Sitting on the sidelines as students and workers poured into Tahrir Square for the initial demonstrations that ultimately brought down Hosni Mubarak were the well organized cells of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, known in Arabic as the brothers, or the Ikhwan. Their leadership decided to hold back and see what developed in the protests. Why?
Among the many reasons considered by the Ikhwan leaders was probably the simple fact that the protesters in the square were not their people. Many of the protesters were secular democrats, some were even Coptic Christians. A large number were women. The Ikhwan has always stood for an Islamic religious state, where the government would enforce strict interpretations of Islamic law, not a place for secularists, Christians, or activist women. For decades their view of democracy had been as one possible means to gain power, but in the sense that the Algerian Islamists viewed elections: “one man, one vote, one time.”
When it was clear, however, that the Egyptian movement was powerful and might succeed, the Ikhwan joined in. They were invited to the table to negotiate with Mubarak’s Vice President. After Mubarak fell, they were invited to appoint a representative on the new committee to recommend constitutional change.
In his last years in power Mubarak had used the Ikhwan as a way of scaring the US. He posed the false dichotomy of “me or them.” As part of this strategy, Mubarak had allowed only the Ikhwan to run as an organized group against his own party. All other parties were banned. While he limited the Ikhwan to twenty per cent of the vote (there is no way to know what they actually polled), his strategy did help the Ikhwan. They built a cell structure throughout the country and, even though technically banned later, they continued to build and maintain a well organized, funded, and disciplined organization. No other political party did that.
Thus, despite their numbers, whatever they may be, their power is greater than those numbers alone would suggest. In many revolutions, it is the small, well disciplined party that ultimately emerges on top. Therefore, the US and Middle Eastern governments will need to watch the Ikhwan carefully.
Unfortunately for America’s National Clandestine Service (the clandestine arm of the CIA), the Ikhwan is difficult to penetrate with Americans. Information coming in from liaison services, friendly regional governments, may be colored by those governments’ agendas. Some of those governments, like Turkey perhaps, see the new Ikhwan as more like Turkey’s ruling Islamic party, willing to maintain a secular constitution and a multi-party state. Others, like the Gulf states, see the Ikhwan as an international conspiracy to establish caliphates, a secret society that has the long view, that has patiently infiltrated its members into positions of influence in finance, education, and government throughout the region.
Rather than debate who is right given the paucity of information available, the US had better make it a priority to find out and soon. Engagement with the Ikhwan is one way that may possibly increase our knowledge. US policy makers and intelligence officials should now be sitting down together to draw up the most well coordinated and creative collection and analysis effort the US government has run in decades. For the fate of a very crucial region and the future of many US allies, both Arab and Israeli, may rest on getting the right answer and then knowing what to do with it.