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Response from Gregory W. Hamilton

Discussion Question: Religious Undertones in Egyptian Protests?

Over the past decade, Egyptian Copts have fallen victim to increasing discrimination and persecution, most recently with the January 1 suicide church bombing that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more. Do the current anti-government demonstrations in Cairo have religious undertones?


Yes, there are strong religious undertones to the ongoing anti-governement protests in Egypt, but with a sparse, yet very broad overall connection to the 21 Coptic Christians killed on January 1. The solidarity of the Muslim people of Egypt toward the Coptic Community was quite evident. It was their way of apologizing for the extremist(s) in their midst – saying that they publicly disowned them. Thus, I am not sure how to respond, except to say that your ordinary citizens, including your secularists and liberals in Egypt, which represent the majority of the country, tend to be far more supportive of the Coptic Christians than they do the Muslim Brotherhood. This was demonstrated by the marches of solidarity by the citizens of Egypt, as a whole, in their behalf in the immediate aftermath of that tragic event.

This is somewhat significant, particularly if the question was indirectly aimed at Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theme. In this context, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood is a potentially long term threat toward true democratic normalization while at the same time appearing to genuinely claim to be seeking economic and democratic reform as any other citizen, group or political party in the country.

This is backed up by statements from former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Mohammed ElBaradei, who, with an entirely different slant, said on Fareed Zakaria's GPS CNN TV show that there is nothing to fear from the Brotherhood. For now, he may be correct and that the Muslim Brotherhood is part of a larger nationwide movement to get rid of Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak. (Of course, one must remember that Mr. ElBaradei is not a credible spokesman for them, let alone someone that has the trust of the Egyptian people; being considered an outsider after 15 years of living outside of Egypt, serving in international and diplomatic capacities.)

Yet several things about the Muslim Brotherhood are worth noting:

While the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood say they do not believe in the rule of clerics (i.e., a theocracy), they do believe that Sharia law should and must be blended into whatever constitutional and governmental reforms are finally adopted. From my vantage point, a democratic republic and Sharia law are not wholly compatible, if at all, particularly if it is intended to represent the law of the land for all the people of Egypt. It would, sad to say, seriously represent the path toward the "Talibanization" of the Egyptian people. This would be unacceptable to the other 80 percent of the country, of which the Brotherhood makes up the rest.

Harvard Professor Tarek Masoud, when interviewed yesterday by Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio (NPR), observed that "if they [actually] got into power, if they go into parliament, they'd try to make some laws that conform with their vision of what Islam requires." The difference to the Brotherhood and the aftermath of the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Iranian Revolution is simply that "they would not try to have the clerics be in charge," he said. In many ways, that is a significant difference. But such assurances are no guarantee, and it is hardly a suggestion that a Brotherhood-led Egypt would be a Western style, democratically-led, nation and people, any more than Hamas in Palestine's Gaza Strip is. It would resemble Lebanon's new and very recent political dynamic in which Hezbollah has seized the reins of government, making the Christian and secular communities a subservient, albeit participatory, represented minority. They rose to power by fronting themselves as "compassionate conservatives" with their soup kitchens for the poor and homeless, and hospitals for those who could not afford high-priced professional medical care. Even more interesting, this coincides with an interview conducted by ABC TV on Sunday, in which Mr. ElBaradei compared the Muslim Brotherhood to America's Christian Right. This was his way of both legitimizing and excusing them as a non-threat. But to me, the parallel description is worthy of note. Hmmm...

If the Muslim Brotherhood does emerge, in time, as the "strong horse" in Egypt's national life by convincing a significant number of people and groups to trust them with representation in Egypt's Parliament after Mr. Mubarak's departure—and after the ban on their organizational activities is completely lifted—then Egypt's future will not likely be in the best interests of Coptic Christians, any more than they have been with Syriac Christians in Iraq, or any more than in Lebanon where the once led Christian government feels very much threatened by Hezbollah's recent coup.

It seems clear, as U.S. Senator John Kerry mentioned on NPR Radio this morning, that it is likely that the rise to supreme political power by the Muslim Brotherhood will take a number of years yet. But it is entirely possible that they would follow the same path or formula for seizing power as has Hamas, or Hezbollah – through the opening provided to them through democratic elections. This is what happened during the so-called "Democratic Project" years of the George W. Bush Administration, and led and administered by then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

As Yossi Klein Halevi put it in today's op-ed piece for The New York Times titled "Islamists at the Gates," "Israeli's want to rejoice over the outbreak of protests in Egypt's city squares. They want to believe that this is the Arab world's 1989 moment" in which "the poisonous reflex of blaming the Jewish state for the Middle East's ills will be replaced by an honest self-assessment."

But, he argues, "few Israelis really believe in that hopeful outcome. Instead, the grim assumption is that it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power. Israelis fear that Egypt will go the way of Iran or Turkey, with Islamists gaining control through violence or gradual co-optation."

Think also Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both satellites of Iran's Islamist-controlled government. Shia's and Sunni's are finding a way to share a common cause toward surrounding Israel in threatening and lethal ways. This scenario was described and predicted in a book written back in 2003 by David Frum and Richard Perle entitled An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. This is the Israeli dilemma, and a dilemma shared by the United States and the entire international community.

Mr. Halevi, a frequent contributor to The New Republic magazine, echoes this concern when he argues that "The Muslim Brotherhood has long stated its opposition to peace with Israel and has pledged to revoke the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty if it comes into power. Given the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas's control of Gaza and the unraveling of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, an Islamist Egypt could produce the ultimate Israeli nightmare: living in a country surrounded by Iran's allies or proxies."

In conclusion, the Muslim Brotherhood's current goals of economic improvement and equality, along with democratic reform, may hide detrimental long term goals, with few paying attention to their use of hundreds of spawned organizations that propagate their desire for political supremacy, which is their apparent way of keeping their image clean in the minds of many would-be sympathizers.

Of course, this is their opportunity to prove the world wrong – that there is a moderate Muslim voice that truly seeks Western style democratic reform, while trying to find a rather novel way of mixing Sharia law with true democracy.

We are all in a "wait and see" mode. And thus, everything I have stated in this Round Table piece may be entirely wrong. What eventually happens is really anyone's guess at this point.

Photo of Gregory W. Hamilton

Author: Gregory W. Hamilton

Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit www.nrla.com.

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