Egypt 2012: What If the Muslim Brotherhood Comes to Power?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 4, 2011

Would a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt be a new Taliban or a tame party of religious traditionalists, like Germany’s Christian Democrats? Neither extreme is likely, but even a middle ground could be troubling.

The Brotherhood will be a strong player in a post-Mubarak Egypt and could soon lead, or at least dominate, the country. Although the more hyperbolic scenarios of the Brotherhood acting as a stalking horse for al Qaeda or leading Egypt to war with Israel are exaggerated, a Brotherhood government would be bad news for the United States on a range of issues.

Most Egyptians are not members of the Brotherhood, but the group probably represents a healthy plurality of the country, and its strength goes beyond its popularity. The Brotherhood is highly organized and has street power, enabling it to out-organize or intimidate its weak potential rivals. In parts of the Middle East where relatively free elections have been held, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, this mix of popularity and superior organization has served Islamist parties well.

The Brotherhood is a vociferous critic of U.S. military operations in Iraq and elsewhere and would curtail the close military partnership the United States enjoys with Egypt. An extreme step like closing the Suez Canal to U.S. military shipping is unlikely, but Egypt would no longer offer U.S. forces access to the region and, in a crisis, could curtail over-flight rights. Joint exercises and Navy port visits would be a thing of the past. It would be hard, even silly, for the United States to continue to provide over $1 billion in military aid to a country that doesn’t want to be a U.S. military partner, but ending this aid would further embitter the Brotherhood against continuing even limited security cooperation with the United States.

On counterterrorism, Mubarak’s Egypt was a quiet but vital U.S. partner, in large part because the Mubarak regime is near the top of the jihadist rogues’ gallery. Under the Brotherhood, intelligence cooperation would vanish as the new regime purged the hated security services and worried that the Central Intelligence Agency would seek a coup.

For its own purposes, however, the Brotherhood would crush any revival of al Qaeda-linked groups in Egypt. Al Qaeda leaders have blasted the Brotherhood for rejecting jihad and engaging in the political process, and the Brotherhood would not risk a return to the violence that engulfed Egypt in the early 1990s. Even more important, the Brotherhood’s success in gaining power would be a political blow to al Qaeda and would discredit the terrorists’ claim that jihad is the only path to success.

Diplomatically, Egypt has served as a moderate voice in Arab circles, helping shore up U.S. efforts to contain Iran and other regional rogues such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Brotherhood would not necessarily be Iran’s friend, but nor would it support Washington’s efforts against Tehran or other U.S. goals in the region.

In its rhetoric, the Brotherhood rejects Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and some of its leaders infuse their statements with heavy doses of anti-Semitism. The U.S. and the international community, however, would link aid and other support to honoring the peace treaty. Israel is also a military colossus by regional standards, and the Brotherhood is too smart to risk a humiliating defeat, so it would be unlikely to abrogate the treaty outright.

But the Brotherhood would make the peace even colder and would at least tacitly support some of Israel’s enemies. The biggest point of friction would be Hamas, which grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood and is seen as a beleaguered comrade being strangled by the hated Israelis. Especially in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 Israeli military operation in Gaza, Mubarak’s Egypt played an important role in policing the Egypt-Gaza border and reducing the flow of arms to Hamas. The Brotherhood, in contrast, might support Hamas with direct military aid or at least allow the organization far more freedom to acquire arms on its own and send its members outside Gaza for training. Israel in turn would step up military operations against Hamas and possibly operate on the Egyptian side of the border if it felt Cairo was abetting its enemy. This tension could easily spiral out of control.

Social policy could be another thorny issue. A Brotherhood regime would insist on strong Islamic content in education and would oppose equality for women and non-Muslims. Here Hamas’s example is telling. After it took power, the Palestinian movement did not Talibanize Gaza, but there was steady pressure on Palestinians to adhere to a more “Islamic” way of life and a stream of propaganda to this effect. U.S. successes in moderating a Brotherhood foreign policy might actually worsen this tendency, leading the Brotherhood to emphasize its social conservatism as a way to appease its supporters.

The biggest question mark is whether the Brotherhood would peacefully give up power if it lost a subsequent election or otherwise forfeited the support of the Egyptian people. The Brotherhood has embraced elections as a means to power, not because of a heartfelt conversion to the democratic cause. At the very least, to surrender power peacefully the Brotherhood would have to believe it could win a future election. Even harder, the Brotherhood would have to accept that democratic legitimacy requires it to cede power even to forces that it deemed anti-Islamic.

It is easy to make the Egyptian Brotherhood scary to Western audiences. Founded in 1928, it has often had a pronounced anti-Western tilt. Some al Qaeda leaders did service among the Brotherhood’s ranks earlier in their career, al Qaeda members honor Brotherhood thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, and in 1982 the Brotherhood’s Syrian branch led a violent rebellion against the brutal Baath regime there, only to be crushed.

But the Brotherhood also has behaved peacefully. In Jordan it is part of a tame opposition to King Abdallah. In Egypt it has long tried to advance its agenda through elections rather than jihad.  And in the current unrest, the Brotherhood has so far played down its own role and supported figures acceptable to the West like Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, fearing to alienate the international community.

To encourage future moderation, the United States and its allies should engage any Brotherhood regime as well as pressure it. Aid to a Brotherhood government should be linked to moderation in its social, and especially foreign, policy. Such aid would serve as a signal to foreign investors, whom Egypt desperately needs, as to whether the regime is a partner or pariah. The Brotherhood would fear a plunge in political support if Egyptians blamed it for recklessly isolating the country. Friendly gestures would be politically difficult given the many points of friction, but a failure to engage would strengthen the hard-liners within the Brotherhood, proving to its members that the world rejects anything that smacks of Islam and encouraging them to adopt even more radical policies.

A silver lining is that the Brotherhood would quickly lose its sheen once it had to take responsibility for anemic economic growth, a crumbling infrastructure, and Egypt’s myriad other problems. No longer could its members simply declare “Islam is the solution” and point fingers. Failing to solve Egypt’s problems would force the Brotherhood either to step aside or risk joining the ranks of other discredited Islamist regimes that are simply dictatorships with an Islamic face. In the long-term, this could alienate the next generation of Muslims from Islamism.

A better outcome, of course, would be for the Brotherhood never to take power. By bolstering more liberal voices in the months to come, the United States can prevent the Brotherhood from winning by default. But hope is not a policy: Egypt’s future is too uncertain to assume that a powerful group like the Brotherhood would play only a marginal role in the years ahead or that it would automatically become pragmatic should it take power. The United States must prepare for a Brotherhood-run Egypt whose policies would often be hostile, anticipating potential crises and working constantly to gentle the movement.