Embracing Political Islam: Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Written by Roxanne Bauer, Editor-in-Chief

Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s first democratic president on Sunday. Morsi defeated former general and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik by winning 51.7% the votes.

In response, tens of thousands congregated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday to celebrate.  It was the largest gathering in Tahrir Square since Hosni Mubarak was ousted.  Those gathered in the square set off fireworks, helicopters hovered overhead, and people cheered for the victory of the revolution.  Leading the celebration, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood joined with leftists supporters to herald the start of a new government.

These elections are historic and will have historic consequences in Egypt and the Middle East.  They represent the first free presidential election in a country that has previously been ruled by men from the armed forces since it overthrew of the monarchy 60 years ago.  The elections will also install in office the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab group that has 84 years of experience in grassroots activism. Morsi will be checked by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which will ultimately decide how effective he will be able to be, but he still promises a moderate, modern Islamist agenda that will respect human rights, that will be more transparent, and that will revive the Egyptian economy.

The elections in Egypt will also have demonstrative effects in the broader Middle East.  The convergence of political Islam and secular democracy will be played out in Egypt and may impact the outcome of other contests. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt may inspire the transnational organization to rally even greater support in other countries like Syria where it has been an active force in the uprising, and it may affect elections in Libya that are scheduled for July 7.

The US has not been silent on the issue. US President Barack Obama called Morsi on Sunday to congratulate him on being elected and expressed his interest to work, “together with President-elect Morsi, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States,” according to the White House.

No official comment was made that referenced the Muslim Brotherhood or political Islam. However, White House press secretary Jay Carney did suggest that he hopes the new Egyptian government will not attempt to change course with regional security issues (Israel), saying, “We believe it is essential for the Egyptian government to continue to fulfill Egypt’s role as a pillar of regional peace security and stability.”   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed that he hopes the treaty between Egypt and Israel would continue.

While recent discussion in the US regarding the elections in Egypt have been optimistic, the US should do more to specifically address the importance of political Islam and political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.  Their significance in the Middle East should not be underestimated.  Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official who is thought to be a moderate member of the party, said he believes the election of a Muslim Brother could provide Hamas with a potential opportunity for international recognition. Yousef expects that Morsi will work to, “get the international community to recognize,” them and that Western countries, “will deal with Hamas and remove the movement from the terrorism list.” He continued by stating, “Stability in Egypt will perfect the strong triangle in the region consisting of Turkey and Iran in addition to Egypt.”

The US has an opportunity now to engage in real public diplomacy work by bridging the gaps in understanding and acceptance between our country and those in the Middle East.  Public diplomacy should build on elections, like those in Egypt, to increase dialogue and diminish fear and skepticism. The compatibility of Islam with democracy and human rights should be highlighted.

People in the US need to know that the Muslim Brotherhood is a grassroots movement, not a terrorist organization.  People in Egypt and the Middle East need to know that the US is tolerant of different notions of democracy.

Additionally, we should not judge the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi by comments made in the past, but instead on how they handle negotiations with the SCAF, their commitment to democratic rights in the coming months, and the relationships they form with the West and Iran.

Otherwise, the US may see more regional power go to Iran.  This would encourage the country to pursue nuclear technology and would make subsequent public diplomacy attempts in the region that much harder.

Photo credit of Sherif9282, Wiki Media Commons, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Sherif9282

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