Protests continued today in Egypt⎯two days after a festive atmosphere prevailed at the large demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square⎯marking the first anniversary of the protests that led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak’s government. These street protests are now a regular outlet for different groups to voice their positions on the country’s incomplete political transition. In many ways the controlled chaos and competing agendas on full display in the streets symbolize where Egypt’s political transition stands now—a cacophony of voices mostly peacefully challenging each other and the current military government.
Despite the small wave of gloomy and pessimistic articles in the United States about the risks posed by the rise of Islamist political parties in Egypt, what I saw in Tahrir Square and heard in a series of interviews in Cairo and other parts of the country this past week was more optimistic. What I observed is hope about the historic opportunity tempered with the realism of the challenges of advancing a more pluralistic society that respects the wide range of views and building a new governing system that can deal with the growing economic and social problems.
One party that is in a strong position to shape how this new system develops is the Freedom and Justice Party, or FJP, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, a large Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928. The FJP won just under half of the seats in the new lower house of parliament sworn in early this week in a small step forward in Egypt’s political transition. This strong showing by the FJP is why it will be important for the United States to maintain engagement with the party going forward, even though we will not see eye-to-eye with it on certain issues.
Will the Freedom and Justice Party embrace the kind of moderate and open society Egyptians crave?
The reasons for this strong showing are not yet known and require more research. But in a series of interviews this week with voters, a number of Egyptians said that one of the key reasons why the FJP did so well in the elections was its organization.
“As an Egyptian, when you come, knock on my door, and visit me, I appreciate that a lot,” said a man in Mansoura, in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, in reference to the FJP.
Few Egyptians cited any specific policy proposals of the FJP, and issues of foreign policy did not come up as reasons for their vote. Others cited the social services the Muslim Brotherhood provided to families through the years, such as helping people with medical problems.
But another key point that stood out from these discussions was a genuine desire on the part of Egyptians for moderation and calls for building unity and cohesion among Egypt’s diverse groups.
“We need our leaders to remain open to many points of view,” one woman in Cairo said in a series of focus groups this week—a sentiment that seems to have broad support.
Heading off any growing divisions between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians was also a common desire expressed in these interviews. Egyptians want to avoid any of the sharp divisions that have plagued countries like Iraq and Lebanon in recent years.
This demand for inclusivity and pluralism among Egyptians makes sense after a year of a difficult and uncertain political transition. Egyptian nationalism is strong and has deep historical roots. And as was on full display in Tahrir Square yesterday, a wide range of views exist about the next steps forward in the debate on power sharing and setting the checks and balances in Egypt’s future government system.
With its strong showing in the elections, the FJP will have a voice in shaping the political transition. On Wednesday in a downtown Cairo hotel, as people were flooding Tahrir Square, one leading voice in the Muslim Brotherhood indicated to me that the party would mostly work within the emerging political framework: “The elections gave legitimacy to the People’s Assembly, and we will work within the political system for reform.” The movement would continue to participate in street protests from time to time, but they did not share the views of those calling for a quicker transition to civilian rule.
The worry many Egyptian groups have, though, is that the Muslim Brotherhood will strike a deal on power-sharing and drafting the constitution with the military powers that currently run Egypt’s government, cutting the groups that didn’t fare as well at the polls out of the process.
How the FJP deals with its rivals in Egypt’s evolving political system is the first test. It will indicate how interested the FJP is in building an inclusive Egypt. Next to the growing economic crisis, how the FJP navigates Egypt’s political transition will be the most immediate issue that Egyptians are focused on in the next year, not foreign policy.
Diplomatic engagement with FJP is needed, not isolation
Unfortunately some observers have already written off the Muslim Brotherhood and called for a policy of retreat and isolation on the part of the United States. In U.S. News and World Report, Mort Zuckerman wrote, “Democracy in Egypt without the Muslim Brotherhood may be impossible, but so is democracy under its leadership.”
He proposes that the United States “withhold economic and diplomatic support to Arab states that follow the path of political Islam,” but he doesn’t actually describe how the United States should go about implementing this policy while also ensuring its core security interests across the region, just as more Islamist movements grow in influence.
Not only are such ideas unrealistic in today’s Egypt, they are counterproductive at this stage. Proposing a policy of isolation and unilateral disengagement is a weak option that would undermine U.S. interests in Egypt and the region. Several senior U.S. diplomats told me that Islamists in Egypt want to be treated like serious players and are looking for a chance to prove that they can deal with their country’s problems while also carving out a responsible and pragmatic leadership role on regional issues.
Just like other political movements, the Muslim Brotherhood is malleable, internally divided, and will respond first and foremost to pressures of their constituents and other political forces in the system. Some analysts tend to paint the Muslim Brotherhood as a static movement with a unified coherent agenda—but this is a caricature disconnected from reality. The movement has internal divisions on a number of issues, and as long as an environment of open debate that we see in the regular protests in Egypt’s streets remains, this movement will inevitably evolve and change.
Assertive U.S. diplomatic engagement with political forces in Egypt can have a modest influence on Egypt’s political transition and the actions of key actors involved in shaping the agenda for reform. It is important for U.S. diplomats like Ambassador Anne Patterson to be given enough space to continue engaging in the type of diplomacy she has undertaken since arriving in Cairo last year—talking regularly with the current military government as well as engaging the full spectrum of Egypt’s emerging leaders.
These channels are vital for dealing with issues⎯like the current troubling disputes involving U.S. nongovernmental organizations like the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House⎯and they are also important to send a message of support for pluralism in Egypt’s political transition.
The United States cannot control outcomes in Egypt—Egyptians own this process. We need to keep in mind that Egypt is still in the early stages of a political transition and negotiation over power that will take years to unfold. Even after the next elections for the upper house of parliament and president are completed and a new constitution is drafted later this year, the negotiations will continue over setting the right checks and balances. Certain centers of power—particularly those in the military and Interior Ministry—will take years to evolve given the deep influence they wielded in Egypt for decades.
Egyptians now have a chance to shape a new political order, and the pathway forward is unclear and will take some time. One year after the start of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has found itself in a strong position to shape the political transition. We may strongly disagree with some positions the Muslim Brotherhood stakes out, but it would be foolish for the United States to disarm ourselves so early in Egypt’s transition by stopping diplomatic engagement.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.