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Egypt’s Islamist movement controlled the country’s levers of power just weeks ago, but the Muslim Brotherhood is facing a crisis in the wake of the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. As the West and Egypt’s neighbors look on, this historically nonviolent movement now finds itself under fire from both military leaders and the Egyptian populace itself. We dissect the complex crisis enveloping the world’s most influential Islamist movement, and find out what options its leaders may pursue in coming days.
- Nathan Brown Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, reflections of the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom with Martin Luther King's lawyer and speech writer for that speech, Clarence B. Jones and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was a volunteer for that march who worked with the chief organizer of the march.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, just weeks ago, the Middle East's most influential Islamist movement controlled Egypt's levers of power. Bur the Muslim Brotherhood is now a party on the run following the ouster of its leader and the violent crackdown on its followers. For 85 years the Brotherhood wielded religious and social influence as it waited for its chance to take the political reins. That chance has now come and gone. And embittered followers may now be eschewing the party's policy of nonviolence to take revenge on religious minorities.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's an existential crisis that has the Brotherhood's leaders grappling to regain their footing while the West try to hedge its best under a cloud of uncertainty. So what's next for the Muslim Brotherhood and what impact will the Brotherhood's rise and fall from power have on the political and religious life of the Middle East? Joining us to discuss these issues is Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He's also author of "When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics." Nathan Brown, thank you for joining us.
MR. NATHAN BROWNThanks for having me.
NNAMDINathan, the latest news is that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed two years ago during the Arab Spring uprising, was released from prison this morning. He was flown by helicopter to a military hospital in Cairo and placed under house arrest. Can you explain the timing of this release and the reaction in Egypt?
BROWNWell, I can't really explain the timing. I mean, there certainly were legal mechanisms that were at place and those legal mechanisms kind of come to an end. He had not been convicted of a crime. There would have been possibility for the prosecution to try to keep me detained further but I think this is probably more -- or better seen as a political rather than a legal move. The simple fact is that the political context in Egypt today is very different from the one when he was arrested.
BROWNAs for the reaction, we'll see. This was a tremendously emotional issue for many Egyptians in 2011 and 2012. A lot of Egyptians have moved on. The core constituency for the Egyptian revolution back in 2011 however is likely to see this as a betrayal and a reversal.
NNAMDIHowever, there doesn't seem to be the kind of interest in what Hosni Mubarak's ultimate destination or fate will be that there was two years ago. What do you think that's an indication of?
BROWNWell, I mean, in many ways, Egypt has moved on. It's in the middle of a very different set of political conflicts right now. In addition, it's also an atmosphere both politically of repressed dissent and harassment of dissenters. And in a sense you can say socially as well. The new regime in Egypt has tremendous support from public opinion and it's creating an atmosphere in which it's difficult to make your voice heard if you're going against the current.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Was the Muslim Brotherhood's ouster in Egypt a good thing or was it a violation, in your view, of the democratic process? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badie and about 100 other Brotherhood leaders has prompted reports that this 85-year-old organization is on the brink of collapse. Are supporters really rudderless at this point, Nathan Brown, or is that an exaggeration?
BROWNI think they are rudderless, at least short term. I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood, you could say, is the most successful nongovernment organization in Arab history. It has an incredible ability to sustain itself to remake itself to new circumstances. So long term the organization may still survive. But the fact is right now this is a top-heavy organization, one that is run by a very small number of people. And a lot of those people right now are in prison. Some are being held incommunicado. And so this almost military-like chain of command has been decapitated.
NNAMDII read an interesting quote from a Cairo resident recently who said that Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood split Egypt into Islamists and non-Islamists during the Brotherhood's time in power. The man said, quoting here, "Our conflict was a political conflict. They switched it to a religious conflict," unquote. Would you say that's an accurate description?
BROWNI think that Egyptian society did become very polarized. I wouldn't lay primary, and certainly not sole responsibility at the feet of the Brotherhood. I would still see it primarily as a political conflict however. The vast majority of Egyptians are religious or will at least say that they believe very strongly in Islam or Christianity. And I don't think that has changed very much. The real question has to do with the role of Islam in public life and especially who speak for Islam in public life. That's what the conflict is and that's really, I think, more of a political conflict than a religious one.
