The Muslim Brotherhood's Charm Offensive in Washington
The Muslim Brotherhood's Charm Offensive in Washington
By Jacob Laksin
The Muslim Brotherhood's American charm offensive got off to a rough start this week. Members of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood's political wing, arrived in Washington D.C. this week for a series of meetings with U.S. officials, media, and think tanks, with the purpose of presenting a moderate image of the Brotherhood and allaying fears that it will impose Sharia law and threaten Egypt's minority groups, including secularists and Coptic Christians. Instead, the Brotherhood's delegation was confronted with news that, back in Egypt, those fears were being confirmed.
Over the weekend, the Brotherhood announced that it would field a candidate in May's presidential election, breaking an earlier pledge not to do so. Given the Brotherhood's political and organizational clout, the candidate, businessman and Brotherhood bigwig Khairat al-Shater, is now considered the frontrunner, reinforcing concerns that the Islamist group wants to completely dominate the Egyptian parliament. Worse still for the Brotherhood's supposedly moderate image was that al-Shater made it expressly clear that his "first and final project and objective" would be to impose Sharia law on the country. Already, he has stirred controversy in Egypt by lobbying for the support of Egypt's hard-line Salafist clerics, offering them effective approval over all legislation to make sure that it is compliant with Sharia.
That left the Brotherhood's delegation scrambling to sanitize al-Shater's statements. Asked to account for its political about-face, and one that seemed likely to bring to power a committed proponent of Sharia law, the Brotherhood's visiting delegation tried to make light of the news. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, one of the lawmakers in the delegation, insisted that the Brotherhood was committed to a "civil state" and was only seeking to implement the "principles" of Sharia law rather than its strict application. "The principles are universal: freedom, human rights, justice for all. This is the priority of the Freedom and Justice Party," Dardery said at an event at Georgetown University. Sharia, in short, was not the Brotherhood's primary concern in post-Mubarak Egypt.
But that dubious pretense became virtually indefensible on Wednesday, when an Egyptian court sentenced a 17-year-old Christian boy to three years in jail for the crime of publishing cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed on his Facebook page. The Sharia-inspired sentence came in the aftermath of a wave of attacks on Christians by Muslim mobs, in which Christian homes were burned and Christians were injured. The violence highlighted the pressing worry that Egypt's Christians could lose their rights under a Brotherhood-led regime. Christians have already been shut out of the political process, and Christian parties have responded by quitting a working group drafting the country's new constitution, saying that their concerns were being ignored. Their departure represents a growing political disenfranchisement that gives the lie to the Brotherhood's claim of seeking "justice for all."
The rift between the Brotherhood delegation's assurances of moderation and the reality of the nascent government the Brotherhood has come to dominate is now all too apparent. One of the government's first acts, for instance, was to announce that it would prosecute 43 Germans and Americans working for pro-democracy NGOs in Egypt. Although the groups had been working in Egypt for years, the foreign workers – among them Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – were indicted by Egyptian courts for operating without a license and barred from leaving the country. The politically charged prosecutions strained U.S.-Egyptian ties and threatened the $1.6 billion in American aid that Egypt receives annually, but the Brotherhood defended them as a proper response.
Ironically, among the more outspoken defenders of the crackdown on pro-democracy groups was Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, the same Brotherhood lawmaker who is leading the Brotherhood's PR tour this week. When the prosecutions were announced, Dardery insisted that they were justified because the pro-democracy groups were working toward "a type of democracy that will not bring Islamists to power, and this is wrong." Dardery thus confirmed what was already obvious: The Brotherhood supports democracy only to the extent that it brings the Brotherhood to power. Abroad, of course, Daredy tells a different story.
How convincing this two-faced act has been in the U.S. is unclear. For its part, the White House has tried to downplay the significance of the Brotherhood's visit. Still, the unprecedented access that the Brotherhood's delegation has been afforded, including meetings with officials at the National Security Council and the State Department, can only serve to boost its domestic legitimacy. Nor did it hurt the Brotherhood's image that the Obama administration, rather than condemning its decision to run a presidential candidate despite promising to abstain, praised the Brotherhood's candidate as a more moderate alternative to the Salafist candidate in the race.
Yet that's a distinction with little substantive difference. As the Brotherhood has amply demonstrated during its brief time in office – and as its latest publicity stunt cannot obscure – when it comes to their views on secular democracy and religious pluralism, the differences between the Brotherhood and its Islamist rivals are few indeed.