Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Baradei and the MB

Within US policy circles, the Muslim Brotherhood is often spoken of in somewhat of a hushed tone, often times in conjunction with ominous phrases like "Islamo-fascism" or "jihadi extremism."

I was therefore dismayed but not surprised to read Foreign Policy's most recent take on the political situation currently playing out in Egypt. Mohamed el-Baradei's "commitment to liberal reform" is questionable, writes Ilan Berman, because (and here's where the hushed tone comes in) he has been "flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood." This "flirtation" is in reference to Baradei's outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood (and virtually every other opposition group and party within Egypt) in his effort to cobble together a coalition for political reform -- what he has called "The National Coalition for Change." Berman goes on to explain that the Muslim Brotherhood is "the world's most influential font of radical Islamic ideas" and that, as a result, "if the Brotherhood is joining a coalition committed to political liberalism, it's clearly not for ideological reasons." There were lots of other factual inaccuracies, analytical shortcomings, and gross mis-characterizations in the essay -- but I'll spare you.

Ilan Berman, as far as I could tell, seems to have limited expertise in local Egyptian politics (indeed there seems to be quite a trend these days of alleged Egypt 'experts' writing dispassionately about the upcoming elections). It was therefore an incredible relief to find that Foreign Policy had also published an eloquent and thorough rebuttal of Berman's article, which effectively debunked every single statement made in the piece. Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown, is actually an Egypt expert, having spent extensive time living and researching in the country. He has an impressive understanding of domestic politics and the various political actors in the country -- and it shows in his response.

I won't elaborate the various points Shehata makes, as they are stated better by him. His broad critique, however, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is "far from the radical threat portrayed by Berman" and that in fact it is a diverse Islamist movement with a history that extends back farther even than the current regime and that it's role in Egyptian politics is incredibly complex.

The latter is a point that is far too infrequently made in Washington (or anywhere in the US, besides the odd university seminar room). The 'hushed-tone' attitude surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood is really unfortunate. The movement certainly has had violent episodes in its past and there are factions in it today that espouse a more uncompromising bent of political Islam. But the Muslim Brotherhood is also arguably one of the most moderate Islamist groups in the Middle East today and many of its members are open-minded, well-educated professionals who are happy to embrace and participate in a liberal political system. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a genuine, well-functioning democracy in Egypt that does not include, in some shape or form, an MB-based party. In order for Baradei's reform project to have any credibility or mass support he needs the Muslim Brotherhood's blessing, and he is therefore wise to reach out to its leaders and include them in his coalition. Unfortunately the policy wonks in Washington (who claim to want democracy for Egypt) tend to avoid this inconvenient reality and choose instead to paint the Muslim Brotherhood with the same broad "Islamo-fascism" brush that is reserved for any Islamically-oriented political group.

A final point: these sort of ill-informed 'analyses' are unfortunately a common occurrence in much of the writing on the Middle East by think tank experts, policymakers, and even journalists. This fact is well known and often-decried among professors and grad students in the ME Studies departments of US universities. There is a disdain for the policymaking community's myopic focus on current events and an assumption that much of this analysis is conducted without any real depth of understanding. This is a fair criticism. But what is truly maddening is that most of these individuals -- who have the understanding and nuanced insight necessary to effectively combat these flawed accounts -- don't ever respond. Samer Shehata is a well-respected academic whose work on Egyptian labour is some of the best on the subject. And yet here he is, getting his hands dirty in the policymaking realm to make sure that poor articles like Berman's do not go unanswered. It's too bad that more professors of ME studies don't take it upon themselves to do the same.

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