According to Reports: Should We Fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?

In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column "According to Reports," Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, notes that many Western analysts are taking a starry-eyed view of the Egpytian uprising.

Images of mass demonstrations of Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo and other cities against the nearly 30-year autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak captured the hearts and minds of the media covering this momentous event.

For almost a week after the demonstrations began, and then grew to an extent rarely seen in the Arab world, two themes were prominent in much of the coverage, especially (but not only) on the commentary side.

First, that this popular and mostly peaceful uprising expressed not just a demand for the end of Mubarak's rule, but also an intense yearning for democracy.

And second, that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement and the most organized force in the country besides the army, was being low key, moderate, and might even play a responsible role alongside secular reformers in a new government, or at least could be held in check by them.

Some acknowledged reason for a degree of skepticism, but were nonetheless cautiously optimistic that things just might work out this time. Here, for instance, is the National Post's editorial take on Feb. 1: "Of course, these are still early days — and there is no guarantee that the Islamists really will give up Egypt's future to moderates and liberals. History is littered with revolutions – including Russia's in 1917, and Iran's in 1979 – that were hijacked by radicals. Yet we believe such a hijacking is unlikely in Egypt. Like everyone else in the world, Egyptians have seen what has become of Gaza, Sudan, Taliban Afghanistan, Pakistan's tribal regions and Iran under Islamist regimes: All these lands have degenerated into poverty, internal repression and pariah status."

That assessment expresses a noble aspiration, in particular from a Western perspective, that would like to see reformers succeed in casting off a dictatorship and moving Egyptian society at long last toward modernity and moderation. That indeed would be a major, and arguably a monumental, achievement.

The only problem is whether the view from here of what is transpiring in Egypt actually mirrors the hopes, forces and structures on the ground over there.

Last December, the highly respected Pew Center published the results of a survey of attitudes in Arab and Muslim countries about the role of Islam in politics. It found that when asked about the struggle between modernizers and Islamic fundamentalists, Egypt ranked at the top (along with Nigeria) in supporting the latter. Nearly 60 percent of Egyptian Muslims said that they identify with the fundamentalists.

That is hardly encouraging news for those who believe Egyptian society is about to move in the direction of liberal democracy (for which, in any event, there is no foundation). Indeed, what does such research say about the prospects for reform and genuine democracy beyond the mechanics of elections? And could secular reformers who have no sustained organizational base prevail against the Brotherhood, which is not only deeply entrenched but also enjoys broad popular support?

The program of the Brotherhood includes, domestically, the imposition of Sharia law and, in foreign policy, the shredding of the peace agreement with Israel.

One often reads that former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a member of a radical "offshoot" of the Brotherhood because he made peace with the Jewish state. But as some scholars of Egypt and Islam have pointed out, it was clear from the testimony at the assassin's trial that another key motivation for the murder was Sadat's repeated refusal to implement Sharia law.

In the years following the assassination, when the Brotherhood was officially outlawed and many of its key figures arrested, tortured or constantly harassed, the organization learned to survive and play by rules that lend it the appearance of being a "moderate" religious movement. Many Israeli analysts warn, however, that when the moment is right, the Brotherhood will almost certainly seize control and place Egypt firmly in the orb of the Islamists.

If so, the consequences could be dire for both the freedom of Egyptians and the safety of Israelis.