- The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined?
For years, scholars have wondered whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a genuinely democratic organization — as it claims — or rather seeks to use democratic procedures to pursue undemocratic ends. And for years, answering this question has been difficult — nay, impossible — for two principal reasons. The first was simply that commitments to democracy (and other beliefs) cannot be observed directly. The next best thing, of course, is to observe behavior, but prior to the January 25, 2011 revolution that unseated Mubarak, there were no opportunities to see precisely how the Brotherhood would behave if granted a share of power. The second difficulty is that scholars studying the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in the post-September 11 climate of Islamophobia, have been forced to be cautious in their treatment of the movement, taking at face value its claims, and generally resisting critical inquiry for fear of contributing to a general and unhealthy suspicion of all things Islamic.
Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has seized power in Egypt, it has gone from being an oppressed group worthy of sympathy [End Page 142] to a political actor that warrants the closest scrutiny. Oft-repeated Brotherhood platitudes, such as the movement’s reported desire for “participation, not domination,” have come to seem hollow in the face of actions such as President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to grant himself extraordinary powers, or the Brotherhood’s partnering with Salafists to produce a highly illiberal constitution. In the face of such actions, the need for critical scholarship on the Muslim Brotherhood could not be more urgent. Mariz Tadros’ book thus comes at the perfect time. Critical without being alarmist, deeply knowledgeable about the movement and the various ideological streams within it, and wise about its (and Egypt’s) future prospects, this volume is essential reading for anyone interested in this movement. Given that the Brotherhood will likely occupy the pole position in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future, this means that the audience for this book should be very large indeed.
Though the book begins with the now obligatory chapter rehearsing the oft-told story of Egypt’s revolution, the heart of the text are the chapters dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood’s views on Copts, political pluralism, and gender. In all of them, the author is exquisitely sensitive to the multi-vocal nature of the Brotherhood, canvassing a wide variety of sources in order to generate a detailed picture of the full (albeit, often narrow) spectrum of Brotherhood beliefs on these issues. The portrait she draws is of a highly pragmatic movement that has changed in response to changing political circumstances, but which nonetheless remains bound by a highly conservative worldview. She argues that Brotherhood adaptations to things such as democracy or women’s rights should be viewed less as evolutions than as temporary accommodations, to be reversed when the movement is possessed of the requisite strength to do so.
Though this perspective may seem, on the surface, similar to those who argue that the Brotherhood practices taqiyya [dissimulation] and kitman [concealment], Tadros eschews such terms. The account offered here suggests that there is nothing intentionally misleading about the Brotherhood’s behavior, and her deep surveys of Muslim Brotherhood texts reveal that the movement’s intellectuals have been transparent about their long-term aspirations throughout. What Tadros calls us to do, then, is to take the Muslim Brotherhood seriously — to attend to what it leaders and intellectuals actually say. This book is thus an important corrective to both those who make the Brotherhood out to be more liberal than it is, and those who make it out to be secretive (and thus sinister) about its aims.
At the same time, the author’s focus on Brotherhood-affiliated scholars means that she gives relatively short shrift to the movement’s political leaders — current Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, speaker of parliament Saad al-Katatni, or Brotherhood mastermind and deputy general guide Khairat al-Shatir get only cursory mentions, even though these are the...