The recent protests by Egyptian opposition movements have revealed a deep and abiding prejudice in the U.S. foreign policy community toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These feelings are shared among many evangelicals who tend to view all Islamic groups as prone to violence and militantly hostile to Israel and the Christian church.
While it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood's views on a range of policy issues fall short of the American ideal of political liberalism, it is unfair to paint the group as the biggest threat in Egypt to the safety of Christians and the survival of Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood's conservative tendencies pale in comparison to the current regime's persecution of their own citizens.
Although it may appear at first counter-intuitive, Egypt's Christians could well be safer if the Muslim Brotherhood were a part of the ruling government.
One Voice Out of Many in Egypt
The Muslim Brotherhood does not represent all of Egyptian society. Estimates vary, but some guess that the Muslim Brotherhood would take between 20 and 40 percent of the vote in free elections. For a variety of reasons, their appeal is limited—some Egyptians balk at their social conservatism, such as wanting to censor sexually explicit content on television or implementing stricter regulations on alcohol. The party does endorse Shari'ah law, but the Egyptian state already recognizes Shari'ah in its constitution.
What the Brotherhood is more known for in Egypt is its calls for reforming the regime, including promoting an independent judiciary and fighting corruption in government. An op-ed published Thursday in The New York Times by a member of the Brotherhood's leadership defined succinctly their mission: "We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians." The debate about the Muslim Brotherhood is not whether they currently support democratic reform in Egypt, but whether they will still support reform after they are in government.
To explain how an Islamic group became committed to democratic reform, something of their long and obscure history in Egypt must be understood. While it is true that some of Al Qaeda's top leaders came from the group, including the notorious Ayman al-Zawahiri, for most of the group's history the leadership has focused on reforming the Egyptian state, not fighting international jihad.
The movement first came under the wrath of Egypt's regime during the 1950s, under Gamal abd el-Nasser's authoritarian rule. From that point on began the rotating pattern of oppression and dialogue that defined the relationship between the Brotherhood and the regime. It was the periodic jailing of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders that drove some of the movement's members to extremism.
The measures used by the regime to suppress dissent are without a doubt part of the reason why the Brotherhood became dangerous. Beating with electric cables is the surest way to radicalize a human being—if they survive the torture.
Yet something truly remarkable happened in the early 1980s with the Brotherhood: the leadership voluntarily renounced violence and chose to participate in the political order.
In fact, this embrace of peaceful political change was so profound that it prompted a vicious debate among hard-line Islamic extremists on whether the leadership had been co-opted by the state. However, evidence points to a sincere shift of ideology on the part of the Brotherhood. Since then, the Brotherhood has participated in Egypt's rigged elections, still managing at times to gain the largest number of opposition members in Egypt's parliament and devoting their time and energy to building an array of social services to help Egypt's poor.