Guestview: Unrest in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

By Guest Contributor
January 31, 2011
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(Protesters at a demonstration in Cairo January 29, 2011/Asmaa Waguih)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone.  Jonathan Wright is a longtime Reuters correspondent in the Middle East who is now a translator and blogger based in Cairo.

By Jonathan Wright

As in the case of Tunisia, a succession of commentators have remarked on the small role the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have played in the unrest in Egypt. One of the latest I have seen came from Michael Collins Dunn, the editor of the Middle East Institute“Do you see any beards? Well, maybe a few beard-and-mustache looks of some young hipsters, but not the beard-without-mustache ‘uniform’ we associate with the Muslim Brothers,” he writes.

I think Dunn is mistaken here on several counts. For a start, Muslim Brothers come in many guises, and the ‘beard-without-mustache’ look is hardly a Brotherhood uniform. He may be confusing Muslim Brothers with salafis, while the two groups are quite distinct, though with some overlap. From my own experience on the streets (see my earlier reports on my blog), I believe people are underestimating the level of participation by members of the Brotherhood, though I will readily concede that they have not taken part at full strength and at a level which reflects their demographic weight.

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(Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie in Cairo December 21, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

There are several possible and obvious reasons for this. Let me offer a few of them:
– The Brotherhood, from long experience of confrontation with the Egyptian authorities, is always wary of commitment to street protests. It will calibrate its level of participation to its assessment of the chances of success. If it overreaches, it runs the risk of a massive crackdown. For the moment, probably rightly, it is not convinced that the protests will overthrow the regime.

– The Brotherhood knows that the world (especially the United States and Europe) are watching events in Egypt closely. If the protests appear to be Brotherhood-led, the government will feel free to use much more brutal methods to disperse protesters. For the moment it suits the Brotherhood’s interests to give the impression that there is a broad coalition united against Hosni Mubarak, including liberals and leftists. This explains why Brotherhood members who have taken part in the protests have refrained from chanting slogans with religious connotations. The impression of a broad coalition also helps domestically — if the Brotherhood take the lead, it would frighten off some of the other groups.

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(Protesters pray near tanks in Cairo January 30, 2011/Goran Tomasevic)

– The Brotherhood, like Islamist groups in many Arab countries, has cold feet about governing. It does not feel it is ready. This is reflected in its official strategy of concentrating on a political reform agenda which it shares with many other groups — free and fair elections, rule of law, a new constitution with checks and balances and so on. What the Brotherhood wants most in the short term is the freedom to organize and promote its ideas in a democratic environment, regardless of who is in government. The Brotherhood believes that, given freedom and time, it can win over Egyptians to its long-term agenda.

– The current state of sectarian (Muslim-Copt) tensions in Egypt, especially after the bombing of the church in Alexandria at the New Year, is not conducive to a protest movement in which Islamist slogans and objectives are prominent. Such slogans would be a distraction and could backfire against the Brotherhood.

I’m not going to venture a guess at the level of Muslim Brotherhood participation but, judging from my chance encounters with protesters, any assertion that the movement is absent or very thinly represented is probably wishful thinking. By the way, many Brothers are clean-shaven, wear suits and ties and are physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians of the same class.

This comment first appeared on my new blog Jonathan Wright.

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great post

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