The Brothers Lurk

By Elliot Jager
Monday, November 22, 2010

November is election month not just in the United States but also in Jordan and Egypt. On November 9 Jordanians voted overwhelmingly to fill their parliament with loyalists of King Abdullah II. Egyptians will go to the polls on November 28 to elect the People's Assembly, and there is little doubt that Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic party will remain in control.

As a result of policies in both countries that have sidelined comparatively liberal reformist elements, the only viable opposition faced by the Abdullah and Mubarak dynasties has been the benighted Muslim Brotherhood. Mindful that Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, won 58 percent of the vote in free Palestinian elections in 2006, both regimes have severely restricted the movement's activities in their own countries.  

Founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, the Brotherhood preaches pan-Islam, a worldwide Caliphate, the application of Sharia law in daily life and politics—and jihad. In the 1950s and 60s, the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb fine-tuned the Brotherhood's Sunni doctrines to emphasize opposition to Western values. Naturally, anti-Zionism has been integral to the movement since the 1930s and remains a rallying cry.

Today's Brotherhood aims for a legitimate persona, playing down calls to violence and dissociating itself from the movement's two most infamous devotees, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. While frank about Sharia law, the Brotherhood in Egypt insists that "under current circumstances" it has no ambitions to rule the country.

On Election Day in Jordan, a national holiday, candidate posters provided a façade of widespread political activity. In fact, Jordanian authorities had encouraged Brotherhood candidates to participate, but the movement's local affiliate, the Islamic Action Front, declared a boycott on the grounds that new government rules and freshly gerrymandered districts limited its electoral possibilities. Violence was low, and turnout was a credible 53 percent nationally, though much lower in the urban and heavily Palestinian areas that are Brotherhood strongholds. The only missing elements: a genuine opposition, and any prospect of the newly-elected parliament's exercising authority independent of the monarchy. Notably, candidates across the political spectrum campaigned against the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty and in support of resistance to "the Zionist entity."

In contrast to Jordan's more subtle strategy, Egyptian authorities have prepared for the upcoming balloting by incarcerating Brotherhood leaders and unleashing their heavies to beat up activists as they hang campaign posters. Foreign monitoring of the Egyptian vote will not be tolerated. This year, however, in order to create a semblance of competition, the ruling party is allowing intramural contests within constituencies. Despite similar obstacles in 2005, the Brotherhood managed to capture 20 percent of the Assembly, and this year independent candidates tied to the movement have successfully filed paperwork to contest 30 percent of the Assembly's seats. As in Jordan, the Egyptian Brotherhood mines for support among the great masses of economically downtrodden.

Neither regime appears in imminent danger of being destabilized by the Brotherhood, but the pragmatism and patience of the Islamists are more than enough to give one pause. A striking manifestation of their common-sense approach is Hamas's theological justification for an alliance with Iran. Far from treating the Shiite Persian regime as schismatic, the Sunni Palestinian Brotherhood has emphasized such commonalities as the fact that Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei translated the writings of Sayyid Qutb into Persian.

What does all this mean? Sooner or later, unless Middle East autocrats find a way to foster some form of representative government and empower reformist elements prepared to reach an accommodation with modernity, the fanatics will come to power. For Israel, certainly, it would be preferable to face hard-hearted reformists across the bargaining table than jihadists across the battlefield. What with Iranian imperial ambitions now dangerously melding with those of the Brotherhood, sooner is looking sooner every day.

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