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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

The Muslim Brotherhood: Struggling to Steer a Democratic Course

Struggling to Steer

The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest political opposition organization in many Arab states, particularly Egypt. Now splits within the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political group indicate that it is at a decisive crossroads.
The strain of the repression is, however, starting to take its toll on the Brotherhood. Splits within the Egyptian movement after Supreme Guide Mohammed Mahdi Akef announced that he would not stand for re-election in January of next year have spilled onto the pages of the Egyptian media. Conservatives in the movement blocked Akef’s nomination of a leading reformer to the movement’s leadership council.”This is dangerously short-sighted. It weakens the foundations of democracy as a whole … and has a corrosive effect on public freedoms, transparency and accountability,” Marc Lynch, an expert on the Brotherhood at Washington’s George Washington University, told Deutsche Welle. That, however, may well be the purpose of the crackdown.

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“It is in the (Egyptian) government’s advantage to keep the Brotherhood ultra-conservative,” Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian expert on radical Islam, told Deutsche Welle. “The more democratic the group gets, the more popular it will become in the country.”

Carnegie Endowment’s Ottaway notes that repression by Arab governments coupled with their own inexperience in formulating polices has ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood has little to show for its endorsement of the democratic process.”The present weakening of Islamist parties that sought to participate in the political system is not a positive development for the future of political reform in the Arab world. Because the secular opposition is extremely ineffectual everywhere, the weakening of Islamist forces means the weakening of all opposition, and governments are unlikely to reform if they do not confront domestic pressure and demands,” Ottaway says.

Privately, several European officials and diplomats say they favor integration of moderate Islamists into the political life of the Arab world. They note that the Brothers in Egypt and Jordan are seeking non-violent ways to survive government repression. In Palestine, Hamas, the only Brotherhood group holding political office, is struggling to cater to the needs of 1.5 million mostly destitute Palestinians under its rule.

“The castrated American political system lacks the ability to act with conviction on the really tough issues so as to talk to all actors; Europe is not so emasculated, and should avoid at all costs following the United States’ route to impotent self-marginalization,” Khouri said.

While widely praised as competent, critics fear that Ashton, until her appointment, the EU’s relatively low key trade commissioner, who is widely seen as lacking significant foreign policy experience, may find it difficult to unite the EU’s 27 member states on bold approaches toward the Middle East like an opening towards the region’s Islamist forces.

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