In this paper we have warned against the Muslim Brotherhood as a force which could confiscate the revolution in Egypt and turn it into an Islamist counter-revolution. In the Financial Times of 1 February Ed Husain presented a reasoned argument against our assessment.
Husain is not a “cultural relativist” who thinks that the Muslim Brotherhood is fine for Egypt because “it’s their culture” and that secularism, democracy, and women’s rights are only for “the West”. He is not a flabby liberal who responds to any powerful force, like political Islam, by advocating soft deals.
He is a former Islamist militant who broke from Islamism, wrote a book about it, and has been sharp against “soft-sell” Islamism — against, for example, the Islam Channel, run by the former leader of the Tunisian Islamic Front (who nevertheless has got himself invited to speak at a number of British left events).
Husain is not a “kitsch anti-imperialist”, who thinks that the Muslim Brotherhood should automatically be supported because it is anti-Israel and anti-American. Far from it. He is now a member of the US foreign policy establishment, working for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.
In fact Husain is mostly talking to boneheaded “hawks” in the US ruling class, trying to convince them that the Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda (it isn’t) and that the US government can do deals with it (it probably can: the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoot in Iraq, the Iraq Islamic Party, has been almost the only Sunni-Arab-based group to collaborate consistently with the US since 2003).
He is telling the US establishment that Egyptians are in the streets for “universal values of freedom, of dignity, of human equality”, and that most of those on the streets are not Brotherhood supporters.
But an element of Ed Husain’s argument cuts against what we say. He asserts that the Brotherhood has changed so that it no longer seeks an Islamic state.
He thinks it possible that US diplomats could get the Brotherhood to sign up for a “secular, liberal, democratic” constitution, and recognition of “Israel’s Jewish democratic status as a neighbour”, and it would not be dissimulation.
“Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s leader, comes from its conservative wing. But he recently scoffed at the idea of an Islamic state, saying his aim was to be part of a civilian administration.
“Another relative hardliner (and my former teacher) Kamal ElHelbawi said... ‘Islamists would not be able to rule Egypt alone’. He argued for cooperation with secularists...
“To its credit, the Brotherhood also often calls for improved human rights... [And] even Mr ElHelbawi, often an apologist for suicide bombers, does not dismiss existing agreements between Israel and Egypt”.
In any case, “in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and even Pakistan, Islamist parties do badly at the polls”.
Backstop argument: even if the Brotherhood does gain a majority, Israel’s military strength means it has “little to fear from Egypt’s shabby military”.
But what about the Palestinians? Israel would survive a Brotherhood government in Egypt which supported Hamas, but the Palestinians would be ground to pieces in the clash between rival chauvinisms. And what about the Egyptian people under Islamist rule?
The Brotherhood is canny. Of course it doesn’t propose an Islamic state now in Egypt, or the breaking of Egypt’s treaties with Israel. It doesn’t want to throw itself into a showdown with secular forces in Egypt (including, probably, important or decisive elements of the army) and with the USA, at a time when it would lose that clash.
But has the Brotherhood really “bio-degraded” into a sort of Muslim-Democratic party, as hegemonised by secularism and liberalism as European Christian Democracy?
Or is its caution more like that of Stalinist parties, in the heyday of Stalinism, who would spend long periods pretending to be just good democrats and patriots, with no aspirations for the foreseeable future beyond an “advanced” or “people’s” democracy, but were ready to impose Stalinist rule when they had the chance?
The Stalinist parties eventually “bio-degraded” in Western Europe, but only after decades of everyday absorption in running local authorities and parliamentary contests within stable and prosperous parliamentary democracies where the Stalinist “model” became more and more unattractive even to Communist Party activists.
It is not like that with the Brotherhood. Its “final goal”, a state in which religion is law against all workers’, women’s, and democratic rights, still enjoys prestige and a huge emotional charge given to it by religious conviction. Secularism, in Egypt, is not an exciting new model not yet tried, but something tainted by association with decades of stifling bureaucratic demagogy.
Although very many Egyptians are secular, the trend for decades now has been to more “Islamisation” of society rather than less.
The Brotherhood’s activists have had to operate in illegality and often in prison. That makes them cautious: but does not encourage them to think they should forget their final goal and stop at tokens and sops.
If the Egyptian workers’ movement can organise itself politically, it can quickly win over great slabs of the Brotherhood’s base and shatter its confidence.
But if not... Husain himself sees dark possibilities, though his hope of avoiding them rests on deft US diplomacy rather than working-class action: “Egypt could all too easily go the way of Iran, or Gaza”.
That can happen without the majority ever wanting it, or doing more than becoming reconciled to it once the new tyranny is in place. It can be avoided only by the construction of strong-enough political alternatives to the Brotherhood.
The opposition “14 January Front” in Tunisia has a 14 point programme, mostly centred round demands for democracy, a constituent assembly, freedom of speech and association, and social welfare.
One of the 14 points jars. It is the only substantive point about international issues, and it calls for: “Resistance to normalisation with the Zionist entity, its penalisation, and the support for the national liberation movements in the Arab world and the whole world”.
Whether it was the (small, so we understand) Nasserist or Ba’thist groups in the Front who pushed this, or the (larger) Hoxha-Stalinist group, we don’t know.
But it is particularly diversionary and demagogic in Tunisia to try to define “national liberation” as the desire to pitch the Palestinians (who mostly support “two states”) into a “no compromise” attempt to wipe out “the Zionist entity” (codename for Israel among people who refuse to recognise that the Israeli Jews are a nation).
Israel does not oppress distant Tunisia. On the other hand, the shrinking of the Jewish population in Tunisia from 110,000 in 1948 to 1,700 in 2011 reflects anti-Jewish pressure within Tunisia.
The main enemy for Tunisian workers is at home. The main external enemy is the world capitalist market, not Israel.