Just a year ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was an illegal organization in Egypt. Like his predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Nasser, President Hosni Mubarak kept tight control over religious organizations of every stripe, whether they engaged in underground military activity or if they sought to participate in the civil political process. Muslim Brotherhood activists who wanted to run in elections did so as independents.
Yesterday and today, with the opening of the polling stages for the first stage of elections to Egypt's lower house of Parliament, brought an end to an era in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, which constantly strove to achieve power ever since it was founded in 1928. If the Muslim Brotherhood can achieve Demo-Islam - democracy and Islam - they have the ability to lead Egypt to the next stage. Anyone wondering whether the mix of religion and politics is possible does not have to look far - it is enough to look at Jerusalem.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is now entering Egyptian politics through the front door, is not the organization of the stormy 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In 1949, they assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha, and King Farouk had the organization's founder, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, killed in response. A year earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood sent men to fight in Palestine, where they could not resist the IDF or prevent the Nakba of Israel's independence and the Palestinians' catastrophe. A few years later, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate Nasser, who had the would-be assassins executed.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab world has undergone upheaval since then. The Muslim Brotherhood abandoned the armed struggle and became a civil movement that supported Egyptian citizens come rain or shine. During Ramadan, it distributes food to the poor, and it is the first to arrive at the scene of disasters with food, tents, and modest financial aid to the survivors. It has learned, with its limited resources, to offer citizens the main asset that the regime took away - empathy.
The Muslim Brotherhood's move from the opposition benches to positions of leadership has caused an internal storm. The movement must adopt a new language and updated political platform. Although Palestine will be pushed aside a bit in favor of existential problems, the new reality is liable to strain relations between Cairo and Jerusalem.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned the window of opportunity to free Gilad Shalit from Hamas, he saw this script in front of him - the Muslim Brotherhood taking the reins of power. However, it is premature to dump the Israel-Egypt peace treaty into the dustbin of history.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood has in past said that Israel is an illegitimate entity, its entry into politics has been accompanied by flexibility on this point. The Justice and Freedom Party, which represents the movement in the elections, has stated that it will honor "all international agreements and treaties" signed by Egypt. This clause is mainly directed at Israel.
Whatever Egyptian government that is formed will face serious challenges. The most difficult of all is economic recovery. The Egyptian revolution has incurred a heavy economic price, driving away tourists and investors. The country's currency reserves for 2012 are at a nadir, and the Cairo Alexandria Stock Exchange has lost billions of dollars in value this year. Cairo's economy largely depends on tourism, gas exports to Israel and Jordan, and taxes on transit of the Suez Canal.
Severing relations with Israel would be an act of national irresponsibility that would sabotage Egypt's existential interests. Except for fringe groups, the Egyptian public knows the advantages of the peace treaty, and is not demanding its government to abrogate it.
The Egyptian government will also need Israel's help in the difficult problem that has been developing in Sinai since the revolution in Cairo. The border zone with Gaza has become uncontrollable, where extremists seeking to seize power, operate. In the future, a Muslim Brotherhood government could serve as a more effective mediator than any of its predecessors in the difficult issues between Israel and Hamas.
One question that is still open is the future status of the Egyptian Army in politics. Its officers are striving to serve as an unofficial super-authority, a kind of shield of democracy if needed, similar to the Turkish Army. In the Kemalist era, Turkish generals carried out three coup d-etats, citing threats to national security or that democracy was falling into Islamic hands.
The Islamic parties running for election in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and even Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are remote from the Jihadists of Bin Laden and the Taliban. While it is possible to see the rise of the Islamic parties as a threat to Middle East peace, the fear is overblown. In the long term, the process will likely be seen as an important stage in Arab societies' transition from the grip of tyranny. After trying and failing to seize power through violence, political Islam has grown up from a bad boy into a responsible adult.
The writer is the Arab Affairs commentator for “IDF Radio" (Galei Zahal).
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 29, 2011
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011