Tarek Masoud Testifies on the Muslim Brotherhood at the House Intelligence Subcommittee

April 14, 2011

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Tarek Masoud testified April 13 before the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis and Counter-intelligence (TAHCI) about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics.

Text of Testimony:

Chairwoman Myrick, Ranking Majority Member Thompson, distinguished members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. I am an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and I have been studying the Muslim Brotherhood for several years. I wrote my dissertation about the movement at Yale, and I am currently finishing a book on the subject. I have interviewed many Brotherhood leaders and members (in the Middle East and elsewhere), studied the movement’s history, and read widely in the writings of its key thinkers and ideologues.

I will use my five minutes to speak today about the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt, leaving the international and U.S. dimensions to my colleagues and to the question and answer period. I will say, however, before beginning that I have watched two of your videos on the Brotherhood, Chairwoman Myrick, and I have two reactions. First, I think your concern that the Muslim Brotherhood will implement shariah law in the United States gives far too much credit to the Brotherhood and not enough to our American culture and institutions, which have proven their durability in the face of greater challenges. If communism, which was backed by a world superpower, could make no dents in our armor, I hardly think that the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization of even limited popularity in the Muslim world, and which has no great power behind it, can. As a scholar, but also as someone who has lived in both East and West, I know well what the Islamists say and what they have to offer. I can safely say that they have nothing on us. Most Muslim Americans know this, too—that is why they are here. They voted with their feet.

Second, I must tell you, chairwoman Myrick, that am gratified by the distinction you make in your videos between the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement, and Muslims, followers of the world’s second largest Abrahamic faith. I am thinking specifically of the narrator in your video who took pains to distinguish Islamism, the political ideology, from Islam, the religion of which I am a follower. This distinction was extremely welcome to me and to many of my fellow American Muslims who worry about being tarred as a potential fifth column in this country.

There are, of course, those who would like us to believe that there is no distinction between Islam and Islamism: they are called Islamists, and I am grateful to you for not doing their work for them. I would only urge you to continue making the distinction, and to make it as loudly as possible, so that those who might wish to paint all American Muslims as secret Islamists will know that they have no support from the Chairwoman of the terrorism subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

I am happy to talk about either of these points in response to your questions, but for the remainder of my remarks I will focus on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and their role in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

I will attempt very briefly to draw on my scholarly research to answer five questions that you and my fellow Americans may have about the Muslim Brotherhood: Who are they? What do they want? Are they violent extremists? Are they committed to democracy? And are they about to rule Egypt?

Who are the Muslim Brothers? They are, quite simply, a religious and political movement that operates in a fairly poor, dependent country. Founded 83 years ago, the Brotherhood began as a religious organization but quickly became one of Egypt’s strongest political forces and a major opponent of the British colonial administration. They’ve been outlawed since 1954, when the Arab socialist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, decided they were a threat, but over the last 40 years they’ve been allowed to participate in Egyptian political life, acting as a cross between a religious fraternity and a political party. They’ve fielded candidates in every Egyptian parliamentary election since 1984 except one, and in 2005 won 20 percent of the seats in parliament. The MB is likely to be legalized soon and has announced its intention to form a political party to contest the September 2011 parliamentary elections. In addition to running in elections, the movement has a reputation for providing some social services, but the extent of these is often exaggerated.

What do they want? At one level, they want a more virtuous society, and they believe that you can enact legislation to make this happen. They believe that government’s role is to uphold the faith and combat vice. But they do not restrict themselves to the moral realm. Like most Egyptians, they want economic development, improved infrastructure, efficient government, but they believe that the way to get these things is to implement the teachings of Islam. Their slogan is “Islam is the solution.” They have been criticized, however, for not really articulating how Islam can offer solutions to such problems as illiteracy, inadequate public infrastructure, and increasing water scarcity.

One of the movement’s major international goals is achieving Muslim unity. You will often hear them speak of re-establishing the caliphate, although they seem to have in mind a European Union-style federation that Muslim states would join voluntarily. They are critics of the West generally and the United States in particular, both for its hegemony over Muslim lands, and for its cultural values, which they find at odds with their traditional ones. The Muslim Brotherhood is as likely to criticize America for our acceptance of homosexuality or of sex outside of marriage or for our irreverent and sometimes sexually provocative television shows as it is for our invasion of Iraq or friendship to Israel.

Are the Muslim Brothers violent? It is true that the Brotherhood has had a violent history, and in the 1940s had established a “secret apparatus” that in 1948 assassinated an Egyptian prime minister. But today’s Muslim Brothers say that violence is in their past, and that they are committed today to achieving their goals through peaceful, democratic means.

Much has been made of the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, was once a member of the Brotherhood. But al-Zawahiri is critical the Brothers, whom he views as fake Islamists. For their part, the Brotherhood takes pains to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda, whom it views as destructive nihilists. The Brotherhood’s English language website even has a section called “MB vs al-Qaeda.” And on September 14th, 2001, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood signed an Arabic statement condemning the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (Although some were unsatisfied by the fact that the statement was also signed by the founder of Hamas, and did not mention Usama Bin Ladin.)

