Neighbors / Muslim Brotherhood Discovers the U.S.

A year ago, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was dubbed the 'forbidden party'; now, its leader is meeting with the U.S. deputy secretary of state.


Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is already starting to experience the weight of governmental responsibility. The fact that its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, received almost 45 percent of the votes in the recent parliamentary elections is certainly reason for it to celebrate; this reflects the massive change that Egypt's revolution wrought. As far as the Brotherhood is concerned, the change began last February, when government-sponsored newspapers stopped calling it the "forbidden party," and continued when the party's new building became a pilgrimage site for senior Western officials.

Mohamed Morsy, Freedom and Justice Party

The Brotherhood's relationship with the United States has gradually strengthened: The secret contacts that took place even during the reign of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have now been replaced by open meetings with representatives of the U.S. administration. The most recent was this week's meeting between Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Mohamed Morsy, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party. According to Egyptian sources, the meeting was initiated by the U.S. State Department, which is aware that the Muslim Brotherhood will form Egypt's next government and therefore sees no reason to postpone working meetings.

Both Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood understand that without the financial assistance needed to rehabilitate Egypt's economy, the Brotherhood's political victory will be meaningless.

"The Brotherhood has a great deal of money that it earned from wise investments in the Gulf States and in Europe," said a former senior member of Mubarak's ruling party, which was dismantled after the revolution. "They have an excellent economist - Khairat al-Shater, the deputy of the [Brotherhood's] 'Supreme Guide' - who knew how to build up the movement's economic and organizational infrastructure and is capable of being an excellent economic minister. But that money belongs to the movement, and is not at the disposal of the Egyptian people. They will need at least $10 billion in the short term in order to produce an economic change that will calm the street."

Ten billion dollars is a huge sum for a country that is mired in tremendous debt, has no income from tourism and has been bypassed by foreign investors this year. Morsy discussed this problem with Burns and said he hoped the United States would continue to offer Egypt the financial aid that it provided during Mubarak's tenure.

Morsy is well aware of the conditions for continued receipt of this aid: His party must promise to honor the peace treaty with Israel, protect human rights (including the rights of the Coptic minority ) and continue turning a cold shoulder to Iran, as Egypt did under Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood has no problem with a commitment to human rights: That was part of its platform, and it is trying hard to distance itself from the Salafi movement, which won 25 percent of the votes in the elections. As Morsy recently tweeted on his Twitter account, "There is no substitute for an agreement among all the political forces if the goal is to achieve the security and change that the street sought in the January 25 revolution." Such an agreement will require ideological concessions not only by the Brotherhood, but also by the liberals: For example, they may have to swallow laws relating to religious education in order to achieve more liberal press laws.

The Syria factor

Shi'ite Iran, in contrast, is a controversial subject among the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sunni. Two years ago, a heated debate erupted among the movement's leaders on the question of the Shi'ite sect's Islamic credentials. The leader of the party at that time, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, refrained from deciding; he merely ruled that anyone who expressed an opinion on the subject was not representing the movement's viewpoint.

But relations with Iran are not only a question of religion; they are mainly a question of politics. On one hand, Iran supported Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Mubarak's Egypt considered Hamas (and the Muslim Brotherhood ) a blight and a threat to its security. On the other hand, this is the same Iran that funds Hezbollah, which tried to set up a base of operations in Egypt - activity that even the Muslim Brotherhood opposed.

More importantly, however, Iran is supporting the Syrian regime, which is massacring its Sunni citizens. The Muslim Brotherhood has a decided opinion of Syrian President Bashar Assad: He is no less a criminal than his father, who massacred tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members.

"Yes, Assad is a fighter, because he didn't move a single weapon against the Zionist enemy, only against his unfortunate people," Gamal Heshmat, a leading Muslim Brotherhood activist, commented sarcastically. The Muslim Brotherhood sees Assad as a more murderous version of Mubarak, and Iran therefore as deserving of condemnation.

There's also a more practical reason why Iran will not be an ally of a Brotherhood-led Egyptian government: Saudi Arabia has promised Egypt $4 billion, and Riyadh will not give money to a government that signs a treaty with Iran.

The same is true of the United States, which will be asked to "recommend" that the International Monetary Fund grant the Egyptian government a $3 billion loan. Last week, the Brotherhood announced that in contrast to its previous position, it no longer objects to requesting a loan from the IMF, as long as all other options are exhausted first and the loan doesn't undermine Egypt's national interests. The other options to which the Brotherhood is referring include raising the price of gas sold to Israel and raising tax collection rates among Egypt's wealthiest citizens.

That leaves the final issue: the Camp David accord with Israel. In an interview with The New York Times, Essam el-Erian, deputy chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, explained that the treaty is a commitment undertaken by Egypt's government rather than a particular party, and therefore, the movement considers itself bound by it. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who visited Egypt last week and met with the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership, heard similar statements, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said explicitly that the Brotherhood has given the administration a commitment to adhere to the agreement.

So now, the party just has to form a government.