As US-backed strongmen around North Africa and the Middle East are being toppled or shaken by popular protests, Washington is grappling with a crucial foreign policy issue: how to deal with the powerful but opaque Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has taken an increasingly forceful part in the protests, issuing a statement on February 3 calling for Mubarak’s immediate resignation. And though it is far from clear what role the Brotherhood would have if Mubarak were to step down, the movement is likely to be a major player in any transitional government.
Journalists and pundits are already giving advice on the strengths and dangers of this eighty-three-year-old Islamist movement, whose various national branches are the most potent opposition force in virtually all of these countries. Some wonder how the Brotherhood will treat Israel, or if it really has renounced violence. Most—including the Obama administration—seem to think that it is a movement the West can do business with, even if the White House denies formal contacts.
If this discussion evokes a sense of déjà vu, that is because over the past sixty years we have had it many times before, with almost identical outcomes. Since the 1950s, the United States has secretly struck up alliances with the Brotherhood or its offshoots on issues as diverse as fighting communism and calming tensions among European Muslims. And if we look to history, we can see a familiar pattern: each time, US leaders have decided that the Brotherhood could be useful and tried to bend it to America’s goals, and each time, maybe not surprisingly, the only party that clearly has benefited has been the Brotherhood.
How can Americans be unaware of this history? Credit a mixture of wishful thinking and a national obsession with secrecy, which has shrouded the US government’s extensive dealings with the Brotherhood.
Consider President Eisenhower. In 1953, the year before the Brotherhood was outlawed by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, a covert US propaganda program headed by the US Information Agency brought over three dozen Islamic scholars and civic leaders mostly from Muslim countries for what officially was an academic conference at Princeton University. The real reason behind the meeting was an effort to impress the visitors with America’s spiritual and moral strength, since it was thought that they could influence Muslims’ popular opinion better than their ossified rulers. The ultimate goal was to promote an anti-Communist agenda in these newly independent countries, many of which had Muslim majorities.
One of the leaders, according to Eisenhower’s appointment book, was “The Honorable Saeed Ramahdan, Delegate of the Muslim Brothers.”* The person in question (in more standard romanization, Said Ramadan) was the son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s founder and at the time…
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