Now, there is contrary “evidence” out there. For example, the Jamestown Foundation’s Global Terrorism Monitor in 2006 published an article that included a statement by an Egyptian member of parliament named Ragab Hilal Himaida, whom it called a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Himaida said, “From my point of view, bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi are not terrorists in the sense accepted by some. I support all their activities since they are a thorn in the side of the Americans and the Zionists.” This kind of statement would indeed be very powerful evidence of coziness between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, if Himaida were a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he is nothing of the sort, but is rather a thoroughly discredited, corrupt, rabble-rousing pol from downtown Cairo who was not only most emphatically not a member of the Brotherhood, but reportedly on the payroll of the Egyptian security services.

I want to be careful here. Just because the MB opposes al-Qaeda does not mean that they agree with us on the definition of terrorism. For example, they view both Hamas and Hezbollah as freedom fighters whose acts of violence are legitimate forms of resistance against what they see as Israeli occupation. In August 2006, former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mahdi Akef even declared that he was ready to send 10,000 (ten thousand) Brothers to fight alongside Hezbollah in its war against Israel. He didn’t, of course. But the sentiment reveals the gulf between us and the Brotherhood on this issue. I would add that the Brotherhood’s view on this particular issue is not a fringe view in Egyptian society. This is something we’ll have to deal with in the new Middle East, but I don’t think it will prevent us from defending our friends and our interests.

Are the Muslim Brothers committed to democracy? If you talk to Muslim Brotherhood members today, they will tell you, as one of their leaders said a few years ago, that they are committed to “the peaceful alternation of power via ballot boxes within the framework of a constitutional parliamentarian republic.” This is a departure from the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, the fiery Brotherhood ideologue in the 1950s and 60s, who believed that democracy was a blasphemous, manmade invention that was incompatible with the rule of God’s law.

Now, some have argued that the Brotherhood’s tender words about democracy are instances of taqiyya (dissembling) and kitman (concealment). They say that the Islamists only support one man, one vote, one time—that once they get into power, they will abrogate democracy for everyone else. I am not sure how we can resolve this, because it requires us to read the Brotherhoods minds and peer into their hearts. I will, however, point to two facts: first, the Brotherhood has run in plenty of elections, does not engage in violence when it loses, and promises to continue doing so. Second, the Egyptian people would likely not remain silent if any group tried to rob them of the freedoms they fought for in Tahrir Square, and the Brotherhood probably knows this very well.

Are the Muslim Brothers poised to dominate Egyptian elections? If knowing whether the Brotherhood is really committed to democracy requires us to be mind-readers, then knowing whether they’d win the upcoming elections is even harder, because it requires us to be fortune-tellers. We have no way of knowing how the Brothers would perform in a free and fair election. My research on the 2005 elections—which were among the freest in recent memory—reveals a few facts that militate against the predictions of Islamist dominion:

First, though the movement captured 88 out of 444 seats in those elections, this was with less than 25 percent turnout. In total, between 2.5 and 3 million Egyptians voted for the Brothers, out of approximately 32 million eligible voters. On the other hand, the Brotherhood only competed for 160 seats in that legislature—had they run for more seats, they almost certainly would have earned more votes.

Second, on average, even the most electorally successful Muslim Brotherhood candidates won only small pluralities of the vote on the first round of balloting. I’ll repeat, any attempt to infer future performance from past results is risky, but it is safe to say that in past elections, even in districts where the Muslim Brotherhood eventually won, more people generally voted against the Brotherhood (for candidates of the ruling party or for local notables) than for it.

Looking ahead to Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections: The movement has promised to seek neither the presidency nor a parliamentary majority, but it is as yet unclear how many parliamentary candidates they will nominate in September (at one point they said they’d only run for a third of the seats, I am now seeing statements saying they may seek up to half of the seats). As the most organized political party in Egypt, there is every reason to expect the Brothers to do well. However, recent splits in the organization—between liberals and conservatives, young members and the old guard—may compromise the movement’s electoral effectiveness.

Where does this leave us? Where we began. The Muslim Brotherhood, as I said at the outset, is a religious group and political party in a poor, dependent country. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not particularly friendly to American power or culture, but neither is it in a position to threaten either of these things. It has a vision for Egypt that we might consider retrograde, but it claims to want to achieve this vision through the electoral process, and so far its behavior has borne this out. Whether Egyptians will be receptive to the Brotherhood’s agenda is an open question, but evidence from previous elections reveals that Egyptians have a wide range of political preferences and affiliations and the Brotherhood cannot claim to represent a majority of them. My belief is that we should be concerned less with gauging the Muslim Brotherhood “threat” than with helping to ensure that Egypt’s democratic institutions are healthy, durable, and invulnerable to any group (Islamist or not) that may try to subvert them.

Tarek Masoud

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Tarek Masoud.

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