Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Playing Mubarak's Games

Earlier this week, an Egyptian opposition blogger was abducted, beaten, and left in the streets to bleed. Today, the Egyptian government suddenly released from prison (Arabic) a key leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such is the arbitrary brutality of the Mubarak regime.

The blogger, Kareem el-Shae'r, moderates the Free Egypt blog and is a member of the el-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. The liberal, secular el-Ghad party is led by Ayman Nour, who mounted a historic and unsuccessful campaign against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first mutli-party presidential election in 2005. Nour was jailed for his chutzpah after the election on trumped up charges, only to be finally released this year. Beyond imprisoning Nour, the regime has sought to discredit and intimidate the el-Ghad party, as exemplified by the beating of el-Shae'r.*

The Muslim Brotherhood leader, Dr. Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, serves as a member of the MB's Guidance Council. Currently, the MB is split between two ideological camps: a conservative faction that favors cultivating Islam within the organization and a reformist camp that seeks greater political participation outside the organization. Abul Futouh heads the reformist camp, and for that reason, was jailed by the government as a threat to the regime.

There is inconsistent tendency amongst some Western observers to criticize Mubarak for repressing secular democrats such as Ayman Nour while ignoring the offenses committed against Islamist opposition figures like Abul Futouh.

On some emotional level, our inconsistency makes sense. We understandably empathize with people who share our secular, liberal values. In turn, it is harder to commiserate with adherents to political Islam, an ideology we Americans find foreign and even threatening. But we must remember, repression is repression. We should be repulsed by the methods of repression, not its victims.

In fact, President Mubarak hopes that we distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' repression. For 28 years, he has painted himself as our only option in Egypt. He claims Islamists pose a mortal threat and the secularists are too weak to stop their spread. Therefore, we have no choice but to support his reign as our indispensable ally.

But it's a tricky game he plays. For one, he doesn't explain why the secular opposition is so weak (that's because he's the primary reason). And two, he purposefully paints the Muslim Brotherhood as violent-prone zealots. To be fair, some of their members are nothing short of unsavory. But there are other Brothers, such as Abul Futouh, who represent a moderate Islamist voice.

Except we're not listening. Despite Mubarak's fearmongering, the reformist camp within the Muslim Brotherhood represents some of Egypt's most fervent democrats. For example, Brotherhood blogger Abdel-Monem Mahmoud (who has also spent time in jail) writes:

We have an established principle in Islam which is equivalent to democracy — it’s Shura. This means that we, as young MBs, firmly believe that the only way we can come to power is through ballot boxes. And if we came to power and didn’t live up to the electorate’s expectations, we would be removed from power also through ballot boxes. We will not remain in power for ever, or abuse it.

With such a powerful affirmation of democracy, it's no wonder Mubarak fears the reformist camp in the Muslim Brotherhood just as much, if not more, than the secular opposition. It is a wonder, however, why the U.S. buys into Mubarak's games. If we can talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sunni militias in Iraq - groups that actively seek to kill our troops - why can't we talk to the non-violent Muslim Brotherhood? What do we have to fear from the likes of Abul Futouh and Monem?

*I'm not aware of any physical proof the regime was responsible for the beating, but it's a safe bet they were involved somehow.

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