By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
Jan. 31 -- How do the newly elected leaders of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood embrace change and stay on the good side of the U.S. -- the country's major benefactor, yet stay true to their identity?
This is the question faced by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which took possession of 47 percent of the seats when the Lower House of parliament had its first session last week and whose member Saad el-Katatni was elected speaker with three-quarters of the vote.
Giving at least verbal support to basic freedoms such as speech and assembly isn't difficult for the Brotherhood, which was long oppressed under the country's former dictatorships. And the organization, which draws support from many small business owners, is generally comfortable with free enterprise. Brotherhood and U.S. interests can differ, however, especially on the issue of Israel.
Preserving the 33-year-old Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty is of paramount interest to the U.S., whereas the Muslim Brotherhood is cool on the subject of the Jewish state next door. As for the treaty itself, the group has remained vague, at times issuing statements that suggest a desire for modifications and at other times providing assurances that the accord wouldn't be challenged.
Increasingly, the Brotherhood, the strongest Sunni Islamist movement in the Middle East, is coming in for criticism for selling out. In an editorial, the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi wrote that the group's deliberate vagueness on a range of issues, especially those regarding Israel, “was intentional to reassure the U.S. and other foreign powers.”
Now that the elections are over, the paper said, the Brotherhood “must end this stage of ambiguity and head toward clarity vis-a-vis Egyptian-Israeli relations.” Its current position is “very far from the principles of the movement.” The Brothers “should not reassure the Americans and the Israelis but rather increase their concerns.”
Columnist Abdullah Iskandar of the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat wrote about a trend in such thinking among voices of "resistance," who lately have criticized parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring in general:
The camp of defiance has come to identify the Arab Spring’s slogans of freedom, democracy and pluralism with affiliation to American hegemony.
Even the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, has come to be seen as “an instrument in the hands of this hegemony, as submitting to Israel."
At the same time, he wrote, these same thinkers aren't satisfied with the opposite pole either; they consider Iran and its allies to be “standing in the face of the people’s aspirations for change." Evidence of this, Iskandar wrote, can be seen in the way the militant Palestinian group Hamas has been moving away from Iran and Syria and closer to other elected Brotherhood branches -- of which Hamas is one -- as well as to its former rival, the Palestinian group Fatah.
Khalid Amayirah, a columnist for the pro-Hamas, Gaza-based Palestinian Information Center, asserted that even if Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are moving away from the camp anchored by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, they will not necessary shift as far as the U.S. might like. He wrote:
It is likely that any Islamist group, however popular it may be now, will suffer an ultimate political disaster, if not suicide, if it were to be seen edging toward any accommodation with Israel, even under American pressure.
Amayirah wrote that the Islamists are unlikely to reject solicitations from Washington out of hand. They “will have to accord the American factor a lot of attention, wisely and smartly.” But the U.S., with its “umbilical connection with Israel,” will have to understand that the Islamists simply cannot “appear to be submitting to American pressure or blackmail.”
Even as one camp of commentators lamented that the U.S. and Muslim Brotherhood were too closely aligned, another group complained that they were too far apart. Following several high-level visits to Egypt by U.S. officials, columnist Raghida Dergham wrote in Al-Hayat that the U.S. was focused on pressuring Muslim Brotherhood officials to preserve ties with Israel while ignoring what she called an anti-women, anti-youth drive by them. She wrote:
The United States is actively rushing to enable the Muslim Brotherhood to ignore the youth, excluded today from power, and women, who are being blindsided. This American stance is placing the fate of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel ahead of the rights of over half the Egyptian people.
The U.S., she wrote, is “abandoning the modernists, the enlightened, the secularists.”
It should have remained “at an equal distance from both the Islamists and the modernists, then it would have been above board. But by engaging the Islamists at the expense of the modernists, Washington is sending the Arab youths a message that is both wrong and dangerous, as the youths see this as a betrayal.”
Of course, for the U.S. to remain at an "equal distance" to all parties would mean ignoring the results of the Egyptian elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood emerged the clear winner.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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