Two major national talk shows delved into questions about the Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday, hearing from the organization itself and an analyst who looked at its role in Syria and region-wide concerns about the region’s most influential Islamist group.
On CNN, Essam El Erian, a senior official from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood widely considered a spokesman for the organization’s more moderate wing, spoke to Fareed Zakaria about worries that the group would seek to leverage diplomatic support to implement religious law. “In Islam you don’t have a religious law. In Islam you have a civil law,” said El Erian. “Civil law means that the people have decisions in their parliament after giving them a reference in Islam or Sharia.”
“Non-Muslims, even infidels, in an Islamic state or a civil state with a background of sharia have equal rights and equal duties,” El Erian said, noting that while in some cases Sharia could relegate women to a lower status, but that other interpretations prescribed equality.
Asked about Egyptians’ concerns, El Erian said: “People are facing the unknown. The unknown is democracy, not Muslim Brotherhood… Suspicions are not towards us only, it is for everything.”
In a poll released today by Gallup, the Muslim Brotherhood garnered more support than other opposition parties, reflecting the long-held view that they are best organized opposition group:
Nonetheless, some Egyptians’ and, more broadly, the Arab world’s views track closely with what El Erian describes: A system informed by religion but not dominated by it. From Gallup polling:
Egyptians… express little interest in recreating their country in the image of Iran, as has been the fear among some Western commentators. Less than 1% say the Islamic Republic should be Egypt’s political model, and most Egyptians think religious leaders should provide advice to government authorities, as opposed to having full authority for determining the nation’s laws. The majority of residents in the Arab world’s most populous nation desire a democracy informed by religious values, not a theocracy.
As journalist Issandr El Amrani pointed out last week in a broad analysis of where things stand in Egypt, though, the Brotherhood has broken at times with the initial protest movement, which the group took a back seat to. Commenting on the Brotherhood’s decision to not participate in the May 27 “Second Revolution” protests, El Amrani wrote:
[Egypt's transitional military rulers] had already made one of its offensive statements echoing the Mubarak era, talking about foreign plotting and so on (old habits die hard I guess) although it did not carry out another crackdown even if some activists were detained. But it was shocking to see the MB use similar language in its violently-worded statement, which basically called protestors traitors. Even the [austere conservative] Salafist statement against participation was milder and more reasonable.
El Amrani, who is based in Cairo, doesn’t think much of alarmism in the U.S. discourse about a Brotherhood alliance with the successor of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak’s party. But he acknowledges, as the Gallup poll suggests, that the Islamist group will likely do well in elections. (Gallup’s analysis posits that a coalition government is a likely outcome.)
Over on ABC, the Carnegie Endowment’s Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and deputy prime minister, said some of the hesitance of the U.S. to explicitly call for Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad stemmed from worries about what would come next, particularly the role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
But Muasher also added that the Syrian Brotherhood was “heavily represented” at a Syrian opposition meeting in Turkey this week that came out with a “very strong message that they want a secular, pluralistic Syria in which religion plays no role. And that was a surprising but welcome message.”
Speaking more broadly about the region, Muasher hinted that examples like the robust support for the Brotherhood in Egypt could be a hangover of authoritarianism that may very well face challenges in democracies:
The Muslim Brotherhood has been used for a long time a scare tactic. This is not to say that they don’t have designs. But in closed systems protest votes will only go to the Muslim Brotherhood. But in open, pluralistic systems, the Brotherhood will have to compete against many other alternatives and I think that is the way that all arab countries should go to.
Muasher, who also served as Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S. and its first in Israel, closed his interview by commenting generally on the democratic protests that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa for months now, taking a long-view that American politics doesn’t exactly afford. “This is an uprising that just started,” he said. “I think it will be measured in decades and not years.”