Europe Must Engage the Muslim Brotherhood to Re-Engage the Arab World

Europe Must Engage the Muslim Brotherhood to Re-Engage the Arab World

Last year, the European Investment Bank, the European Union’s major development arm, invested a record $3.6 billion in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and other southern Mediterranean countries to demonstrate support for sustainable growth and job creation in the region. But despite these economic initiatives, the EU lacks a political strategy for dealing with the Arab Spring. Nowhere is this clearer than in the continuing debate over whether Brussels should establish official relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.

What has prevented an objective appraisal of this question, in addition to a long-standing fear of Islamists, is that the Arab Spring has led many pundits to believe that a third force in Middle Eastern politics -- “liberal” civil society -- has finally shed its fears and gained the support needed to drive political outcomes in the region. However, it does not appear that this third force is yet well-organized or strongly supported. Furthermore, it is optimistic to assume that the actors empowered by the Arab Spring are naturally inclined to promote liberal democratic norms or pursue pro-Western foreign policies.

In fact, many experts argue, the Muslim Brotherhood stands to benefit significantly from current developments, despite not having led the popular and largely secular revolutions. Indeed, there are many examples of the gains it has already made. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its arm in Tunisia, an-Nahda, have been legalized and can now form political parties after decades of suppression. In Jordan, the Brotherhood’s local political arm, the Islamic Action Front, has been increasingly vocal in calling for fundamental political reforms. Implicitly acknowledging the group’s potential power, Jordanian King Abdullah held direct talks with its leaders in February for the first in almost a decade, in an attempt to stave off the country’s growing crisis.

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