University of Pittsburgh
February 8, 2011

Pitt Expert: Popular Muslim Brotherhood Must Have Role in New Egypt, But Compromise With Wary Military and Secular Egyptians Essential

The Brotherhood’s social programs, democratic leanings, and popular support make it an indispensable voice, but many Egyptians are wary of the group’s religious conservatism, says Pitt-Bradford professor Tony Gaskew, who has conducted hundreds of interviews in Egypt with Brotherhood members, supporters, and opponents
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PITTSBURGH—A University of Pittsburgh expert on the Muslim Brotherhood says that the group’s popularity with the Egyptian public makes it an essential participant in the negotiations to restore political calm after weeks of protests against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, he said, concern among Egypt’s military as well as secular and non-Muslim Egyptians about the organization’s conservative religious leanings means the Brotherhood will likely have to settle for presidential cabinet positions rather than Egypt’s top office. 

Tony Gaskew, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, studied the Brotherhood’s political and social influence by conducting hundreds of field interviews with members, supporters, and opponents in Egypt and Israel. A forthcoming book, The Muslim Brotherhood: Reshaping U.S. Foreign Policy Post-9/11, will focus on his fieldwork. 

“Since the Brotherhood began in 1928, it has become an enormous social movement with millions of adherents that include—and this is important—many, many women,” Gaskew says. “To tell the Brotherhood it can’t participate in this pivotal moment in Egyptian politics would be disregarding millions of ordinary Egyptians’ voices. The Brotherhood is an integral part of Egyptian society and must be part of its future. But how much a part is negotiable.” 

The Brotherhood has been officially outlawed in Egypt for nearly 60 years, but the group has been entrenched in Egyptian society and politics for decades, providing social services—health care, education opportunities, and disaster relief—the Egyptian government is unable or unwilling to furnish, Gaskew explains. Thus, the organization’s prominence in negotiations regarding the future of Mubarak’s 30-year reign does not surprise most Egyptians, he says. 

It also should comfort Western observers that the Brotherhood is largely peaceful, democratic, and transparent, says Gaskew, noting that al-Qaeda rejects the Brotherhood as traitors: “With the Brotherhood, you know what you’re going to get. You can’t say that about many other Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that also are vying for power in post-Mubarak Egypt.” 

Still, there are significant barriers to a Brotherhood member ascending to the presidency, Gaskew says. Without actual governing experience, the Brotherhood lacks the economic deftness impoverished Egypt needs. More importantly, although the Brotherhood includes militant and nonmilitant factions, a violent history and adherence to conservative Islam means that many Egyptians would not accept a Brotherhood president, Gaskew adds. 

“The military will never accept a Muslim Brotherhood member as president—they’ve spent the past 70 years fighting them,” Gaskew states. “So, I cannot see a member being president, but one doesn’t need to be as long as the Brotherhood has a significant voice in the cabinet.” 

Gaskew is a former law enforcement officer and was assigned to the U.S. Department of Justice Organized Crime Drug Enforcement and Counter-Terrorism Task Force. He is the author of Policing Muslim American Communities (Edwin Mellen, 2009), which examines the relationship between law enforcement agencies and Muslim American communities since the implementation of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act. He also is a research fellow for Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a consortium studying the role of dignity in society and world affairs.