Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Facing Compromises on Its Islamist Ideology

Even if all of Egypt's Islamist factions were to join forces, the Muslim Brotherhood will need to find coalition partners, and compromise on Islamist ideology for the sake of political strength.

“Islam is the answer,” was the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood on the campaign trail during Egypt’s last election, a slogan which worried both the Mubarak regime and Egypt’s left-wing, liberal political parties.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood rally around this slogan, but so did anyone else who wanted to see a strong Islamist block in the Egyptian parliament, at a time when there was a ban on forming parties with a religious platform.

Egypt elections - AP - November 28 2011

But even at the height of its powers, in the 2005 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters managed to get 88 of their representatives into the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, which was comprised of 454 representatives at the time – a total of around 20 percent.

In Monday’s elections, in which every Islamist faction has a party of its own, and in which the Muslim Brotherhood is internally divided, it is hard to predict how strong the Brotherhood will actually emerge.

The prediction is that the sum total of Egypt’s Islamist movements, including “Al Nour,” a Salafi party that does not see eye to eye with the Brotherhood over Egypt’s future, “Al Wasat,” a party that split off from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990’s over ideological differences, and the Brotherhood’s own “Freedom and Justice” party, will win a total 30 to 40 percent of the vote.

If this turns out to be true, and even if all the Islamist factions were to join forces, the Muslim Brotherhood will still need to find partners to form a coalition. That is, they will need to compromise on ideology for the sake of political strength.

The Islamists’ main problem, however, will not only be in terms of concentration of political power, but in terms of running of the country and control over the formulation of the constitution. Later, they will also need to decide who to support as candidate for the presidency.

The Brotherhood have said they do not want to put forward a candidate of their own for president. This decision has brought a sharp division within the movement, in addition to the already existing split between newer Brotherhood members and the older generation.

One of its senior members, Abd al-Minaam Abu al-Futuh, has already announced that he intends to run for president, a move that led to his expulsion from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The extent of their success at the polls this time will decide the size of their share of the future government, and the extent of their responsibility for solving the great difficulties that will face it.

With the Egyptian treasury set to empty, inflation already at 8 percent, millions of unemployed Egyptians threatening to go out into the streets after the elections, and foreign direct investment at almost non-existent levels, their organizational ability, and their talent for amassing international funds will face a decisive test.

For the Brotherhood - as for each one of the ten parties running in the elections that most stand out from the rest - it is absolutely clear that if the economic problems that Egypt faces are not dealt with immediately, they will find themselves in Tahrir Square again. Only this time, they will face 40 million citizens who live below the poverty line and earn less than two dollars a day.

The U.S. has already said that it will cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood if they are democratically elected to govern. American businessmen that met recently with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were left with the impression that it is a rational and capitalist movement, a proponent of a free market economy that is looking for investment and commercial cooperation, and will even want to advance privatization.

As one of these American businessmen said of the Brotherhood, “This is a movement that will make any neo-liberal that believes in a market economy happy.”

If the economy turns out to be the main factor that causes the Muslim Brotherhood to show flexibility toward the U.S. and the West in general, on the home front there will be further obstacles.

One such factor, for example, is the approximately 10 million Coptic Christians who were an inseparable part of the revolution, and who, like the Brotherhood, managed to shed their fear of the regime. They have at least four political parties on their side, including one leftist party, the old Al Wafd party, the liberal “Justice Party” and the “Egyptian Democratic Party.” This latter one represents some of the revolutionary youth that will take part in the formulation of the constitution, and who will act to ensure that Egypt does not become a religious country.

Regarding Egypt’s international relations, particularly the relationship that is expected between the parliament and the next government with Israel, it would be a mistake to see only the Muslim Brotherhood as the source of hatred in Egypt for Israel. Left-wing activists “the Tahrir Youths,” members of which broke into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and important liberal intellectuals such as the author Alaa Al Aswany, some of whom despise the ideology of the Brotherhood, are partners in an anti-Israel stance because of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, or because of the fact of Israel’s very existence in the Arab Middle East.

At the same time, in liberal and left-wing circles, and within the Muslim Brotherhood itself, there have been no demands to cancel the peace treaty with Israel, although there have been demands to change certain articles of the agreement related to issues affecting Egypt’s sovereignty, such as the demilitarization of Sinai.