The Magazine

Brotherly Love

The wrong way to influence Egypt’s new leaders.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By ERIC TRAGER
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Its rigid hierarchy presents a second obstacle hindering American -policymakers from successfully engaging with its youth members—namely, the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. RAND’s report acknowledges that Brotherhood leaders prevented a young member from attending a conference at a U.S. think tank, and that Brotherhood youth typically decline to meet with U.S. officials without explicit permission. RAND tries to work around this inconvenient fact by advising that “direct contacts with [Brotherhood] leaders can help build the necessary trust and address leadership concerns about American attempts to include [Brotherhood] youth in civil society programming.”

Yet despite RAND’s optimism, it is unrealistic to believe that a deeply hierarchical organization will demand anything less than full control over which members can interact with U.S. officials. Indeed, when the Brotherhood sent its first youth delegation to Washington in April, it dispatched its most organizationally committed pitchmen to present a genial face to Western audiences without conceding anything ideologically. 

Proponents of engagement rarely note that the Brotherhood’s closed organizational features constitute real, perhaps insurmountable, problems. Rather, from their perspective, one of the most daunting hurdles is U.S. public opinion—or Americans’ well-founded distrust of Islamists. Accordingly, RAND advises that
“engagement” needs to be “insulated from domestic political attacks by having more members of Congress” meet with Brotherhood leaders. 

However, the point should not be to alter how Americans and their elected officials perceive the Brotherhood, but rather to change how the Brotherhood acts. The lesson for advocates of engagement in the Obama administration and elsewhere is that closed, theocratic organizations do not become moderate when they are embraced unconditionally. They moderate when they are being squeezed and find themselves without other options.

Eric Trager is the Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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