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Professor John L. Esposito, University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University. His many books include The Future of Islam.
THE POLITICAL ISLAM OR THE FUTURE OF THE BROTHERHOOD
Islamist Gate: On June 30, many observers declared the death of the Muslim Brotherhood group, and also the death of "the project of political Islam". How do you assess these two hypothesis - why do you think they are right/wrong? How do you see the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and across the Arab world, and the future of political Islam?
Professor John L. Esposito: LET ME EMPHASIZE THAT I AM NOT CONCERNED HERE WITH DEFENDING THE BROTHERHOOD PER SE BUT HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS IN EGYPT.
While I respect the rights of the opposition to Pres. Morsi to have mobilized, demonstrated, called for and insisted upon reforms, I believe that the path to a more democratic and non-authoritarian state requires that change come through ballots not bullets.
The “observers [who have] declared the death of the Muslim Brotherhood” would be wise to remember the famous phrase of Mark Twain, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Or, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” George Santayana
When Gamal Abdel Nasser attempted to eradicate the MB, many, including experts on the MB, sounded its death knell. Years later they would be proven wrong. There are two lessons to be learned from this period. First, when under Anwar Sadat the MB came out of prison and out of hiding, it reemerged and resurrected itself and rebuilt its movement to become a major social and political movement in Egypt functioning non-violently reform within mainstream society. Second, the negative result of Nasser’s purge was that former MB members as a result of their imprisonment and torture broke with the Brotherhood and, convinced that violent revolution rather than reform was the only way to topple a repressive authoritarian regime turned to violence and terrorism, a reign of terror by a number of extremist groups that stretched from Sadat’s regime and his assassination through the 1990s and the terror during Mubarak’s rule.
Again, the same is true, regarding those who have declared the death of the project of political Islam. A prominent reporter for a major publication once called me up, when in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran had to “swallow the bitter pill” and call an end the Iran-Iraq war, and asked for my reaction to her conclusion that this signaled the end of political Islam. And of course it did not. Years later she called again on the death of Khomeini and repeated the same conclusion, that surely now political Islam was dead. This was not to be the case as demonstrated by the reemergence of the MB in Egypt, the return of Ennahda and Rashid Ghannoushi to Tunisia and their victory in elections, the end of Erbakan’s Welfare Party but years later the emergence of the AKP under Erdogan and Gull’s leadership, not to mention examples from Morocco and elsewhere. Like all social movements and political parties, their survival and success will be the extent to which they are able to learn from their experiences and adapt their ideology and policies to the political and social realities and challenges of their societies.
For the foreseeable future Islam will be part of Egyptian politics and that many other nations. But of course it will take many forms, organized and unorganized. Therefore, current movements or reconfigured current movements as well as new religiously rooted social and political movements are not only possible but also probable regardless of short-term failures or government repression.
The new era may not be an era of the old-style Political Islam, but it is not possible for any movement or group or interest group to ignore Islam. The future of Islam in politics in Egypt is not tied to the future of Political Islam or the future of the Brotherhood. However, given the extreme rhetoric of the junta, the MB is in the position of ending up as they did in the previous regime -- as the only political voice identified with Islam other than the extremists.
IG: Among a large segment of Egyptians, a phobia of the Brotherhood has seemingly developed, particularly in parallel with a vigorous media campaign (launched mainly by businessmen-owned media outlets) to associate the Muslim Brotherhood group with "terrorism" and violence. How do you think the Brotherhood should face such campaigns to depict them as violent and "terrorists"? Are there certain strategies do you think they should adopt to counter such accusations made against them?
JE: The Brotherhood’s leadership is challenged, in the face of the violence, repression and terror that has now been inflicted upon many of the, to remain non-violent both in their public statements and tactics. But of course, the leadership cannot control all its followers. Many of in the face of the calculated and deliberate use of lethal force against civilians and the death of family and friends will play right into the hands of the military and police whose lethal force is intended to provoke violence to legitimate their attempts to repress and eradicate the Brotherhood. The actions of non-Brotherhood Islamist vigilantes and thugs of course contribute to the problem.
Long term the Brotherhood if it is to survive and reemerge will have to learn for its experience in government and its mistakes. It will need to move from the excessively hierarchical organization and leadership of the elders and conservative mentality, which were the product of decades under siege from the government, to a more diverse (in terms of age and mentality) leadership and ideology and embrace a more inclusive, pluralistic, and representative style of politics. That said, it should be noted that the military-led government and its supporters have themselves not done so despite their initial promises of an inclusive political system and their promise of parliamentary and presidential elections. The MB should have and in future should clearly separate their political offspring party (FJP or its successor) from the Brotherhood leadership itself.
