Earlier this week I presented a paper on Islamist views of reform to the US-Islamic World Forum. It pushed my arguments in earlier papers further, identifying not only the potential for dialogue between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood but also the very real problems. I explored in some depth the very different notions of "reform" held by Islamists and many in the West, and challenged participants on both sides to engage seriously, critically, and constructively with these real differences. (I'll add a link when it's published.)
I was excited not by the prospect of presenting a paper - even with discussants of such high quality as the Egyptian analyst Diya Rashwan and the Jordanian journalist Mohammed Abu Rumman - but because of the dialogue which I hoped would ensue. At my urging, Brookings had invited Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Council member Abd el-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh, a key Brotherhood reformist who I had interviewed in October. To their credit, they extended the invitation. To his credit, he accepted it. Unfortunately, at the last minute Abou el-Fattouh cancelled, citing the usual "health reasons". In fact, it appears that he was banned from traveling by the Egyptian authorities.
This is typical of the Egyptian government, which routinely bans Brotherhood leaders from traveling to such conferences. The Egyptian regime recently accelerated its year and a half long crackdown on the Brotherhood in advance of local elections. Alongside the ongoing military trial of a number of leaders such as Khairat al-Shater - revered by reformist Brotherhood youth, there has been a new campaign of arrests against political organizers and activists, including the outrageous arrest of the quietly influential reformist Khaled Hamza. It's quite telling that the Brotherhood has evidently decided to go
ahead with participating in the municipal elections despite all the
obstacles thrown up by the regime. Its willingness to pay such heavy costs with so few clear benefits supports the conclusion that the Brotherhood's current commitment to the democratic process goes beyond purely tactical considerations.
The Egyptian regime's focus on repressing the moderate wing of the Brotherhood is worth emphasizing. Its turn to repression came when the Brotherhood performed well in elections and proposed the formation of a political party - not when it was turning to violence or even street protests. The more moderate the Brotherhood appears, it seems, the more threatened the Egyptian regime evidently feels. That has to be seen in the context of the deep uncertainties surrounding the succession to Hosni Mubarak, which Gamal Mubarak has not by any stretch locked up. I suspect that the Mubarak regime gets extremely agitated by any contacts between the US and the Muslim Brotherhood not because of their radicalism, but because of their fear that Americans might find them to be an acceptable alternative to the Mubaraks. They see an increasingly urgent survival interest in Americans not seeing the Brotherhood as moderate.
The Egyptian regime might see an interest in producing a more radical Muslim Brotherhood, whether in image or reality. It certainly seems to be doing all that it can to provoke it into abandoning the democratic process or into violent protests which would justify an even fiercer crackdown and maybe frighten off potentially interested Westerners. That isn't America's interest, though. I'd reckon that seeing the moderate trends in the Brotherhood win out is very much in the American interest - for promoting democracy and for fighting al-Qaeda and salafi-jihadist radicalism - and we should be upset when we see allies undermining those interests.
It's a pity that Dr. Abou el-Fattouh was not allowed to attend. He did send his thoughts on the questions of reform raised in my paper. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, reading through them, zeroed in on one crucial point: Abou el-Fattouh's statement that the political discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood was a matter of ijtihad, a human product, not divine, and as such was open to criticism and debate and revision. More broadly, his written comments demonstrated a deep commitment to democratic procedures and freedoms, and an equally profound commitment to a conservative Islamic cultural agenda and fierce opposition to aspects of American foreign policy (especially in the Israeli-Palestinian arena). This would not have been a love-fest. But it would have been a step towads a real dialogue with the chance to actually make progress on identifying real points of convergence and disagreement among a diverse and contentious group of participants. Perhaps next time.