Koert Debeuf Column

Are The Muslim Brothers Muslim Republicans ? (Column)

One year after the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to become the driving force in Middle Eastern politics. Many people in the West are convinced this is the worst possible outcome of the Arab spring – which some commentators have already nicknamed the “Arab winter”. Living in Cairo I follow the Tunisian and Egyptian elections during the day. At night I watch debates and results from the GOP primaries. And frankly, I wonder: is the rhetoric of the MB all that different from the one I can witness in the primaries?

On their website the Muslim Brotherhood call themselves “a group established to promote development, progress and advancement based on Islamic references”. They remain very much unclear on what these Islamic references exactly are, and how they will base their politics on them. The Brothers insist that they will not impose anything on anyone. At most they want to convince their compatriots that living along Islamic principles is preferable. It’s noteworthy that this stance is actually less far reaching than the thirty year old part of article two of the Egyptian constitution – introduced by Hosni Mubarak – which says that “sharia is a principal source of legislation”.

When I talk to leading figures of the Brotherhood in Tunisia or Egypt, they seem to agree on a few principles. They want to fix the economy and fight against corruption. I have not heard one of them utter the words ‘islam’ or ‘muslim’. In fact, the Brotherhood vision as written down by Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Egyptian political wing of the Brotherhood), could have been the program of almost any centrist party in the world. Of course, this is precisely what makes the West suspicious. Is what we see what we will get?

We seem almost relieved to hear that at least one Brotherhood candidate lives up to the caricature of extremism: she was campaigning on a platform of ‘sin-free holidays’ in Egypt. Westerners, she posits, are already drinking enough at home and will enjoy two weeks of alcohol – and bikini-free vacations. In the same vein, it’s almost reassuring that Hamas is referring to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as their “mother movement”, because it provides proof for an international conspiracy against Israel. And didn’t the movement officially declare that it wants to ‘discourage less ethical movies’, because ‘experts suggest that pornography desensitizes men sexually’?

But then the word ‘desensitize’ suddenly rings a bell. Didn’t Michelle Bachmann warn for The Lion King as “normalization of gayness through desensitization? Didn’t Rick Santorum talk about a conscious effort on the part of the left to influence the curriculum to desensitize America to what American values are? It’s not the only strange opinion the GOP primaries have telecast. What about Rick Perry saying that Turkey is ruled by Muslim fundamentalists and should be kicked out of NATO? Newt Gingrich went on record saying the Palestinians are an invented people. I wonder how the world would react if an Arab politician called the Israelis an invented people?

And then I remember that day in 2005 when I followed the campaign of House Representative Robert Aderholt in the North of Alabama. I was surprised when, in those dry counties of the Bible belt, I heard the sentence that I hear so often in Egypt today: sorry, but we serve no alcohol, sir. Alderholt’s main fight was trying to display the Ten Commandments in every public building. When quizzed about it, he quoted Reagan who apparently once said that “we might come closer to balancing the budget if all of us live closer to the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule”.

For a European, it’s almost incomprehensible how politics and religion intermingle in US elections. The Republican aversion against the very essence of the European social welfare state puzzles me. Also, the consensus between GOP candidates that the US needs to bomb Iran seemed to confirm the European cliché that American politicians are addicted to the drumbeat of war.

But although I can’t understand the GOP on an emotional level, I’m not afraid of them. It’s clear to me that however unfathomable their politics are, they believe in the process of democracy. Maybe the Muslim Brotherhood is just like the Republican Party in that regard. They might be hard to understand, but still be democrats. I hope that if once in power the Republicans will deliver less of what they say. And I hope the Brotherhood will not deliver more than what they promise. But I do think that, just like the United States, Egypt should have the right to have a democratic, religious conservative party.

by Koert Debeuf

FLI Koert Debeuf PortretKoert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.

For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.

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