6 Feb 2011

The US and Israel may have to work with Egypt's Brotherhood

With the Muslim Brotherhood now a part of negotiations with Egypt’s Vice-President Suleiman to end the country’s political unrest, the US and Israel may have to find a way to accommodate a group banned by President Mubarak, blogs Lindsey Hilsum.

One wore bright red lipstick, the other had her face covered with black cloth apart from her eyes (which were shielded by glasses). They held hands in the middle of Tahrir Square and told me they were still protesting because they didn’t trust President Mubarak to step down after negotiations.

“He’s threatening the whole world that if he leaves, the Muslim Brotherhood will take over,” said Lipstick. “It’s not true. Another lie: they say we are against Israel. We are not. We want to live in peace.”

“Muslims, Christians, we are all together,” added Black Cloth.

It was something of an ecumenical day on the square, with Coptic Christians praying alongside Muslims, korans and bibles on display, the cross and the crescent together. But the focus was on the Muslim Brotherhood, which held negotiations with the vice-president today even though the group is still banned.

The Brotherhood is not a violent jihadi group, but President Mubarak’s government has long claimed that it has links to extremists.

According to a cable published by Wikileaks, Vice President Omar Suleiman, who was negotiating with the group today, told the FBI  Director Robert Mueller in 2006 that the Brotherhood had spawned 11 different Islamist extremist organisations,  including Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama’a Islamiya, which carried out attacks on tourists and other targets in the 1990s.

Another cable suggests that Mr Mueller was not convinced that the Brotherhood was the only alternative to Mr Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.

In the 2005 election, the Brotherhood gained 80 parliamentary seats, its candidates campaigning as independents to avoid the ban. It became popular, like Hamas in the Palestinian territories, by running clinics and other charitable institutions as government services crumbled or became corrupt.

The Israelis are highly suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, citing their links to the Nazis in the 1930s. There is a lot of anti-Israeli feeling in Egypt, and it was an Islamist who assassinated President Sadat in 1981, after he agreed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 at Camp David.

But today the Brotherhood is trying to look unthreatening.

“Even if it’s our right to have a presidential candidate, we have announced that we will not have one in the coming period,” said Mohammed el Beltaghy, one of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders I met on Tahrir Square today. “We are looking for a democratic country based on social justice. We concur with all our partners that we shall respect international agreements.”

Israeli politicians are fond of saying that the west should support them because Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But any democratic system in Egypt will have to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood, so the USA and Israel may now find they have to work with those their old friend Hosni Mubarak has suppressed for so long.