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Misreading the Muslim Brotherhood

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The U.S. Department of State announced on January 5 that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood had given reassures on its commitment to respecting the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Within the space of a day, a Brotherhood (MB) spokesman fired back with a denial: the organization, he explained, had made no such guarantees. Rather, it had promised that it would respect the treaty insofar as it is upheld by the will of the Egyptian people, as decided by a national referendum. This awkward exchange is evidence of the Obama administration's continuing failure to accurately assess and effectively respond to Islamist political successes in Egypt and elsewhere.

Much of the blame for this miscomprehension is on the MB's carefully strategic rhetoric, which is populist and conciliatory in its tone and content but often misleading. For example, its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which recently shored up a parliamentary majority in Egypt's first post-revolution elections, has vehemently downplayed concerns that it will restrict the rights of women and non-Muslims -- pointing to its good relations with both groups. Women have indeed played a crucial role in the party's electoral success, both as MB activists and as voters. It is also true that it has shown signs of respect toward the Coptic Christian minority, such as agreeing to attend a Christmas celebration at the invitation of the Coptic patriarch, and sending its youth to protect Coptic churches on New Year's and Christmas. These are genuinely positive things and should be identified as such, and it is important to avoid conflating the MB with Salafi ultraconservatives (nor should they be entirely distanced from them).

However, there's a catch: the distinction must be drawn that the MB believes in maintaining the treaty with Israel, and in propagating the rights of women and religious minorities, only by its narrow, idiosyncratic terms. The FJP, and by extension the MB, has given ample clues regarding its position on these issues for anyone willing to listen and read carefully.

In terms of the treaty, the FJP election program -- readily available in English (in a straightforward translation from the original Arabic) -- states the following: "Agreements and treaties between countries must be popularly accepted. This is not achieved unless these conventions and treaties are based on justice and serve the interests of the parties concerned." The operative word here is "just": the MB has always regarded the Egyptian-Israeli treaty as unjust, and it is confident -- for good reason -- that the Egyptian public would readily reject it as well, if put to a referendum (an idea about which the FJP has been quite public for months).

In terms of women's rights, the FJP's position is likewise evident (which is why many local women's rights groups are concerned). Its program declares that it "has the greatest respect, appreciation and support for women's roles as wives, mothers, and makers of men; and aims to prepare them better for this role." This sort of language identifies women by their relationship to others (men and children) rather than as equal, individual citizens: it may not be misogynistic, but it is paternalistic and directly clashes with other references in the program to "equality between women and men in rights and duties." These statements are followed by an explicit call to withdraw from the National Council for Women and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, and to "reevaluate" Egypt's international agreements related to these issues that were championed by, as the program claims, "a whole list of civil society organizations that receive foreign funding from dubious sources." As recently as January 6, the FJP's declaration of "visions for Egypt's future" promised a commitment to "granting women all their rights -- maintaining a balance between their rights and duties"; they are not shy about using that critical qualifier of "balance."

As for religious minorities, the FJP program is similarly positive in its language, but also restrictive and patronizing. In accordance with the MB's ideology based on confessional identity rather than national citizenship, it promises that Coptic Christians will have the right "to their own personal status law"; elsewhere, it guarantees their right to build churches, but not without cautioning about what it calls "the problems of unauthorized and unlicensed churches" (which could easily be interpreted to extend anywhere Copts gather to pray, such as a private home). Finally, it affirms the role of the Coptic Church -- referred to as an institution, not as Coptic individuals -- in the national effort "to maintain society's values, morals, and ethics, and also to confront the growing waves of corrupting intellectual and moral invasion." Here the Copts are singled out for their social utility in maintaining Egypt's moral fabric, but nowhere in the program are they placed on inherently equal footing, as fellow citizens, with the Muslim majority.

Given that the approach of the MB to these and other issues is already evident in the FJP's electoral platform, as well as in a plethora of their own documents and statements, the responsibility is squarely on the U.S. government for its failure to realistically and critically assess this diplomatic challenge. The State Department should be fully aware with whom it is dealing at any level of direct or indirect engagement, and in this example it should carefully and skeptically review all of the MB's policies, statements, and actions in context. In the instance of Egypt's treaty with Israel, along with other issues, why should the U.S. optimistically make a case for the Muslim Brotherhood that the organization itself has never pretended to make?