Dispatch

Feuding Brothers

In the battle over the Muslim Brotherhood's future, the United States should engage with the good guys.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo's Tahrir Square during her first visit to post-revolutionary Egypt last month, I watched the news unfold from several miles away in the damp, sparse offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary leaders.

"Why doesn't she meet with us?" asked one Brotherhood member.

"We know why," said another.

And then they both fell silent.

I was in Cairo to understand that confusing silence. In days packed with meetings with leaders and grassroots activists of the Islamist group, Egypt's largest and best organized, I pressed them on their views toward hot-button issues like the role of sharia in government, human rights, Israel, and global terrorism. In meeting with Brotherhood members hailing from all walks of life, I found an array of diverse and even contradictory views that refuted the conception of the Muslim Brotherhood as a monolithic, anti-Western organization.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak's rule, it was easy to ignore the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned and occasionally tolerated. Nobody's ignoring the group anymore. The Brothers are on the march to power. Their sheer numbers, political legacy, and ability to mobilize crowds make them the single most potent political force in the country. The Washington foreign-policy establishment's reaction to the movement has ranged from caution to outright hostility. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, recently raised fears that the Brotherhood would "hijack" the revolution.

One does not have to look hard for evidence to support this view. In a wealthy Cairo suburb after evening prayers, I met with Mahdi Akef, the 82-year-old former head of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of its most popular leaders. Over mango juice, this elderly but vigorous man roared about the great future that he sees for Egypt. In one breath, he praised al Qaeda for "resisting American occupation," and in another called it an "American production."

"Mr. Akef has spent more years in jail than Nelson Mandela," one of his many admirers reminded me. Strictly speaking, that is not true -- Akef spent 20 years to Mandela's 27 -- but it does explain the mythology of the man. Akef's years in prison, however, did not transform him into Egypt's Mandela. Far from pursuing peace, Akef imagines an uncompromising Islamist future for Egypt, in permanent resistance to what he sees as the colonialist ambitions of Israel and the West. Akef's clarity and boldness have earned him the loyalty of the Brotherhood's suburban grassroots members.

When I asked him how he could support al Qaeda's operations given that they had killed more Muslims than the U.S. soldiers who he claimed were occupiers, Akef said that I was plainly wrong -- it was Blackwater, the American private military company now known as Xe Services, that killed Muslims, not al Qaeda. It was only in the West that we blamed al Qaeda -- in essence, al Qaeda was innocent.

He preferred not to mention Israel by name, but only as "the Zionist entity" that would one day be eroded from the region. He was conscious that Arab countries were currently weak, but insisted that fact should not deflect them from "stating the truth" that "the Zionist enemy" was illegitimate. Without reservation, he supported suicide bombings in Israel and wanted Egypt's new government to support Hamas in every way possible to help it bring an end to Israel.

Clinton has not met with the Muslim Brotherhood because it is a home for thousands of men like Akef. But the United States should not make the mistake that it has made so many times in the past -- that of ignoring the political reality on the ground, most notably as it did following the Iraq war and in the 2006 Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas to power. The Brotherhood is more complex than Akef, and its political development has profound implications for not only Egypt, but the entire region.

What happens in Egypt, a country that has historically wielded immense intellectual influence in the Arab world, doesn't stay in Egypt. As the mother ship of all Islamist extremist groups around the world, the Muslim Brotherhood's tone and tenor in Cairo will impact Islamist activists from Gaza to London. Fortunately, despite Akef's grandstanding, the Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing intellectual and organizational transition. Like every other group in Egypt, the Brotherhood is wondering how best to respond to new sociopolitical circumstances. Unlike other Islamist groups, it does not have a fixed political dogma -- and this pragmatism may be its saving grace.

Akef's suburban appeal does not speak to the aspirations of a newly visible tendency inside the Muslim Brotherhood: the rising force of the under-40s professionals who were vital in the Tahrir Square protests that toppled Mubarak. A leader of this emerging trend is Mohamed El-Shahawy, a country leader for the American multinational conglomerate 3M. Sophisticated, articulate, English-speaking, and involved in the protest movement from day one, El-Shahawy led a group of Brotherhood members that marched from the suburbs of Cairo, overcame police barriers, and joined the revolution.

At his family home, El-Shahawy showed me X-rays of the bullet shrapnel residing beside his spine, left there after he was shot by the police during the protests. Taken to the hospital, he escaped his bed -- leaving his two young children, wife, and mother -- to rejoin the revolutionary youth at Tahrir Square. "Before anything else," he told me, as he put down the X-rays and tears swelled up in his eyes, "I am an Egyptian. I was prepared to die for my country, sacrifice everything."

