Mubarak Vs. The Muslim Brotherhood: Pigeonholing the Debate

George Berry

The discussion in the major American media sources concerning the protests in Egypt has been strange to watch. The Obama administration has certainly clouded the debate by taking contradictory positions — some in the same news cycle. Yet regardless of official policy, one would hope that our national discussion contained a strong pro-democracy voice and a willingness to pose basic questions about the goals and means of American foreign policy that follow directly from these events. This latter point is important considering that millions of Egyptians are condemning a regime that is propped up as a matter of American policy.

Instead, American media has latched onto the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest (or at least, a very large) threat produced by the Egyptian uprising, and this opinion has led to a very limited affirmation of a transition to a more democratic system. Fear of a descent into theocracy looms over the whole discussion — to quote Roger Cohen this week in the New York Times, are we seeing “Tehran 1979 or Berlin 1989?”

Of course, the American media doesn’t set policy — but our government’s history of supporting Hosni Mubarak, an anti-democratic leader, is far more tenable if we accept that there is a far graver threat in Egypt than Mubarak — the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Within this false dichotomy between Mubarak and an “Islamic threat,” supporting the Egyptian protesters becomes simply one view among many, rather than a moral obligation based on the democratic values we publicly profess as a country.

As a result, we have a policy (for now) backing Vice President Omar Suleiman, a CIA-trained former head of intelligence and part of the Mubarak regime since the 1980s. He is famous for living most of his career in secrecy and aiding extraordinary rendition programs under the Bush administration, and he is to be the caretaker of a “stable” transition to democracy. Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems to implicitly argue that support for Bush’s Egyptian ex-lackey is a better option than support for the dreaded Muslim Brotherhood.

Suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood ranges from overt to implicit, but by my count, there has been an astoundingly small amount of journalistic work in the American press concerned with finding out what the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood actually does. In contrast, Al Jazeera English and the Iranian state-backed PressTV frequently run interviews and profiles. There have been few opinion pieces in American papers that offer convincing facts to dispel the notion of an Islamic threat. Take Scott Atran’s piece this week in the Times, where he offers a “bumbling” Brotherhood that is fragmented, draws about 25 percent support, and benefits from the systematic elimination of other opposition. These are large assertions that demand at least a well-researched rebuttal.

Furthermore, no one has given an account of how this group will find the resources or legitimacy to commandeer a revolution that it certainly did not start. Yossi Klein Halevi, also writing in the Times, offers only a declaration that “it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, takes power.” Such a statement ignores the army’s role as arbiter of power and American influence on the Egyptian military — unless what we really fear is the Brotherhood as part of a governing coalition under a parliamentary system.

When American commentators are overtly pro-democracy, as they tend to be, the fear of theocracy still lurks in the background. A threat exists, they argue, but by carefully guiding the revolution, the U.S. can avoid the worst, An editorial in the Washington Post argues “Egypt’s Islamic threat cannot be discounted” before urging the administration to back the protesters as a hedge against Islamists.

Even in hard news, the tone is perpetually one of suspicion. The New York Times website Sunday morning ran the headline “Muslim Brotherhood Joins Egypt Talks.” This statement linked to a news piece with a different title, which discussed a meeting between Suleiman, Mohamed ElBaradei, Brotherhood representatives, and those refered to only as “leaders of the Egyptian democracy movement.” The article lauded the “secular impulses of the new youth movement” and related that hardly anything came of the talks except Suleiman’s ambiguity on the reform that President Obama has said “must begin now.” The whole debate has become framed around how to best avoid the “worst-case scenario” of Muslim Brotherhood control, the likelihood of which no one has taken the time to explain. Moreover, few have bothered to question how threatening or dangerous this group actually is, leaning on America’s preconceived assumptions to maintain our fear of anything with “Muslim” in the name. Now, before Americans are “allowed” to support meaningful democracy, the absence of all threats must be proved — and this is almost impossible to do in the face of dogmatic suspicion.