If the military-led government wants to marginalize and weaken the MB, believing that it has been rejected by the majority of Egyptians (which may be the case), then why didn’t they and don’t they now simply call for elections? What are they afraid of?
IG: There are pundits who categorize the Brotherhood's leaders into Qutbis and non-Qutbis: To what extent is this categorization accurate? What are the main ideological and tactical differences among the Brotherhood's leaders?
JE: This is so silly and transparent. If they want to use Qurtb’s name as symbol, they should say so. But what they apparently really want to do is say that MB over past 40 years has continued to have a militant wing the subscribes to a militant violent path (Qutb) as well as a non-Qutbian non-violent face. This the charge that the MB are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The MB should be judged by whether they walked the way the talked during the past 40 years, since their release from prison and ability to function in society. Remember when provoke dthe the Mubarak regime (arrests and detentions, torture) they did not resort to violence and indeed terrorists like Ayman al-Zawahiri and others have been critical of the MB If there has been a secret Qutbian cell, as it were, they let the critics say who, when and where did they engage in violence.
Now, if the military insists on totally demonizing, repressing and eradicating the MB through the disproportionate use of lethal violence and massacres, mass arrests and military trails etc. then they, the military and their supporters will have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
IG: Many experts warn that the brutal crackdown adopted by the regime against the Brotherhood in Egypt now will push them – and their young members – to become more radical or even to resort to violence. If this happens will it be justified?
JE: If the Morsi government or indeed any government had engaged in 10% of what the military-led government has done, it would have been characterized by the opposition and indeed much of the international community as a reign of terror. It is indeed true that violence begets violence. Look at Algeria and the extent to which the military set in motion a cycle of violence and counter violence that led to radicalization of hitherto mainstream Islamists and pitted a sector of the military, referred to as the eradicateurs, against these militants.
IG: What's your advice for the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership and members given the situation they and Egypt are faced with now and given the authorities' major crackdown on them? (There are voices that advise them to continue with protests and escalation on the streets, but others refute this on the grounds that this only encourages more severe crackdown by the regime and it also negatively affects the poor strata of Egyptian society, those who suffer everyday to make ends meet. Other voices advise them to accept "dialogue" and "compromise" with the army and the regime so as to avoid getting excluded altogether and moving back behind bars as in what happened in Nasser's era. But some Brothers respond by saying that insisting on rejecting dealing with the military, which they believe is ruling Egypt illegitimately, will gain them popularity and support from the segments of Egyptians who will get impressed by the Brothers' resolve and perseverance in the face of unjustified crackdown and arbitrary arrests and killings.) Which route do you advise the Brotherhood to take?
JE: But the point is the military-led government has not lived up to its promise of an inclusive government; the door has been slammed shut on the MB. The central and fundamental problem is that that this so-called government and the actions of the military and security forces has made clear that there is no option “to accept "dialogue" and "compromise" with the army and the regime so as to avoid getting excluded altogether and moving back behind bars as in what happened in Nasser's era.” The Brrotherhood has been banned and their assets are to be seized, the majority of its leadership and many followers are behind bars, Brotherhood and its supporters have been victims of the largest death toll in a single day in modern Egyptian history.
My advice would be that the MB should keep a low profile, despite repression. It will not take long for the authoritarian military to begin its repression of those "liberals" and "secularists," in fact it has already begun, who are supporters of democracy and actually speak out. The best example is the short-lived career of Baradei who had supported the coup and held a senior government position but had to flee the country. The bottom line is that the junta cannot be faux advocates of democracy for long and the true authoritarianism of the military will emerge.
IG: To what extent is what's happening in Egypt affecting the situation in Tunisia and how? And what are the policies that you believe that An-Nahda movement should currently stick to/refrain from adopting?
JE: What has occurred in Egypt with both direct and indirect support from many other Arab countries strengthens the hand of anti-democratic regimes. While some opposition forces in Tunisia (as in Turkey) have sought to emulate widespread demonstrations and trigger the fall of their governments, it has not happened. The military and police in Tunisia as in Turkey have not intervened and the governments are in the process of facing issues of reform.
Tunisia, as you know, from the beginning signaled its desire for an inclusive government with the appointment of a non-Islamist as president and the invitation to and inclusion of two major socialist parties. islamistgate.com