El-Shahawy and thousands like him are in open revolt against older, conservative elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing for a political party that does not carry the baggage of its extremist past. They want women and Christians as equal citizens, not subjects of ridicule as they were under Akef's tenure. This new generation of Twitter and Facebook activists stood in the line of fire, overthrew Mubarak, and now has new alliances with Egypt's secular opposition.

It falls to Mohamed Badie, the 67-year-old current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a veterinary doctor by trade, to bridge the divides between these different groups. Viewed as a member of the religiously conservative wing of the Brotherhood, Badie was the one who smuggled out the incendiary chapters of Sayyid Qutb's Milestones -- the Communist Manifesto of global Islamism -- from prison in the 1960s.

But though Badie might be the official leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, true power lies elsewhere. In the event that free elections were held today inside the group, it is unlikely that he would win. The liberals dislike his conservatism, and the hard-liners dislike his reluctance to roar in public about an Islamic state for Egypt and the imminent destruction of Israel. He is also seen as out of touch with the popular membership because he steered the Brotherhood away from internal reforms, prevented the greater involvement of women, and blocked transparent election of the leadership. "He issues orders from Cairo without consultation with ordinary members," one member told me. "He still thinks like we're living under Mubarak."

Fear that liberal youth would abandon the Muslim Brotherhood led Badie to issue an edict on March 15 forbidding group members from leaving to create political parties, arguing it was religiously forbidden to do so -- haram. Hastily, his office announced the creation of the Brotherhood's own Freedom and Justice Party, headed by a Badie stalwart and former head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc, Saad el-Katatni. The youth complained: Who, they wondered, had elected Katatni as head of the political party? On March 26, hundreds of young Brotherhood members gathered, without Badie's blessing, to propose ways in which to democratize the Brotherhood, give women more prominence, and change the composition of the national body that elects a leader.

But the wily Badie knows edicts from the center cannot hold back the revolution within the Muslim Brotherhood. To placate the grassroot demands, he has turned to the one man within the movement who is more popular than even Akef: Khairat al-Shater, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood and a leading Egyptian businessman. Shater was imprisoned by Mubarak on trumped-up charges and lost an entire decade of his life behind bars. Now in his early 60s, he is a bridge between the elder leaders and the new revolutionaries.

Shater is not only a self-sacrificing party loyalist, but a shrewd businessman who raised funds for the Muslim Brotherhood during difficult times. His influence over the movement's younger generation is more than emotional -- it stems from his financial ability to bankroll their ideas and initiatives. Interestingly, his various banking board memberships give him access to free market businessmen who are not Islamists but trust the Brotherhood to be a fair and equitable party in government.

Again and again, as I met young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, they repeatedly said that they were due to meet Shater soon with their demands: greater transparency within the movement, better relations with the West, and a stronger platform for women. It is in Shater, not Badie, in whom they have invested hope. When I asked the leader of a Brotherhood branch at Cairo's venerable Al-Azhar University whether he saw Shater as a future leader of the organization, he responded calmly that Shater "is qualified and popular enough to become not just the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, but president of Egypt one day." Despite this enthusiasm, Shater remains politically untested, and it is uncertain which direction he will take.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood's 2005-2010 parliamentary bloc also represent another crucial segment within the movement that breaks decisively with Akef's al Qaeda sympathies. I met with Mohamed el-Beltagy, a medical doctor and university professor who served as secretary-general of the bloc, and it was apparent that he was a statesman in the making. Beltagy's political clout is such that Prime Minister Essam Sharaf shared a platform with him in Tahrir Square immediately after the overthrow of the previous prime minister. Savvy and results-driven as any Western politician, Beltagy's calm demeanor, direct rebuttals of extremism, and, most importantly, his willingness to engage with America represented an important indication of the Brotherhood's future political role.

Unlike Akef, Beltagi remains a political practitioner -- a former MP who knows that a constituency can vote him out. For that reason, he was most focused on jobs, health care, education, and housing -- the real priorities of ordinary Egyptians. When asked about Israel, he expressly said he was "not interested in removing any country from the map," but "most interested in creating a sustainable Palestinian state."

Across the board, all members of the Muslim Brotherhood became animated when addressing questions involving Israel. Although most insist on maintaining peace with Israel (at least for now) and do not wish to go to war, it is clear that the kind of relations Israel enjoyed with Egypt in the past can no longer be taken for granted. Egyptians will demand greater justice for Palestinians -- and the Arab-Israeli conflict will take center stage again as events unfold in the region.

