defeat the unorganized secular democrats and force through constitutional amendments they opposed in last month's referendum.

That defeat was a wake-up call to Egypt's young secular revolutionaries.

Setting aside (at least temporarily) differences thousands of activists from more secular groups formed what is known as the "National Council" which met in Cairo last weekend in a "First Conference for Egypt: Towards Protecting the Revolution."

The purpose of the gathering was to establish guiding principles for a new political party to compete in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as to agree upon provisions for a newly redrafted constitution.

It dawned on these young democratic revolutionaries that they were no match for the more politically organized Brotherhood and its allies unless they united and created an effective national political apparatus to prevent their hard won Tahrir Square victory from being hijacked by the military and its odd political alliance with the Brotherhood-Salfist Islamist coalition. In a telling sign, the Muslim Brotherhood rejected an invitation to participate in the National Council's conference.

I am prepared to venture a prediction that the day after Egypt's tentatively scheduled September parliamentary elections, FJP and its more shady extremist Salfist-oriented political allies will likely emerge victorious with a plurality of seats in the new parliament unless the secular democrats can avoid squabbling and split their votes a hundred ways to Sunday.

If I am correct (and I certainly hope I am not), this potential outcome represents an ominous development for the future of Egypt's secular democratic activists as well as for the region and the United States.

All the more reason why it behooves anyone who justifiably fears an Islamist hijacking of Egypt's secular-oriented revolution to quickly redouble efforts to provide the National Council with the financial and organizational assistance it needs to compete in the upcoming elections, as well as to provide its leaders with well-reasoned and financially viable economic programs to offer the Egyptian people as a viable alternative to the FJP Islamist economic social welfare programs that have undergirded the vitality of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world.

Kudos to the Obama Administration for a timely and bold new initiative to provide $1 billion in debt relief in addition to a new infusion of trade and investment incentives to offset Egypt's huge financial losses due to the disappearance of vital tourism revenue. This, more than any other act by the U.S., will help Egypt's democracy forces prove they can transform their hard won gains into a national program of transparent, economic recovery.