In a country struggling to navigate an unprecedented transition to democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt is positioned to make a strong showing in the upcoming parliamentary elections. While there is reason to be wary of the Islamist group, the U.S. decision to engage the Muslim Brotherhood diplomatically was necessary and practical. Not only are fears of their influence in Egypt’s government somewhat overblown, but the emergence of a moderate Islamist movement could even enhance our security interests. If Egypt’s Islamists are able to successfully reconcile Islam and democracy, it would discredit extremist groups who rely on violence, and not the political process, to achieve their goals.
An Egyptian government with a strong Islamist presence makes Americans understandably uneasy. The Muslim Brotherhood holds troublesome positions on the status of women, religious minorities, and Hamas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized that the contact will be limited and focused on democratic principles, but some lawmakers, like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), oppose all communication with a group “committed to violence and extremism.”
There’s no getting around the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has historical ties to individuals like Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who were influenced by the Brotherhood’s views early in life. But the minority of Islamists who support violent jihad became disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970’s, when they denounced violence and condemned attacks on civilians. Rather than use force to achieve their goals, their actions show that they strive to become a legitimate political force.
Once given a role in government, practical concerns will likely overtake ideological ones. The experiences of Turkey and Iraq show that Islamists do not necessarily revert to their most extreme stances once in power. Instead, they often soften their ideological slant once they are forced to move beyond rhetoric and deal with actual policy issues.
In Egypt, this is already happening. The Muslim Brotherhood has conceded that women and Coptic Christians have a right to run for president. And they formed an unlikely alliance with the Wafd party, a liberal and secular group formed after World War I. Despite substantial differences in ideology, cooperation will bolster both parties’ chances in the upcoming elections.
Now that fair elections are an actual possibility, the Brotherhood must grapple with these strategic concerns, which has led to another problem: As they struggle to keep up with the tide of change, there is dissent in the ranks. The more conservative policies of the older generation are at odds with the younger generation’s focus on democracy and human rights.
So while all Muslim Brothers wish to maintain an Islamic identity in theory, what this means in practice remains a point of contention. Support for the group as a whole is estimated to be a healthy plurality, but the influence of any one faction will likely be diffused if members continue to split off to form their own parties.
In this uncertain environment, we have a chance to advance our own security interests. If the Muslim Brotherhood can emerge as a moderate Islamist movement, it has huge potential to act as a counterweight to Al-Qaeda, who has repeatedly criticized them for their opposition to violence. While Al-Qaeda relies on asymmetric force and impractical apocalyptic worldviews that have no place in any real political system, Egypt’s Islamists have a unique opportunity to discredit the notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy.
Although it may be fashionable for American politicians to run screaming from the word “sharia” we should be careful not to alienate those for whom the term simply describes the ideals of compassion and justice, rather than a strict legal code favoring oppression and anti-Americanism. We may not like the idea of limited contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is a clear reason why we want these moderate voices to be heard.
Of course, Egypt has a long road ahead in the transition to democracy, and contact with the Muslim Brotherhood should still be approached with caution. But if the U.S. is truly committed to democracy in the Middle East, engaging with influential, non-violent parties — no matter how begrudgingly — is an important step in supporting democratic development.
More importantly, it is an opportunity to reshape the Middle East in a way that empowers moderate Muslim voices, pushing Al-Qaeda further into irrelevance.
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