Ever since revolutions erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, with this storm then extending to other countries, questions have continued unabated, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and their role in the forthcoming stage. Analysis has fluctuated between warnings of the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasing role, and possible attempts to hijack the revolution, whilst others have sought to herald a new era, in which the organization displays an understanding for the lessons of the past, and today advocates the peaceful and democratic exchange of power, and the need for an active civil society. The debate surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in politics has been problematical and controversial for a long time. Several of the organization’s slogans and practices have caused many to view it as a movement seeking to topple existing regimes, or seize upon them in a bid to achieve their goal of unilateral rule, and the establishment of a theocratic state. Hence, even when the Muslim Brotherhood speaks of democracy, such rhetoric sounds suspicious, because many feel they do not believe in the peaceful exchange of power.
Of course, some would counter such an argument by saying that Islamist movements are actually the victims here – even when they attempted to work legitimately they were still deprived from obtaining power by democratic means, as was the case with Algeria in the early 1990s. However, such an argument does not seem to take into account the fact that several members of the [Algerian] Islamic Salvation Front’s leadership had issued controversial statements [at the time], which brought their belief in democracy into question, hence fueling fear and giving reason for the military to invalidate the election results, and end the political pluralism experiment. Furthermore, in the months before the Algerian election, Islamists in Sudan had seized upon a democratically elected government by staging a military coup, and went on to impose a governing model dependent upon a tight security grip, and a policy of oppression. These actions gained much support from other Islamist groups in the region. On that day, Islamists failed the democracy test, affirming the view that they did not believe in democracy, or the peaceful exchange of power, and that even if they feigned support for democracy as a tactic to obtain power, they would certainly not leave this position via democratic means.
There have been many incidents since that period which have fuelled unrest in the region, and triggered confrontations between governments and Islamist movements, and they cannot all be recounted here. Yet what is most important is that this problematical relationship is coming to the fore once again today; from Egypt and Tunisia, to Gaza and Libya. The most significant test will be in Egypt, for what happens there in the days to come will have a great impact upon the region. Numerous Islamist movements in the region have emerged from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which also generated a number of extremist movements. Thus today, all eyes are focused on them, to see how they will act with regards to the Egyptian revolution, and promises for democracy. If members of the Muslim Brotherhood are able to prove they mean what they say – that they support a civil state, without marginalizing Copts or women, and aim to establish a democracy that entails the peaceful exchange of power – then they may become the Arab version of the Turkish model. This would convince many of the possibility of dealing with Islamist movements that conform to legitimate political activity. Indeed, this may help put an end to the cycle of exclusion, and the banning of Islamist movements. It may [also] reduce the emergence of armed extremist groups, and combat the current climate which is conducive to terrorism. Finally, it would put an end to accusations made by Israeli and Western groups that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
During the revolution in Egypt, many sought to counter it by brandishing the Muslim Brotherhood scarecrow, arguing that regime change would present power to the Islamist organization on a silver platter. Initially, the Obama administration was extremely hesitant in providing support for the Egyptian revolution, for reports had always referred to the Muslim Brotherhood as the most organized alternative political force, compared to other eroded political parties, whose numbers had shrunk significantly, and who were no longer influential. Even after Mubarak stepped down, many continued to warn that the Muslim Brotherhood may override and hijack the revolution, or that the regime would exploit them as a means of circumventing the unrest, by making a deal and then later excluding the Brotherhood [when the revolution was over].
Without doubt, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to restore the trust of other parties, which regard it with fear and suspicion, believing it to be an organization with a conspiring mentality that seeks to exclude its opponents. There has been much speculation and analysis that the Muslim Brotherhood, having backed Mohammed ElBaradei prior to the revolution, and having exploited his movement and his popularity amongst the Egyptian youth, would abandon him immediately after the revolution, and exclude him from their negotiations with the government. This is because they regard him as a strong potential candidate for the presidency, and they fear that his political manifesto may contradict theirs in many aspects, or so some believe. It is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood has indeed begun to surmount other forces which participated in the revolution, and this was made clear when Sheikh al-Qaradawi’s guards prevented youth activist Wael Ghonim from mounting the platform to deliver a speech in Tahrir Square, following the “Friday of Victory” prayers.
Egypt is undergoing an extremely sensitive and significant stage in its democratic transition. All decisions made by political parties, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, will shape the new state in Egypt. Will it be a new Egypt, or an old one with new faces? Will it be a democratic Egypt, or an Egypt where political wrangling returns us to dictatorship or theocracy? A considerable challenge is facing the Muslim Brotherhood, but perhaps they will realize the historic moment, and the magnitude of the test facing them. They will either prove to be a political force that believes in democracy and the peaceful exchange of power, or they will fail the test and act with a conspiring mentality to exclude other parties, and plan for the day in which they can rule the country single-handedly. If this were to happen, it would represent substantial evidence that Islamist movements do not believe in the peaceful exchange of power, and that they regard democracy as nothing more than a vehicle to attain power, after which they would unilaterally establish a theocratic or autocratic state.