NNAMDIThe Muslim Brotherhood has come close to extinction before. Can you give us a little historical context of how this crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood compares with period ones?
BROWNWell, yes. I mean, there have been periodic crackdowns since the organization was found in 1928. The first one came about 20 years after the founding, when the Brotherhood was accused, probably correctly, of involvement in terrorist activity. So the government shut it down and banned it. It reemerged -- never actually really became fully legal again until very recently but it reemerged in the 1950s. And then was forced underground again by the new regime that came to power in Egypt in 1952, a new military regime. It would reappear periodically and be crushed again.
BROWNThe most recent crackdown before the present one I would say would be in the last years of the Mubarak regime when the organization still maintained an office. Most of -- some of its top leaders were allowed to operate but there was a string of arrests. They weren't allowed to do much publishing. They weren't allowed to do much organizing and so on. So it's really, I think, almost a cat and mouse game between a regime that wanted to retain control and a brotherhood that was just trying to find any way that it could continue operating.
BROWNIn some ways, the current crackdown is a departure from the cat and mouse game of the Mubarak years, of the Sadat years and a return back to the '40s and '50s when there were attempts to shut down the organization as a whole.
NNAMDIAnd I get the impression -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- that both the military in Egypt now and its supporters, the public opinion that favored the removal of Mohammad Morsi from power, are of the opinion that having been given the opportunity to operate in a democratic environment as the majority party in a government, the Muslim Brotherhood in their view has failed the test of participation in the democratic process. So that even though in the West and just about every place else, people are saying that the Muslim Brotherhood has to be a part of any new coalition that comes together in Egypt.
NNAMDIOne get the impression that that is not the view that the military and a lot of its supporters hold at this point. they want to see the Muslim Brotherhood out of the political or the electoral political environment completely.
BROWNI think that is true. And it's a little bit of a surprise for me because the Brotherhood have basically, in the years since the Egyptian revolution, managed to establish itself as the normal political actor in Egyptian politics. I was in Egypt in June when the demonstrations were being organized that eventually resulted in Morsi's ouster. And I remember having this conversation with plenty of Egyptians where they would say, he has to go now. It wasn't necessarily that he failed on democratic grounds, although that criticism was made by some, but he failed in all other kinds of ways.
BROWNHe had failed to improve the economy, failed to provide jobs. The country was deteriorating rapidly and so forth and so on. And what I would say is, okay, I understand this and in a democratic system the remedy for that is to wait until the next election. And Egyptians would say, you know, all basic -- basically all non-Islamists, all non-Morsi supporters would say, we can't wait that long. He's got to go now. There's got to be a way of removing him on an emergency basis.
BROWNSo in a sense they were saying, democracy doesn't work -- or the democratic mechanisms don't work for and don't address the extent of failure that Morsi represents. In a sense, we need revolutionary change. We need a rebellion against -- to bring him down rather than working through normal democratic channels.
NNAMDIDespite the U.S.'s condemnation of the ouster of Mohammad Morsi and the violence -- and the condemnation of the violence by the army that followed, does the U.S. and Egypt's neighbors possibly ultimately want this group out of the picture completely?
BROWNIt really depends on who you're talking about. I think the United States and most European states had come to terms with the fact that the Brotherhood was leading Egypt. And the Brotherhood had found a way to give reassuring signals to Western powers that it was not going to try to upset the regional order in any radical way any time soon. So I don't think the United States or the European powers were happy with the rise of the Brotherhood, but they came to accept it.
BROWNIn the region it's a little bit of a different story. Certainly there were some states, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, who really viewed the rise of the Brotherhood as a real threat. And they wanted to see Morsi gone no matter what. So I would say that what -- especially in the case of the United States, the attitude has been, you know, just tell us who your leaders are. And as long as they're stable and don't upset the regional order and as long as they don't violate human rights in any egregious way, we can probably deal with them.
