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Nurturing MB in Egypt has benefits for U.S.
Nurturing MB in Egypt has benefits for U.S.
During a recent trip to Egypt, I spoke with Dr. Abdel Monem Abou El-Fotouh, general secretary of the Arab Medical Union, but more importantly, a high-ranking member of the infamous Muslim Brotherhood.
Friday, August 24,2007 01:25

During a recent trip to Egypt, I spoke with Dr. Abdel Monem Abou El-Fotouh, general secretary of the Arab Medical Union, but more importantly, a high-ranking member of the infamous Muslim Brotherhood.

Although outlawed in Egypt ostensibly for its violent roots, the MB remains a viable political movement that holds seats in the Egyptian parliament.

The government routinely arrests and harasses MB members, but some like Dr. El-Fotouh (who has spent six years in jail) dare to continue speaking out in the interests of reform. So what is really going on in Egypt and will the real MB please stand up?

Founded in the 1920s to resist British occupation, the Muslim Brotherhood, also know as al Ikhwan al Muslimeen, earned a reputation as a violent Islamic underground organization with tentacles reaching far across the Arab world.

Outside Egypt, branches of the MB took root in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Kuwait and a number of other countries, while in Palestine, Hamas also claims allegiance to the Brotherhood.

Other terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad and Abu Sayyaf as far away as the Philippines trace their lineage back to the Brotherhood. Famous alumni such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden"s second in command, are distinguished graduates. Some experts even credit the MB as the forerunner of al-Qaida.

For years, members in Egypt were hunted down, jailed, tortured and killed by their own countrymen.

Sayyid Qutb, one of its radical but most respected thinkers, wrote what some describe as the most influential book in the Arab world in the 20th century, "Milestones," before being hanged by the Egyptian government in 1966.

The current Mubarak regime still keeps a tight rein on the MB, arresting them by the busloads when the political situation dictates a need for a crackdown on presumed radicals.

But while acknowledging the group"s violent past, Dr. El-Fotouh waves off any connection to terrorism or violence in the present, insisting that the MB is a social, humanitarian group advocating a return to Islamic values, not necessarily a theocratic style government.
He argues that much of the information in the media mischaracterizes the MB and he welcomes open discussion of all issues.

"Some groups benefit from making us enemies, but we are not," he said. "We view Americans as friends, even brothers, because they cherish democratic principles and human rights similar to Islam. Our area of disagreement is very narrow."

Maybe so, but nagging questions remain, such as would an MB government incorporate all Egyptians, including the Coptic Christians who comprise roughly 10 percent of the population? And in an MB government, for example, could a Copt ever be president?

Yes and yes, he answers, claiming that the MB aims to eliminate corruption and oppression while establishing an independent judiciary and restoring rights for all citizens regardless of religion.

When it comes to women"s rights, he proudly points to the most recent election, where the only woman elected to office was an MB member before the government disallowed her from taking the seat.

MB women with whom I spoke echoed the sentiment that they are afforded all the political rights of men, and that their plight is often misunderstood by Western feminists who mischaracterize them as oppressed because they reject Western notions of radical feminism, homosexual rights and abortion.

But can we believe that the days of violence are behind it, and should the U.S. government encourage official contacts with such a controversial opposition group?

Again, El-Fotouh makes a compelling case, lashing out at al-Qaida and reminding me that the MB was one of the first organizations to condemn 9/11 as non-Islamic criminal behavior, even going so far as to admit that attacks of any kind against civilians are unacceptable.

He claims the MB is not a training ground for violent offshoots, but that radical members such as Zawahiri were forced to seek support elsewhere for their violent ideas because the MB would have none of it. In fact, Zawahiri scolds the MB for embracing democracy over jihad.

But although from one side of his mouth El-Fotouh appears willing to sit down with the U.S., he has few kind words for the U.S. government, claiming mistrust for American motives and a belief that the U.S. government is not serious about talking with an Islamic movement.
In the end, he wishes only that the U.S. would stop supporting the Mubarak government and allow Egyptians to determine their own political fate.

All of which sounds good from his chair, but the U.S. is concerned for stability in the region"s most populous and influential Arab country and will not gamble on extremism. "Better the devil you know," so to speak.

If there is any hope for the future of the organization and for Egypt it is in the young MB professionals. Surprisingly, it is among these young people that I heard the strongest desire for peaceful reform.

They were the only ones to admit that a few in the old school MB cling to notions of violence, but that they are simply dying out with time.

There is a renaissance of Islam among those in their 20s, but not the radical brand the West fears. It is the Islam of faith in God, love for your neighbor, and giving back to the community that is experiencing the revival. This is a movement the U.S. should influence from its infancy for, "as the tree is bent so it will grow."

It is in the interest of the U.S. to open a dialog with MB now to ensure that over the next decade, as internal factions struggle for dominance, it grows in the proper direction, toward democratic ideas, peaceful change in government and continued friendship toward America.

Like it or not, the MB persists as a popular political alternative in Egypt and, although it is highly repressed by the government, it has managed to dominate many of the country"s professional organizations in medicine, engineering and law while growing grass-roots support right under the noses of an oppressive regime.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is frequently viewed as part of the problem in Egypt, but it should not miss this chance to cultivate and nurture a potential player in the solution.

RICHARD SACCONE, Ph.D., a Fulbright-Hayes Scholar who just returned from Egypt, teaches international relations and political science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.


tags: Moderate Muslim Brotherhood / Shater / Military Courts / Military Tribunals / Moderate Islamists / Civilian Courts / Moderate Muslim Brotherhood / Shater / Military Courts / Military Tribunals / Moderate Islamists / Civilian Courts / Egyptian Parliamentary Elections / Egyptian Democracy / Human Rights in Egypt / Mahmoud Ezzat / Osama Nasr
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