article

02.03.11

America's Naivete About Egypt

Don’t buy the hype about the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Kirsten Powers on why the U.S. should worry about the rise of an Islamic power in Cairo. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt unrest.

Americans are notoriously naïve.

This is the message I am getting from people I know in Egypt today.

When the protests first began in Egypt, I was in constant contact with an Egyptian relative who is a successful businessman, university professor and astute student of world politics. As my husband and I panicked for our family’s safety, this relative was calm, assuring me that Hosni Mubarak would appoint an interim government and that there would likely be an important role for Omar Suileman, who is a well respected leader in Egypt. Both these things quickly came true. Day after day he assured me that everything would be fine. He was sure that the Muslim Brotherhood—which he regards as a radical Islamist group – was not organized enough to gain any significant power.

Today, he was not so calm. Our family in Egypt is shocked and alarmed by what they are hearing from Western voices and even the apparent leading opposition candidate Mohamed ElBaradei—who has partnered with the Muslim Brotherhood -- who claim that the Brotherhood is a moderate group that should not be feared.

As Coptic Christians—native Egyptians who comprise the largest religious minority in the Middle East—they are especially attuned to the double-speak of Islamist groups trying to attain power.

As a liberal, I have a very hard time with the idea that I’m not supposed to care about a potential government that is oppressive to minorities and women.

During the last elections, the Brotherhood's slogan was “Islam is the solution.” Its logo is a black flag with a sword and the Koran.

This reminded me of a trip my husband and I made to Saudi Arabia last year. While driving in from the airport we passed a gigantic statue of a gold sword. I asked our guide what the inscription said, and he told me that it was from the Koran and translated to, “Sometimes the sword is better than words.”

Gulp.

I spent much of yesterday interviewing American experts on the region—including two Brookings Institution scholars who are experts on the Muslim Brotherhood—and was reassured over and over that the organization has reformed and does not seek to establish a fundamentalist state. One claimed that Brotherhood officials have said they view Copts as equal citizens.

My relative laughed at this. He says when Brotherhood members have been asked about how they would treat Christians they are vague. When asked about whether they would nationalize the banks, they are vague. Even one of the Brookings scholars told me that the Brotherhood would probably segregate the sexes. This is far from a secular group.

Our family in Egypt always makes the point that if the current regime—which is considered moderate and quasi-secular—arrests people who convert from Islam to Christianity, what do you think it will be like if power is seized by a group that has as its explicit goal the spread of Islam?

One of the things I consistently hear from the Egyptian Christians I know is that Islamists know the right things to say in order to gain power. They are sophisticated. They are especially astute at telling Westerners what they want to hear.

I saw this also when I was in Saudi Arabia. Our guide told us repeatedly that Saudi Arabia was reforming and that it was becoming a more open society. This was the story he sold us day after day. Never mind that women can’t drive or that restaurants are segregated or that the religious police hit women with a baton if they think they aren’t appropriately covered. They are known to cut men’s hair right on the street if they deem it too long. My husband had his passport taken away in the airport for wearing shorts, and the authorities wouldn’t give it back to him until he changed. If a Muslim converts to any other religion, the punishment is the death penalty.

Open society indeed.

Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institute scholar and expert on the Muslim Brotherhood (which he maintains is not radical) made the case to me that Egypt is a very Islamic country, and if the people want an Islamic government that is their choice. It’s not for the U.S. to decide.

As a liberal, I have a very hard time with the idea that I’m not supposed to care about a potential government that is oppressive to minorities and women. I also do not support theocracies—Muslim, Christian or otherwise even if they aren't fundamentalist. If find it strange that so many American liberals aren’t concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated mission to “spread Islam.” It’s hard to imagine them being so unconcerned about a Christian political group with the stated mission of establishing a Christian theocracy gaining power in a new government.

If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to evangelize Islam on its own time that is fine; but it shouldn't be able to use government power to do so. I should also note that it is already against the law for Christians to share their faith in Egypt—and that’s under a quasi-secular government. (Human Rights Watch last year accused Egypt of “widespread discrimination” against Christians and other religious minorities.)

This isn’t to say that Mubarak deserves our support. He's an oppressive dictator. But all the Americans who are supporting the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the new government need to understand who they really are. Beyond my own personal concern for the treatment of Christians and women, fundamentalist Islamic governments generally aren’t known for being pro-American.

I shared with my Egyptian relative that most experts I spoke to here believe that Turkey is the model that Egypt will follow.

Again, laughter.

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.