Opinion

The West must talk to the Muslim Brotherhood

18.02.11 @ 09:29

  1. By Miguel de Corral

As the political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa undergoes a historic metamorphosis, it is imperative for the West to act quickly and to embrace the changes that are taking place.

  • The Al-Azhar university in Cairo: Egypt holds a pre-eminent place in the Sunni Muslim world (Photo: Travel Aficionado)

The West cannot isolate Egypt and risk having another hostile country next to Israel - this would end any prospects for the Middle East Peace Process. Whether these revolts will lead to real democracy remains to be seen. But the West can play a crucial role by promoting democratic ideals, instead of clinging to its old ways of supporting dictators for the sake of stability.

Many fear that the revolution in Egypt will mirror events in Iran in 1979. While there are parallels, one cannot ignore the differences. Hosni Mubarak was not put in power by the West, as was the case with the Shah of Iran. Hatred of the West does not go as far in Egypt as it did in Iran. And Iran now stands as an example of how a democratic movement can end in tyranny.

The youth in Egypt, who were instrumental in these protests, are well educated and do not want to trade one dictatorship for another. But an Iran-type scenario might occur if the West alienates certain actors, like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood is incredibly important in Egyptian politics and society. Originally founded to combat colonialism, it has become a grassroots movement that views Islam as "the solution" to Egypt's problems. While the implementation of Shari'ah law in Egypt may seem alarming to Western leaders, it does not necessarily mean that country would become anti-Western. Saudi Arabia is an example of how a religiously extreme regime can sustain Western alliances.

Despite being officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood has still managed to get its members into parliament. In the 2005 elections, they got 88 out of 444 seats when its members ran as independents. They have gained support by providing social services that the Egyptian government failed to and will remain a major actor in Egyptian politics in years to come.

The West cannot simply treat them as another radical group bent on global jihad. It is not a terrorist organisation like al-Qaeda - they reject violence and condemn acts of terrorism. Simplistic labels will drive a wedge between us and push them into alliances with other actors in the region. We must recognize their importance and begin a dialogue with their leaders to gain mutual understanding.

It would be a serious mistake to treat the Muslim Brotherhood as the West treated Hamas by not recognizing their victory in the 2006 elections in Gaza and the West Bank. Western leaders may prefer a moderate/secular party to govern Egypt, but they cannot deny the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes that Islam and modernity are perfectly compatible.

Egypt has been highly exposed to Western culture, not least through its tourism industry. The Egyptian people have demanded democracy and will not easily accept a new autocracy. The Muslim Brotherhood understands this and have so far supported a moderate and internationally-recognised figure - Mohamed El Baradei, the former IAEA director general.

Mr El Baradei and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour will be significant centrist figures in this transition. But the West cannot exclude other stakeholders from their dialogue.

European and North American leaders did not commit any grave diplomatic mistakes in the last few weeks. No major political leader - with the notable exceptions of Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvio Berlusconi - openly supported Mubarak. After Mubarak's fall, Western leaders praised the democratically-orientated revolution. This is a step in the right direction.

The West now needs to encourage true democratic reform through all political, diplomatic and economic means. If Obama, Merkel, Cameron and Sarkozy, among others, insist on a dialogue between all parties, then the regime that will emerge will most likely not be anti-Western. The next step should be significant investment packages based on preconditions of constitutional reform.

Elections alone will not deliver democracy. But fair and free elections, with international monitors, are necessary. More importantly, unlike in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the West must respect the outcome. If the Muslim Brotherhood gains power through free elections, it would be dangerous to try to sideline them.

If they gain power, a wiser approach would be to treat them as a group that has solemn responsibilities to its citizens and a new role in the international community. This approach is much more likely to have a moderating influence. There is a risk that elections will produce an Islamist or even a radical government. But we have no choice but to accept the will of the Egyptian people.

If we treat an Islamist government as dangerous radicals, we risk dealing with an unfriendly regime for many years to come. If the Egyptian people want to have a religious leadership, then perhaps we could treat this new entity on the Turkish model: here is an example of a democratic government in an Islamic framework which is a responsible player in the international community and an important power in a critical region. Turkey is a prime example of how Islam, the West and democracy can co-exist.

The Middle East and North Africa is in a moment of dramatic flux. It is imperative for the West to be on the 'right' side of history and to support democracy here as it did in eastern Europe in the 1990s. We have to turn the page on our old association with pro-Western dictators.

We must take the risk of choosing democracy over stability.

Miguel de Corral is a Research Assistant in the Middle East Faculty of the Nato Defense College in Rome and studies International Affairs at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are his own

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