“When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics” – A conversation with Nathan J. Brown

Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author who specializes in Islamist movements, Palestinian politics, and Arab law and constitutionalism. He discussed his new book, “When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics.”

Brown began his talk with the question “Why would the Muslim Brotherhood decide to participate in politics?” To begin to answer this question, he offered some background on the organization’s strategy and aims. Hassan al-Banna, the organization’s founder, sought to create a powerful movement with a strong and committed membership base. The slogan that decorates the bottom half of their emblem is not the well known “Islam is the Solution,” but rather “Be Prepared”- the same sloganof the Boy Scouts of America. According to Brown, the Brotherhood places a large focus on the idea of “self-improvement,” an ideal that is oft times best pursued outside the realm of politics.

One of the biggest changes that took place in Egypt over the last 20years has been the rebirth of politics and greater engagement and awareness among the Egyptian people, Brown asserted. Limited press freedoms were granted, and political systems opened up a bit. However, the decision to participate often came with the understanding that, as Brown put it, “you could participate in elections as long as you recognized that you’d lose.” Nonetheless, the benefit of elections for the government was that they would bring opposition groups out into the open. For these groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, the decision to participate in elections was not necessarily to win and govern, but to gain media access, the ability to promote their agenda openly, and the development of a movement that knew how to utilize the media and organize supporters. At the end of the day, the Brotherhood proved that the assets they had could in fact be deployed even in semi-authoritarian elections.

To illustrate the way the Muslim Brotherhood approached elections, Brown offered an anecdote in whichhe described a visit to Egypt a few years ago during an election. When he sought to meet with leaders of the opposition, leftist and secular parties were more than happy to dedicate time to meeting with him. On the other hand, the Brotherhood was too focused on the election to dedicate time for a meeting. For the Brotherhood, their strategy when it came to elections was as follows: “just tell us what the rules are.” Brown described a willingness among Islamist groups to merelytry their hand at elections. He asserted that even in Palestinian politics, Hamas subscribed to a “tell us what the rules are” strategy when it came to elections, and that to this day they are privately ashamed of the violence that ensued against their fellow Palestinians in 2007.

Transitioning into more recent phenomena, Brown asked how the Brotherhood would be effected by the new environment in Egypt and how they will affect this new environment. The positions they took in this regard were often non-committing. In the weeks and months after the revolution on January 25, 2011, the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood puzzled observers. Officially, the Brotherhood straddled the middle ground. While did not officially participate in the protests early on, they permitted individual members to do so. Later, however, they switched their position and fully endorsed the revolution. Another instance of this “non-committing” politics was illustrated when then-Vice President Omar Suleiman called a meeting with opposition leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to negotiate terms that would placate the demonstrators and keep the regime in power. Surprisingly, the Brotherhood accepted this invitation, yet insisted that they were only there to listen and not to negotiate. According to Brown, despite their notoriety when it came to the Egyptian opposition over the decades, the Brotherhood approached the revolution with a strategy of “living with participation, not domination.”

The nature of the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in this new order continues to raise questions both internally and externally. In general, the organization’s stated goals are to improve society, raise religious awareness and practice, and commit to charitable causes. The question, therefore, is how the organization can square itself as a political party with such a broad agenda. According to Brown, many in the organization fear that if they go too far down a political path, they may encounter problems with holding up their broad mission. The verdict among many in the Brotherhood is that they simply cannot invest all of their energy and people into a political party. As the opportunity for greater political participation appears to open up, the trick will be to balance their broad mission and reforms in an environment in whichpolitical opportunities seem ever more tempting. For society, the challenge is how they can integrate the Muslim Brotherhood into a pluralist party environment. In the case of Ennahda, the Islamist party that recently won a majority of seats in Tunisia’s elections, they have successfully managed to work with other parties to form a coalition. As an analogy, Brown described the similarities between the Islamist parties of today and the Christian parties in Europe 100 years ago. While he rejected the analogy that some Islamists make to the Christian Democrats today in Germany, namely because Germany has established rules and competitive politics, he asserted that these parties a century ago really did challenge the system and similarly had to decide the extent to which they wanted to influence politics. These parties, like the Islamist parties of today, were similarly difficult to integrate and the road to democracy was not an easy one. To understand the way the European system evolved into what it is today with respect to Christian parties, and to likewise understand the potential path that today’s Islamist parties can take, one must not confuse “cause” and “effect.” In Brown’s view, it’s the evolution of political systems that helps shape the ideology of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, and not the other way around.

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