A specter is haunting the hopeful promise of a democratic Egypt—the specter of popularly legitimated anti-Semitism that would result from the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood. In light of the democratic victories enjoyed by Hamas in the 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza, the prospect is not a hypothetical one. And a bad situation for Israel promises to become much worse as members of the Muslim Brotherhood become members of a future Egyptian Parliament and then, with the legitimacy rendered by their electoral victories, express their long-standing hatred of the Jews and of the state of Israel. The recent decisions of the Egyptian government to improve relations with Iran, open the Egyptian border with Hamas-controlled Gaza, and foster a unity agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, taken before the Muslim Brotherhood has even gained electoral legitimation, are deeply worrying signs.
The Brotherhood’s leaders have sounded reassuring notes concerning their commitment to democracy. Likewise, they have declared their eagerness to foster cooperation with Christians. Yet no leading Brotherhood figure has come close to addressing the hostility toward Jews that has long been central to the organization’s identity. Obviously, the prospect of victory at the polls for the Muslim Brotherhood is bad news for Israel. Less talked about, however, is the way in which a democratic validation of the group’s reliance on obfuscation and scapegoating is bad for the prospects of Egyptian democracy itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s history of anti-Semitism goes back to its founding. Its leading Palestinian figure, Haj Amin el-Husseini, collaborated with the Nazis, declaring that Jews were the enemies of Islam and had been for 1,300 years. He made explicit appeals on the radio to Arab listeners to “kill the Jews.” In 1946, when Husseini returned to Cairo, he was enthusiastically welcomed by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder. In a secret bulletin intercepted by OSS agents in Cairo, Al-Banna said of Husseini, “What a hero, what a miracle of a man. Yes, this hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle.”
In 1950, Sayyid Qutb, who would go on to become the Brotherhood’s chief ideologue, published an influential essay entitled “Our Struggle with the Jews.” Qutb, like Husseini, placed his Jew-hatred on the foundations of the religious traditions of Islam. The Jews, he wrote, engaged in “evil-doing” and “consequently Allah sent against them others of his servants, until the modern period. Then Allah brought Hitler to rule over them. And once again today, the Jews have returned to evil-doing in the form of ‘Israel’ which made the Arabs, the owners of the Land, taste of sorrow and woe.” Following his execution in 1966, the Brotherhood celebrated Qutb as a heroic martyr.
The 1980s saw the rise of Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood. The Hamas Covenant of 1988 remains one of the most important documents of contemporary anti-Semitism. In accusing the Jews of causing World Wars I and II, it repeats classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories imported from Europe. Article Eleven of the covenant states that “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.” In other words, Israel as a Jewish state has no right to exist and should be destroyed. And Article Thirteen declares that “so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” Hence any compromise solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—or a peace agreement with Egypt—would be unacceptable.
The contemporary Muslim Brotherhood has not renounced the anti-Semitic statements of its past leaders, and, while it has renounced violence, it has not renounced Hamas. On the contrary, it has appeared to double down on antipathy to Israel and the Jews. In his speech to over a million people in Tahrir Square on February 23, one of the spiritual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called both for the conquest of the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem and for the Egyptian military to open the Rafah border, which separates Egypt and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. “Egypt, who fought four wars on behalf of Palestine, should not break from this path,” he said. “[Egypt] must open the border crossing which is in our hands, the Rafah border crossing. We will open it for the [convoys] which were prohibited from delivering aid to our brethren. This is what I demand from our great, valiant, and noble army.”
Electoral success for the Brotherhood and its anti-Semitic worldview could jeopardize Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt, sabotage progress towards a two-state solution, and allow for the importation of even more dangerous arms into Gaza—but it could also prove detrimental to Egyptian democracy as well. Because anti-Semitism rests on lies and a profound inability to see the world as it actually is, it offers its advocates a convenient way to avoid facing responsibility for the nation’s problems. This has been one reason that dictators have found anti-Semitism so appealing. If “the Jews are guilty,” there is no reason to engage in the critical self-examination that has been one of the key advantages of public debate in liberal democracies. Should the Muslim Brotherhood’s political success in upcoming elections create democratic legitimation for Jew-hatred, prospects for the success of Egyptian democracy will be diminished in turn.
As a result, the United States should speak out about the moral and political disaster that anti-Semitism represents in Egypt. Of course, in the upcoming elections, votes will lead to representation and the United States should respect and honor the results of Egypt’s experiment with democracy. However, respecting the results of such elections does not mean according respect to advocates of anti-Semitism or to those who refuse to clearly repudiate an anti-Semitic past. Instead, the United States must play a key role in confronting the Brotherhood’s most noxious views and educating Egyptians about the risks they pose to its democracy.
Jeffrey Herf is a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, received the Bronze Prize from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2010.
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