Brandeis University's Crown Center has just released my new piece, The Brotherhood's Dilemma, as part of their Policy Brief series (you can download the PDF here). It evaluates the question of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's attitudes towards democracy through a close look at about a hundred published interviews with and essays by current Muslim Brotherhood leaders, their own documents, debates by analysts in the Egyptian and Arab media, and my own interviews a few months ago in Cairo. While the article is much too long to summarize, it strikes something of a middle ground in terms of the current debate over the Muslim Brotherhood. It argues that the MB has done pretty much all that it can possibly do to demonstrate its democratic commitments under the current political and institutional conditions - and that this is particularly significant given the heavy costs it has been willing to pay for its positions - but that this can not alone answer the most important questions. Here is the conclusion:
Columbia University political scientist Lisa Anderson once warned that regimes tend to get the oppositions they deserve. For now at least, the Brotherhood seems determined to prove her wrong. The Brotherhood’s leadership has remained remarkably consistent in its adherence to the democratic process and its rejection of violence in spite of every regime provocation. It has also matched its words with deeds: contesting the 2007 Shura Council elections, drafting a political party platform, refraining from violent responses. The Egyptian regime’s crackdown has had the perhaps unintended virtue of testing the MB’s commitment to democracy by imposing harsh costs on that commitment while limiting the likely gains. The MB’s determination to proceed with its political party platform in the face of strong deterrent efforts by the regime, or to contest the Shura Council elections despite all the obstacles put in its path, speaks more loudly than would mere talk.
The inferences to draw from this consistency, however, are less obvious. It might reflect a real normative commitment to democracy and to rejection of violence. It might also be merely tactical: a way to reassure Western and Egyptian audiences of the Brotherhood’s benign intentions and to undermine support for the Mubarak regime, as well as to prevent a harsher regime crackdown.
The Brotherhood today is perhaps best understood as an internally divided organization, with the balance of power between politically oriented pragmatists and religously oriented conservatives very much in flux. The MB’s still-dominant moderate stance is engendering impatience among the ranks, with analysts as well as Brotherhood leaders and activists warning of the growing difficulty of persuading young activists of the virtues of self-restraint. A sensible policy approach would be to try to create the conditions in which the pragmatists could win these internal battles—by reducing regime repression, recognizing and rewarding positive developments, and pushing to open up the public sphere for discussion and debate that might increase the organization’s transparency. Unfortunately, current trends seem to be very much in the opposite direction, with the result that the MB’s moderates have been put on the defensive, embattled both by the MB’s internal conservatives and by the regime’s security forces.
The essay has a long history. They originally asked me to write it over the summer, which I did. But then, just before it was set to go to press, the Brotherhood released its draft political party platform to about fifty Egyptian pundits and intellectuals (I got a copy second-hand). As I read the platform, and an intense controvery over it erupted in the Egyptian press, I decided that I wanted to rewrite the piece to take the new developments into account. Then, as I had a nearly-complete revision done, I decided to go to Cairo to take advantage of the opportunity to meet with Brotherhood leaders and activists in the wake of my Foreign Policy article about how they could talk to America, and take these questions up with them directly. Shortly after I returned from Cairo, I got into a very productive and interesting public and private debate with Crown Center Fellow Abd el-Monem Said (director of the al-Ahram Center, columnist for al-Ahram and al-Sharq al-Awsat, and member of the policy committee of Mubarak's National Democratic Party). His much more critical take on the Muslim Brotherhood's democratic commitments, which helped me to reformulate and sharpen some of my arguments, came out late last year as the Crown Center's Middle East Brief #23 (download from the same page). And now, finally, the paper which was supposed to be a companion piece to September's Foreign Policy article is available at last to those interested. At least it came out before the follow-up piece which I wrote for presentation at the Brookings conference in a few weeks!