To quote an old Egyptian song, “what beautiful and rational words”. This fully describes the interview published by the New York Times yesterday, with a leading figure in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a group that clearly will become the largest bloc in the Egyptian parliament after the January 25th revolution.
The interview is interesting and gives a different picture from the typical stereotype derived from the Brotherhood. [Essam] El-Erian spoke as a statesman in this interview, and confirmed that the Brotherhood would respect the Camp David Accords with Israel, because “this is a commitment of the state, not a group or a party, and this we respect”. He hopes that the United States continues to provide its aid to Egypt, under the condition that it doesn’t practice political pressure, reminding his American suitors that they are not the only ones who “come calling”; there are also the Chinese and the Russians. In the interview he also gave an analysis worthy of consideration about the surprisingly strong performance of the Salafis, whom he acknowledged have become a political force, suggesting that the Brotherhood has appealed to the Egyptian middle class whilst the Salafis have turned to the poor. He hopes that Brotherhood can pull the Salafis towards them, rather than the Brotherhood themselves sliding towards greater fanaticism, and if the next government addresses the problem of poverty, it could help to diminish the Salafis’ appeal.
El-Erian’s most significant answer was his response to the always awkward Western question about imposing restrictions on personal freedoms or practices, or about the Salafis demanding the ban of bikinis on beaches and prohibiting the sale of alcohol. The response to the question was: “Are you sure that is very important? We are keen to discuss the major issues”, such as the new constitution.
This is a political response and the words are reassuring, holding a particular message for the outside world, especially Washington, suggesting that the new government will not turn the tables or make knee-jerk decisions that are harmful to Egyptian interests, so where is the problem with the Muslim Brotherhood?
The problem lies in the conflicting statements of Brotherhood leaders, whereby the level of controversy depends on the quality of the statement or who is giving it. In order to prevent its discourse being duplicated, the Muslim Brotherhood issues statements in English, directed towards the Western world primarily, and others in Arabic directed towards the local recipients.
An example of this was the recent statement made by the Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badi, which brought about controversy that has yet to cease. He suggested that the Arab revolutions have brought the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood – established by its founder, Hassan al-Banna – nearer to a reality, namely to create a worldwide righteous caliphate. This immediately brought to mind the heated rhetoric that was often espoused by the former Supreme Guide, causing controversy on one occasion when he said he would not care if Egypt was ruled by a person from Malaysia, for example.
Following their current leader’s remarks about the caliphate, a team of Brotherhood politicians rushed to calm fears and explain that this would not mean a return to the previous form of caliphate, whereby national identity and sovereignty are nullified, but rather something like the European Union (EU) among the Muslim countries. This is something that also needs to be explained, because geography is what unites the EU, while geography does not unite, for example, Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt. When it comes to the statements of el-Erian and the Supreme Guide, the distance between them – if we analyze their content – is like the distance between Egypt and Indonesia. El-Erian represents the party or the political arm that will have to deal with the political and geographical realities of society and the world, while the Supreme Guide represents an idea, and perhaps an old generation influenced by ideologies. We hope that what el-Erian represents within the Muslim Brotherhood will carry the most weight in the Egyptian political process, if society is to advance and the experience is to succeed.