These changes may appear troublesome for American and Israeli audiences, but they are hardly the most dangerous threat in Egypt's future. As one young Muslim Brotherhood activist told me, when it come to relations with the West, "the Muslim Brotherhood is a headache, but it is not cancer."

The cancer will be the Salafi and jihadi groups that attempt to out-Islam and outflank the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Iraq and Pakistan following their regime changes, the short-term prospect of increased terrorist activity in Egypt is real. Hundreds of jihadi prisoners have been released, previously violent Islamist organizations are regrouping, and their commitment to a government along strict Salafi lines is strong. Fostered as a counterweight to the Brotherhood by the Mubarak regime, today Salafists in Egypt openly talk about contesting elections to create an Islamic state -- contradicting even Badie, who refers to a "civic state." Following a new surge of Salafi violence on popular Muslim Sufi shrines, the Brotherhood's clerics -- led by Abdul Rahman al-Barr -- and its English website, Ikhwanweb.com, published a call for unity among democracy activists against revived Salafi intolerance. These are telltale signs of the coming disorder.

In this period of short-term turbulence, and beyond, the Muslim Brotherhood will be an important player. It would be disastrous for the United States to continue to treat the Brotherhood as a monolith and boycott interaction with the organization in its entirety; such a step would fail to distinguish the "headache" presented by the Brotherhood with other truly dangerous developments in Egypt's political scene.

For the last three decades, the United States has engaged with Arab leaders through three prisms: oil, terrorism, and Israel. This is no longer enough. In this new Arab era, Washington will need to interact with ordinary people and their elected representatives in parliaments. The Muslim Brotherhood is undeniably a part of that wider Arab population, and Washington should attempt to engage progressive and pragmatic strands within the movement in order to tilt the debate away from extremism and confrontation to nation-building and dialogue. It can be done. Islamists can change.

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Too Big to Fail

But are Nigeria's elections already too fraught to succeed?

ABUJA, Nigeria — Speaking on prime-time television on Friday, April 1, the day before Nigeria was set to vote for a new parliament, Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Nigerian electoral commission, warned his fellow citizens that the country had yet to secure a "stable democratic system in which peaceful, free, fair, and credible elections are routine and taken for granted." This year, he pledged, was Africa's most populous country's time "to get it right." He implored Nigerians to turn out and vote en masse, saying, "We must not fail."

Less than 24 hours later, Jega was before the nation again, announcing that the election would have to be postponed -- even as the voting process was already under way. Crucial ballot materials were missing from stations across the country, the chairman said, and the vote would have to wait until Monday. But come Sunday evening, the electoral body issued another statement pushing the entire timeline for the parliamentary, presidential, and state governor polls back by a week. The election that was too big to fail was off to an inauspicious start.

The weekend's events are a serious blow to the high hopes that this year's election could be something of a new dawn for Nigeria. The so-called democratic transition that began in 1999, when nearly two decades of military dictatorship ended and a civilian president was "elected," has been a farce in the eyes of most Nigerians and international observers, who have seen a series of elections -- in 1999, 2003, and 2007 -- go from pretty bad to shockingly fraudulent and violent. The worst of those elections was in 2007, which EU observers described as the worst they had ever witnessed anywhere in the world, ever, characterized by stolen vote boxes, ballots marked before the polls opened, and a totally opaque counting process.

The Nigerian political order is more akin to "godfatherism" than parliamentary democracy. "Big men," as the wealthy and powerful are called here, run the show, bankrolled by millions of dollars siphoned off from oil revenues and government projects. Everyone else is just grasping for patronage. Champagne-sipping Nigerian elites and cigar-smoking international oil execs stand in stark contrast with the impoverished masses. Oil money is used over and over again to buy temporary peace across the vast and fractured country; elections are no exception.

This time, however, was supposed to be different. President Goodluck Jonathan, who took over after President Umaru Yar'Adua died while in office in 2010, staked his credibility both at home and abroad on his ability to reform the electoral process. He promised to clean up the much-hated Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which had largely been seen as a government vehicle for institutionalized vote stuffing. Jonathan sacked officials, installed new processes, and promised a credible vote.

