On March 20, Egypt held a referendum vote, and it is the common consensus that the results indicate the degree of support and power for the Muslim Brotherhood. In this special preview of an article from Commentary’s April issue, written several weeks before, Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby consider the political program of the this venerable Islamist movement.
On February 18, crowds gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak—but also to pray, since it was a Friday, and Friday is the Muslim Sabbath. As it had on every Friday since the uprising began the month before, the Muslim Brotherhood took a leading role. But on this Friday, the subject was no longer Mubarak but rather Egypt’s future and the place the Brotherhood—the venerable Islamist organization—would have in it. Would the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately support a turn toward democratic governance, or would it revert to its oft-cited goal of installing a theocracy? How that question might be answered arose in the person of Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive whose secret work on Facebook and elsewhere on the Web had been so crucial to organizing the protests.
Would Ghonim speak?
He would not. Despite his centrality to all that had happened, this undeniable hero of the revolution was denied access to the podium by the Muslim Brotherhood. Ghonim’s parting gesture, as he left the square, was to wrap himself in the Egyptian flag. In his stead was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian who had lived in exile for more than 30 years, had had no apparent role in recent events, and had just flown in from Qatar. Qaradawi is known to millions in the Muslim world through his weekly TV show on Al Jazeera and through his founding and direction of Islamist institutions, many of them in Europe. He is the chief ideologue and spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide.
And so February 18 turned out not to be a celebration of the “agenda” of Egyptian reform for all Egyptians but rather of the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. What is that agenda? That is the question. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and most organized Egyptian entity apart from the Egyptian military and the state itself. The institutions that the Brotherhood manages or dominates—schools, clinics, and loose affiliations of lawyers, doctors, and students—constitute something like a parallel state. And the Brotherhood has shown its strength with the Egyptian public in recent years. In 2005, in the only semi-free legislative elections in decades, the Brotherhood managed to win 20 percent of the seats. The Brotherhood seems well positioned to benefit from the protests and the departure of Mubarak, and that fact has cast a shadow over the extraordinary events in Cairo—the peaceful ouster of a sclerotic autocrat.