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February 27, 2008

A moderate Islamist is arrested in Egypt - and what it means for us
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Last Wednesday, Khaled Hamza, an influential (although low-profile) moderate in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested. Hamza is the editor-in-chief of Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood’s official English website. I got to know Hamza in the summer of 2006, where we met numerous times over coffee at Groppi, a cavernous ice cream joint in Tahrir Square. He was incredibly helpful, putting me in touch with senior Brotherhood leaders, and pointing me to documents I needed for my research. I also got the chance to do something few Westerners ever do – I got to know him not just as a contact or an interviewee, but also as a person. We had long, fascinating discussions about the internal tensions within the Brotherhood and about the future of Egyptian democracy. In this man, I saw a microcosm of the struggle before Egypt, and before America – on one level a struggle within Islam, but also a struggle between reformers and the dictators who seek to silence them.

Sure enough, Hamza is an Islamist, but he is, most of all, a democrat. He didn’t care how many times a day you prayed, or whether you mixed with members of the opposite sex. He didn’t care if you called yourself a “secularist” or a “socialist.” He only cared if you were on the side of democracy. For him, Islam was a motivation, a point of reference; it was not, however, a strict, legal system, with limits and punishments to be inflicted. Inspired by Justice and Development Party in Turkey, he wanted to move the Brotherhood and the "Islamic project" beyond an obsession with shariah and toward a model that was unequivocally democratic.   

More interestingly, as I got to know him, I could also tell that he had, in one sense, fallen in love not necessarily with America, but perhaps with the idea of America. Let me explain what I mean by this. Like nearly everyone in the Middle East, he viscerally opposed U.S. policies. But where many Brotherhood leaders I met seemed genuinely angry at America, Hamza expressed, instead, a deep sadness. It was almost as if he felt betrayed, because he believed – or wanted to believe – that America was capable of so much more. He saw what so many Americans themselves had forgotten, that we had the potential to aspire to something greater in our engagement with the Middle East, that we could, one day, align ourselves not with brutal dictators, but with the everyday Arabs who had suffered under them.

He believed it was still possible. That’s why he was so willing to meet and talk to me. He wanted to send a message to the U.S., asking us for help, imploring us to play a more constructive role. This, after all, was pretty much the point of the Brotherhood’s English-language website. It was an effort to build bridges with the West and to start a dialogue across the divide. He knew that most of the Brotherhood's senior leadership had little interest in reaching out. So he did what he could. He worked from within the organization, advocating for a more moderate, pragmatic approach. He knew he was in the minority and that the Brotherhood, at large, was still dominated by people who were thoroughly conservative and reluctant to adapt to a changing political environment.

So he began to work closely with the rising generation of young Brotherhood bloggers, most of them in their twenties, and another embattled center of moderation within the organization. What resulted was a kind of nexus of internet ventures and websites, a virtual presence of a new guard within the Brotherhood that couldn’t be ignored by the organization’s “elders” – many of whom were in their 70s and 80s and whose approach to politics was still colored by the scars of the 1950s and 60s, when they were tormented in Abdul Nasser’s dungeons.

That summer, I remember Hamza would always suggest to meet me at City Stars, Egypt’s biggest mall. He would call it ma’bad al ‘awlama, or “the temple of globalization.” While he may have been trying for irony, I could also tell he was fascinated by this shrine to consumerism. He told me it was the one place where he “could lose himself.” It was like America was “in your room,” as he told me another time, his eyes lighting up. Like an uncle who tries too hard, I could tell he wanted to show me that he was hip and open to new ideas, and in a way, he was.

I also remember the first time I met him at a cafe. Shakira started playing in the background. And he smiled and said “you know Shakira?” I laughed. Then Hotel California came on, and he seemed to like that too. This was unusual. Before that, I wouldn’t have imagined an Brotherhood member over 30 smiling about the scandalous Shakira, who, according to legend, had caused the divorce rate in Egypt to skyrocket in 2003.

In short, there was no way Hamza and I were going to agree on everything, and we didn't. He was, by definition, a social conservative - not something that I'm very comfortable with. At the same time, he was clearly someone we could work with, and someone who seemed to grasp the predicament of the Arab world, and wanted to move away from religious extremism and outdated ways of thinking. In contrast, many of my relatives in Egypt (although we remain close) look at me with a degree of suspicion. Why is he so adamant about democracy promotion in Egypt? They wonder. It’s not his business anyway. One of my great-aunts, a relatively Westernized secularist who enjoys vacationing in Europe, once told me to my face that she was happy 9/11 happened to us. Hamza never even insinuated such a thing. I could tell he was disgusted by 9/11, and that is a rare thing in today’s Arab world, where anti-American anger overwhelms nearly everything else. I got the sense from him that he felt his religion was being taken away from him, by people who distorted the message that he believed so passionately in. It wasn’t all America’s fault. He understood that the real changes would have to come from within. 

That said, it would be a mistake - and a naive one at that - to assume that Hamza is representative of Islamism writ-large, or the Brotherhood itself. He isn't. He is unique, but that’s precisely why it's such an outrage he was imprisoned last week. It provides further proof that the Egyptian regime is terrified of the possibility that there might one day be a rapprochement between the West and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamza, and other Brotherhood reformers who have been arrested of late, represent that very possibility, and, for that reason, they are seen as too dangerous. We've seen this before. It is an old story in the Arab world. Hopefully, this time, we'll think harder about our response.

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