A summary of discussions at a recent Cairo conference contains a useful summary of concerns regarding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its professed commitment to democracy. According to a report on the conference which was hosted by the United States Institute of Peace, the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society:
Responding to this criticism, a member of the MB stated that the group’s current positions do not contradict the basic principles of democracy. The MB, he added, views democracy as the best political system that Egypt could enjoy, rather than any reactionary form of governance. The Brotherhood is committed to pluralism both in Islam and in politics and has publicly recognized the freedom of expression and belief. It was clear in the discussions that ensued that critics of the Brotherhood remain unconvinced. Some participants questioned whether such pro-democratic proclamations are sincere, while others suggested that the moderate views that some MB members expressed are not representative of the group’s true beliefs and intentions. The MB’s political platform (released in October 2007), which calls for the formation of a council of Islamic jurists that would review government policies, provoked fears that the Brotherhood has yet to accept genuinely the principles of democratic politics. Alleging that this program is still a work in progress, an affiliate of the Brotherhood indicated that the proposed council is meant to take on a consultative rather than an authoritative role in decision-making. Despite these assurances, however, the suspicions aroused by the MB’s program have not been contained. Other MB actions in the recent past have contributed to the crystallization of mistrust between the Brotherhood and its non-Islamist counterparts. Last month the MB supreme guide implied in an interview that Osama Bin Laden is a legitimate freedom fighter. In another incident late last year supporters of the Brotherhood marched at Al-Azhar University in a training exercise that some participants compared to Hezbollah’s flamboyant military parades in Lebanon. Such actions helped reinforce the perception that the Brotherhood’s moderate discourse is a smokescreen for its undemocratic intentions rather than an attempt to set forth a strategic vision based on peaceful democratic politics. Ambiguities in the MB’s positions on important questions such as the legitimacy of marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men and the conversion of Muslims to other religions deepen these suspicions. Many participants expressed concern that advocates of moderation and peaceful coexistence inside the Brotherhood remain weak and marginalized. Notwithstanding the shift in its discourse, one opposition leader remarked, the MB remains a hierarchical organization in which members are taught to follow their leaders without question. This view, coupled with the MB’s own actions, continues to raise doubts in the minds of many Egyptian intellectuals and opinion-shapers about the Brotherhood’s openness to democratic rules. Thus, there is little evidence that the ideological differences between Islamists and non-Islamist oppositions have been contained. Despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to proclaim moderate views on some contentious issues, secularists tend to perceive the MB’s messages as nebulous. This has strengthened the position of those who assert that the MB is not a viable partner to advocates of democracy, but rather a threat that must be contained. This mistrust, as explained below, continues to undermine intra-opposition cooperation.
Recent posts have discussed the disingenuous responses by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regarding its connections to U.S. Islamic groups.