BROWNWhereas Saudi Arabia, the UAE most particularly, but also so other states in the region said, we cannot deal with the Brotherhood. We need that man gone.
NNAMDIWhat is the threat that those states feel from the Brotherhood?
BROWNThat's a little bit less clear because there's several different levels to it. I mean, these are regimes that are monarchies and so I think any kind of elected government is one that they don't necessarily think that -- I mean, they don't necessarily view democracy as legitimating anybody's rule. Saudi Arabia in particular has a particular brand of Islam. And my guess is an Islamist movement that represents a very different brand is one that the Saudis look at with suspicion.
BROWNAnd in addition, they charge that the Brotherhood, when it was suppressed in the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of their leaders went to Saudi Arabia and the Saudis took them in. And the Saudi regime now says they created all kinds of problems when they were here. A lot of the Saudi opposition movements have their roots in the Brotherhood so this is a headache that Egypt tends to export and we don't need it.
NNAMDIThey also seem to espouse the view that the Brotherhood cares more about its Islamist philosophy than it does about the concept of the nation's state and that Muslim Brotherhood empower in Egypt emboldens and empowers the Muslim Brotherhood wherever it is. Could that be one of their concerns?
BROWNI think there is some concern. The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational movement, that if the Brotherhood rises in Egypt, similar kinds of movements are going to arise elsewhere. You hear that criticism particularly strongly in Egypt. And you heard it from General el-Sisi, basically the new military leader of Egypt or the -- he's legally defense minister but he is in essence I think probably the most powerful figure in the country right now. And he made that charge directly, that the Brotherhood is not really an Egyptian organization. It wants to revive the entire Islamic community, the entire Islamic nation.
BROWNI think it's a charge that has some basis if you take a look at Brotherhood ideological documents in the past. I don't think it's based on their current behavior.
NNAMDILet's talk religious for a second. There are -- we heard reports in the past day or so that Christian churches are being burned around Egypt, the implication being that members of the Brotherhood are taking revenge for their leader's ouster. Could the Brotherhood's traditional commitment to nonviolence be cracking here?
BROWNI think it may be fraying. I'm not sure it's going to shatter. In terms of the attacks on churches, there's absolutely no doubt that that is taking place. The question is, who is responsible? Brotherhood supporters have a conspiracy theory. They say this is the government doing it in order to make us look bad. I don't think that's credible at all. That doesn't mean, however, that the Brotherhood itself is directly responsible. Whether they're Brotherhood members or simply Islamists who hold the Brotherhood responsible is much less clear.
BROWNIt is clear that some Brotherhood leaders gave absolutely irresponsible and incendiary rhetoric where they were holding Christians responsible for the overthrow of Mohammad Morsi. So the Brotherhood, I think, can be charged very fairly with incitement but whether they're actually carrying out the attacks is much less clear.
NNAMDIHow about minority Shiites? Under Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, minority Shiites felt they were under increased threat. Now that the Brotherhood is out of power do the Shiites have more -- reason to be more hopeful?
BROWNI don't think so. No, because the threat didn't really come from the Brotherhood. The number of Egyptian Shiites is actually fairly small. Almost all Muslims in Egypt are Sunni rather than Shiite Muslims. But there are some small pockets in various places. They've never really had any kind of recognition in Egyptian public life, which Egypt identifies very, very strongly as a Sunni country.
BROWNThe attacks -- and there was a massacre actually in June of some Shiites in a village outside of Cairo. Those didn't come from the Brotherhood itself. I think the Brotherhood sees itself as a Sunni organization so if I were an Egyptian Shiite, I wouldn't look to the Brotherhood for protection. But it's not clear that the new regime is going to be any more protective of their rights or of their security than the old one.
NNAMDINathan Brown. He's a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He's also the author of "When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics." Nathan Brown, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the attorney and speech writer for Martin Luther King at the time of the March on Washington. And Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was one of the volunteers helping to coordinate that march. Join us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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