This weekend's developments have been embarrassing for the INEC and for Jega, in particular, who was recently praised by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson for his work in cleaning up the dysfunctional commission -- in just 10 months as chairman. In the wake of the delay announcements, some prominent civil society groups still expressed their support for Jega, saying they feared sabotage -- by political elites fearing a changed post-election order -- was behind the facade of logistics confusion. In other words, members of Jega's own staff may not have kept him informed about the extreme delays in delivery of key materials, leaving him in the dark before his address on the eve of Saturday's aborted polls. Opposition candidate and former military leader Muhammadu Buhari told Reuters that the ruling party "is afraid to let people come out and vote."

Jega now finds himself between a rock and a hard place -- if he resigns in the coming weeks (as was suggested by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission), he would be making a statement about the attempts of the political elite to discreetly undermine him, but he would forfeit the chance to attempt broader reforms within the electoral commission after the vote. Either way, the elections are coming, and it is clear that the consequences of the 2011 vote will not be inconsequential. Nigeria is a giant on the African continent: It is a diplomatic leader in regional crises from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, most recently, the Ivory Coast. And, as Africa's largest oil and gas producer, it's the undeniable economic motor of the region. The outcome of these elections will set the tone for a whopping 27 votes set to take place on the continent this year. No wonder the International Crisis Group recently warned that if Nigeria's elections do not "reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999," the impact ill be felt locally and internationally.

In the presidential race, which has now been pushed back from April 9 to 16, the country's roiling and potentially explosive internal political dynamics are on display. Jonathan, the incumbent presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) cleared the first hurdle in the campaign season by winning his party's nomination in January. The victory confirmed that the PDP would, in choosing Jonathan, overlook its gentleman's agreement of rotating the presidency between northern and southern leaders every eight years -- a deal that maintains a fragile balance between powerful regional and religious interests in the country. If that deal were followed, Jonathan, a southerner, would have had to defer for another four years to a northern candidate.

The president's main challenger, Buhari, has played upon disappointments in the north over the PDP's backing of a southerner, Jonathan. Buhari, a northerner who ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, has wide support there in no small part because of his ruthless reputation in office for cracking down on corruption. He has rebranded himself as a candidate for change and may take the vote in the north of the country, though not likely overall.

Anticipating such a challenge, and as a necessary conciliatory gesture, Jonathan took a northerner as his running mate. But that hasn't prevented him from dipping a toe into Nigeria's fractious religious-ethnic politics more than once during the campaign season -- which may worsen tensions in already volatile areas of the country. For example, the president recently traveled to Jos, capital of the tense Middle Belt region -- where more than 250 people have died since Christmas in complex intercommunal violence -- to show his support for incumbent Plateau state governor Jonah Jang, who is notorious for inflaming local tensions between warring communities. Jang has a firm grip on power; during his term, he has skillfully practiced the arts of godfatherism and patronage while consolidating the government's repressive indigene system, which discriminates against more recent settlers to the region. Jang, however, faces competition from his deputy governor, also from the ruling PDP, in one of many races that is now being deemed too close to call; hotly contested races such as this one are likely to inflame tensions during polling and its aftermath.

Indeed, local elections stand to open just as many fault lines across the country as does the higher profile presidential race. Nigerian MPs rake in more than $1 million per year, the Associated Press reports, but this is often a pittance in comparison to what the country's 36 state governors manage to accrue while in office, particularly in the oil-rich Niger Delta states, where politicians unlawfully amassing personal riches is par for the course. Former Delta state governor James Ibori, who is wanted by both the Nigerian and British police services, was arrested last year in Dubai for allegedly stealing $290 million while in office. Despite the country's federal system, governors are to some degree able to run their states as fiefdoms, which holding onto power all the more important. That means that stakes are high for the contests, and the campaigning -- and in recent years vote rigging -- has been intense.

In many of the state gubernatorial races, close electoral contests could easily provoke local conflict and chicanery. The government's preparation for the worst in the polls -- closing land borders, restricting citizens' movements on election day -- is one indication of the extent of localized conflicts in many areas through the country. The National Emergency Management Agency has labeled one-third of the 36 states as "flashpoints" for potential electoral violence; but if conflict erupts, it's hard to judge whether the government and its frequently abusive security forces will manage to contain it.

One of the PDP's campaign promises is "Fresh Air for Nigeria," a phrase splashed across billboards featuring Jonathan's face and his trademark black cap. Fresh air may be something everyone wants; whether or not Jonathan will bring it is not clear. He will almost certainly be returned to power when the country does eventually vote. And despite the inauspicious start to the parliamentary polls, Nigerians don't seem ready to throw in the towel on change yet -- though how the "take two" vote on Saturday turns out will be a key test for the public and for the electoral commission. The risk is all too high that Nigeria's new president, whoever he is, could once again be godfathered in.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images