Brothers Unburdened

As paranoics inside Washington’s Beltway agonize over the prospects of a strong showing by Islamists in Egypt’s upcoming elections, a very different reality is cohering on the streets of Cairo: the Muslim Brotherhood - historically the country’s most powerful and disciplined Islamist movement - appears to be breaking up. The Brotherhood’s youth league has launched its own party with a progressive charter that is less about religious outreach and devotion than it is about social justice. A senior leader of the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic, who has long endorsed engagement with Egypt’s secular and non-Muslim constituencies, is running for president without the group’s official blessing. A debate within the Ikhwan about its core identity, muffled for survival’s sake under despots who suppressed free thinking of any kind, is ventilating subversively in the oxygen-rich air of the post-Mubarak era.

I was recently given an insightful tour through the Brotherhood’s molten political terrain by Mohammed Al Gebba, a young Ikhwanist who joined the group two decades ago as a high school student. A native of the coastal city of Damietta but for years an urbane Cairene, Al Gabba has evolved from ardent fundamentalist to Islamist humanist. It is a not uncommon journey in a political movement that, like its secular rivals, is scrambling to find its place in Egypt’s second republic.

“Politics and outreach are not reconcilable,” Al Gabba told me in Café Cilantro, a secularists enclave just off Tharir Square, the epicenter of the revolution that consumed the world for eighteen days ending February 11. “One compromises the other. What is needed is dialogue, and there is no dialogue in the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Ikhwan is balkanized, according to Al Gabba, along ideological as well as demographic lines. Though he sympathizes with its youthful renegades, he chose to remain in the Brotherhood as a cadre to its relatively liberal wing despite the leadership’s rightward lurch in elections last year. It is the former, rather than the latter, he says, that is most faithful to the vision of Hasan Al Banna, the revivalist imam who founded the Ikhwan in 1926. “Our principals were his principals,” he said. “They are values of tolerance and dialogue.”

Al Gabba was deeply involved in the clashes between the confederation of secularists and Islamists, Christians and Muslims, and Communists and Capitalists against repeated onslaughts by regime loyalists to clear Tharir square. Having outlasted Mubarak and his hangers on, the revolution is now under threat by the proxies of foreign powers - not Israel and America, the usual suspects trotted out by demagogues of the ancién regime - but Iran and Saudi Arabia, tactical allies against the Arab world’s liberal awakening. “This is the one thing they can agree on,” says Al Gabba. “Their objective is to create chaos, to provoke the Egyptian army into oppression, to destroy the revolution.”

Conspiracy theories are as intrinsic to Egyptian politics as parsley is to Tabouleh, if for no other reason that so many of them have turned out to be more truth that fantasy. As proof of Saudi-Iranian perfidy, Al Gabba cites a seminar, to be held on July 1, on the salience and inevitability of sharia law in Egypt. A prominent Salafi sheik, he says, has declared the event to be the inspiration of Saudi Wahhabists working in tandem with remnants of Mubarak’s security apparatus.

If such intrigues do exist, according to Al Gabba, they will backfire. After nearly six decades of authoritarian rule, he told me, Egyptians will settle for nothing less than a secular republic. Candidates fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming election may do well, he allowed, but they are unlikely to capture more than a quarter of parliamentary seats. He predicts that in the next national ballot five years from now, Ikhwan members will campaign as independents whose loyalty to the state and devotion to faith are secularly distinct from each other.

Otherwise, he said, “the Brotherhood will bring itself down. It will ease to exist as we know it.”